Who’s who in ‘unprecedented’ race for Fairfax County chair

The future of Fairfax County, Virginia, could be on the table Tuesday in the county’s first Democratic primary in decades for Board of Supervisors chair.

Whoever of the four Democratic candidates wins will see themselves as the favorite to be elected in November against Republican Joe Galdo to lead a board that will have lots of new faces due to a number of retirements. Those local seats also have Democratic primaries Tuesday.

The chairman’s race to represent all the county’s estimated 1.1 million residents features Lee District Supervisor Jeff McKay, at-large school board member Ryan McElveen, Georgetown Law professor Alicia Plerhoples and developer Tim Chapman.

McKay, who has the endorsement of outgoing Chair Sharon Bulova, emphasizes in this “unprecedented” election that he is the only one who has served on the Board of Supervisors.

“This is a big, complicated county, and this is a big job, and we need to make sure that the next person we hire to be chairman understands the role, understands the county and can deliver on day one — and that’s me,” McKay said.

In separate interviews, the candidates highlighted the importance of providing affordable housing, addressing environmental issues and helping county residents who need a boost.

“I don’t think there’s huge differences on issues; there’s definitely differences on how we accomplish what it is that we need to accomplish,” McKay said, promising pragmatic leadership that would bring the new board together.

He points to the development and transportation plans along Route 1, Embark Richmond Highway, and revitalization efforts in the Springfield area. 

“It’s not enough to have the same position on issues. It’s absolutely critical that the next chairman have a clear path for how to accomplish those things, or else we’re just talking about them,” McKay said.

‘We need new voices’

McElveen has pushed progressive stances as an at-large school board member, including resolutions on LGBTQ issues, gun violence prevention efforts and sexual misconduct.

“I’m the only person in the race to have served the entire county in an elected position, overseeing 53% of our county’s budget as a school board member,” McElveen said.

“This election will determine the future of our county,” he said.

McElveen particularly highlights a desire for universal pre-K, expanded internet access and more apprenticeships.

“First and foremost, the board has to represent the people of our county, and I think Fairfax is far more progressive than our leadership has been in the past, and that’s why we need new voices,” McElveen said.

‘A great responsibility’

Plerhoples, the Georgetown Law professor, consultant and advocate, agrees.

“We’re one of the wealthiest counties in the country, but with that great wealth, I think, comes a great responsibility, and we can’t be leaving anyone behind,” she said.

“We have a very racially and socioeconomically diverse county, and I think that I really exemplify and can bridge that gap. I’m an African-American woman. I have experienced some of the hardships that our Fairfax County residents experience, and that gives me a passion for trying to help the most vulnerable,” Plerhoples said.

Making significant changes could require pushing more actions through than supervisors have been willing to in the past, she said.

“The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has been run on a consensus basis, and I think collaboration is wonderful at times, but at other times, we need to be making sure that we can move forward with just a majority vote rather than a unanimous vote, because often, a unanimous vote brings us down to the lowest common denominator rather than really lifting up voices and making progress in our county,” Plerhoples said.

She also wants to expand pre-K slots, eventually getting to universal pre-K, which could help address “pockets of poverty.”

“Every Fairfax County resident deserves the opportunity to live somewhere that’s affordable, convenient and safe, and our housing development hasn’t kept pace with the growth in our county,” Plerhoples said.

‘Shift our priorities’

Developer Tim Chapman focused squarely on affordable housing and school funding. He said he has gone from being homeless early in his life to being a successful developer.

“Fairfax County has to shift its priorities. They have to lean forward. We have 22,000 children that go to school in trailers; we have 55,000 kids on free and reduced lunch, and we have an unemployment rate of 2.4%. We’re routinely one of the wealthiest counties in the country. If now is not the time to shift our priorities to people who have less than others, then when is?” Chapman said.

He has not held elected office but was appointed to the Virginia Housing Development Authority Board. “I’m the only one of the four candidates who has chaired a multibillion dollar board,” Chapman said.

He believes the county board can raise the money it needs from taxpayers to make larger investments.

“The county Board of Supervisors votes on the budget. It’s the only business in the world where you decide, we’re only going to limit ourselves to this. They found $100 million for a parking garage in Reston,” he said.

Chapman apologized for a campaign donation to Republican Ken Cuccinelli.

“That donation was stupid, thoughtless and ill-conceived, and my wife told me not to do it,” he said. Chapman emphasized he has also donated tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates.

He has largely funded his campaign with his own money, and thus has much more cash than the other candidates, who have largely relied on campaign donations.

Chapman’s campaign also produced a memo that was initially circulated anonymously that claimed McKay had improperly gotten a discount on his house from a friend.

McKay challenged Chapman’s chops, along with his other opponents.

“I do challenge voters to look at people’s records, look at their commitment to this county. It’s easy to show up out of nowhere because you might be mad at Donald Trump, or you might think you can purchase an election, but this election is way more important than putting somebody in the chair’s seat who has no experience really doing anything in Fairfax County, and frankly thinks that they’re going to be able to manage a county of over a million people, a budget that’s larger than four states. This is a serious governance job,” McKay said.

McKay has led the Board of Supervisors’ budget process and legislative programs.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a time in my lifetime where it’s been more important now to elect a chairman who has that level of experience. This is an unprecedented turnover on our board, welcoming a lot of new people and a lot of new perspectives on the board, and I’m excited about that, but the chairman, ultimately, has to make sure that this group can be brought together,” McKay said.

He credits stability in county leadership for long-term success, and hopes that decades from now, people can look back and say that the county made planning decisions that were good for the environment, good for social justice and good for the sustainability of the county.

“I’m excited about our new growth patterns that focus a lot of our growth into transit corridors, into revitalization areas where we need to grow our economies. I’d like to see us step up those efforts and make sure that we’re growing the county in a green way that makes sense, and I think we finally have plans in place that can do that. We need to make sure those things get accomplished and that also we don’t leave people behind,” McKay said.

Plerhoples said her experience, including advising corporate and nonprofit boards on how to run more efficiently, effectively and ethically and working on environmental issues, gives her the preparation she needs.

“I’m not interested in climbing the political ladder. I’m interested in making an impact and improving the quality of life for our residents,” she said.

Plerhoples co-taught a class on campaigns at Georgetown, but joked that “doing it is harder than teaching it.”

“I’m running really to make sure that we’re not setting for less, we’re not asked to settle for less, and I bring a real-world experience to the table that is undeniable,” she said.

McElveen believes he understands what it takes to lead. “You can herd cats in a respectable manner, make sure that everyone’s voices are heard,” he said.

A bit of a Twitter celebrity, McElveen said he does not agree with President Donald Trump’s policymaking by tweet, but does see the value of another avenue of interaction. “It would bring many new perspectives to light during my tenure as chairman of the board,” McElveen said.

Low turnout?

No matter how confident the candidates are, or how hard they are working, the likelihood of extremely low turnout even in this important election means each voter that does show up will carry more weight, which could lead to a surprise.

McKay began the campaign as the frontrunner.

“But whenever you’re in a primary with potentially low turnout, accidents do happen, and it’s our goal … to do everything in our power to make sure an accident doesn’t happen here and that we win on June 11 and continue the progress that people in Fairfax County expect, and I have total confidence that that’s what’s going to happen,” McKay said.

The other candidates, like McElveen, believe things will go another way.

“No one knows how this race is going to turn out. It’s going to be all up to voter turnout and who can get their people out to vote in a low-turnout election, so I’m optimistic. I have a countywide presence, whereas the other candidates do not, and that’s what I will be counting on on Election Day,” McElveen said.

The full interviews are posted below. They’ve been lightly edited for technical issues, clarity or length.

June 7, 2019 | Candidate Alicia Plerhoples (With WTOP's Max Smith)
June 7, 2019 | Candidate Tim Chapman (With WTOP's Max Smith)
June 7, 2019 | Fairfax County School Board member Ryan McElveen (With WTOP's Max Smith)
June 7, 2019 | Fairfax County Supervisor Jeff McKay (With WTOP's Max Smith)
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