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Voters choose Schools and Services over lower Taxes

"I would love some relief from taxes, but I know the schools are hurting, and I'll pay my share for that."
-- Lani Phillips, shop owner and suburban Republican, who voted straight Democrat--against two tax-cap candidates.
Fairfax Voters Reject Tax-Cap Effort
Peter Whoriskey, Washington Post, November 5, 2003

The tax revolt movement that had been gaining momentum in Northern Virginia fizzled in Fairfax County yesterday as voters rejected every board candidate who had pledged to impose a rigid cap on escalating home tax bills.

With real estate taxes soaring throughout the area, the timing of the anti-tax campaign had seemed serendipitous, at least to the movement's conservative Republican organizers.

Property tax bills have risen 53 percent in four years in Fairfax County and climbed rapidly elsewhere. Only a year ago, anti-tax crusaders helped to orchestrate the defeat of a proposal to raise the sales tax to improve transportation in the region.

But yesterday, many Northern Virginia voters said that, above all, they want to preserve high-quality schools, public safety and other services and that they believe restrictive tax plans could endanger those privileges of suburban prosperity. In a region with a high median family income, rising taxes are often more nuisance than hardship, and the anti-tax rhetoric lost its angry punch.

"These issues resonate less well in the more affluent areas," said Peter Ferrara of the Virginia Club for Growth, who is one of the leaders of the tax-cap pledge effort. "The status quo prevailed today, and that's never good in my book, because I'm a blazing reformer. People were not paying attention. Now if they raise taxes by 20 percent, I don't think people can complain."

Several Republicans interviewed at the polls appeared somewhat deaf to the anti-tax message from the more conservative wing of the party.

"I would love some relief from taxes," said Lani Phillips, a Falls Church shop owner and a Republican, who said she voted straight Democrat this time -- against two tax-cap candidates. "But I know the schools are hurting, and I'll pay my share for that."

Nowhere was the organized revolt's fate more clear than in Fairfax, the state's most affluent and populous county, where all four of the tax-cap candidates for the Board of Supervisors lost, including Republican Mychele B. Brickner, who during her campaign for board chairman had hammered her opponent, Gerald E. Connolly, for voting in favor of higher taxes as supervisor of the Providence District.

The other tax-cap candidates were J.D. "Doug" Bushée, who lost to incumbent Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill); H.V. "Buzz" Hawley Jr. (R), who lost to incumbent Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason); and James E. Hyland, who was defeated by Linda Q. Smyth (D) in the Providence District.

In Loudoun County, several tax-cap candidates won seats on the Board of Supervisors, but the pledge they signed was weakened in compromises this year, because some moderate Republicans had considered it too rigid. Also, land development, not taxes, was the reigning issue, making it difficult to read a message into Loudoun's results.

In Fairfax, the debate on taxes had been a leading point of controversy.

In the race for board chairman, the Brickner campaign had posted signs in roadway medians throughout the county warning that "Connolly will raise our taxes." Connolly countered by characterizing the proposed tax cap as a "reckless gimmick" and vowed to protect the "record high" test scores generated by the county's schools, along with the safety of neighborhoods and the sprawling system of parks.

Brickner's appeal, which was delivered in a series of attack ads on television, focused on taxpayer and commuter anger; Connolly appealed to those who appreciate the fruits of what he called Fairfax County's "way of life."

His campaign played more to the mainstream in Fairfax, some said.

"Most elections are won in Fairfax County in the middle, and tax caps are not in the middle," said John F. "Jack" Herrity, a former chairman of the Fairfax board.

Like other Republican moderates, Herrity, who lost to Brickner in the party primary, refused to sign the tax-cap pledge. He said it was too inflexible in practice and represented a political blunder.

In his view, the tax cap helped Democrats mobilize their base -- teacher, police and firefighter unions and school boosters -- which would lose something if county spending was tightened.

"These elections go by energy -- you know, which side is more energized?" Herrity said. "I'm not sure the energy is with the anti-tax people now. I think the tax cap energized the people on the other side."

If so, it marks a change in political momentum.

Ferrara's anti-tax group was launched in April last year, leading a campaign against the Northern Virginia measure that would have raised the sales tax from 4.5 percent to 5 percent to pay for road and transit projects.

Although the sales tax increase was endorsed by leading business and political groups and had an advantage in campaign funds, it was soundly defeated by voters last November, and the anti-tax crusade gained credibility.

Then, this year, as Northern Virginia counties began to announce yet another year of rising tax bills, some Republican challengers began to consider taking the group's 5 percent tax cap pledge.

"Counties in Northern Virginia have to learn to live within the means of the families of the region," Ferrara said of the pledge.

Many voters in Northern Virginia interviewed yesterday said that although they bemoan the rising tax bills, they believe the money is well spent.

Gordon Christensen, a retiree and independent voter who is planning to move out of Fairfax County in part because of the tax burden, said he voted against the two tax-cap candidates on his ballot in Oakton.

"As much as I hate to see taxes increasing, just capping them is not the answer," he said. "It's too simple. Fairfax County needs other sources of revenue."

William D. Lecos, president of the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed Connolly, said the vote in Fairfax was about lifestyle.

"What the voters of Fairfax County did today is demonstrate their support for the things that make this a great place to live and a great place to do business," he said. "They rejected the slash-and-burn approach to their high quality of life."