There was no assigned seating at the Springfield District Council’s pre-election debate with the two candidates vying to represent the district on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
Yet, consciously or not, the audience that trickled into Rolling Valley Elementary School for the event on Monday segregated into two distinct sections, with people in green Pat Herrity T-shirts occupying chairs on one side of a makeshift aisle and people sporting Linda Sperling buttons and stickers on the other.
While moderator and Springfield District Council chair Jim Kirkpatrick discouraged booing and other verbal comments, smatterings of applause rose from different sides of the room, depending on the speaker, throughout the hour-long debate.
Despite that clear divide in the audience, incumbent Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity and his challenger, former college professor Linda Sperling, both articulated a desire to eschew the partisanship of federal and state politics in favor of focusing on local issues.
When hot-button topics that dominate national news headlines were brought up, the Springfield District supervisor candidates opted to discuss the subjects in narrow, more local terms.
For instance, when asked if she supports gun control legislation, Sperling lamented the Virginia General Assembly’s failure to pass a proposal from Gov. Ralph Northam to give localities more authority to enact their own firearms regulations during a special session on July 9.
Herrity responded to a question about immigration with an anecdote about helping a Hindu congregation obtain permit approval to hold a religious ceremony. He said Fairfax County has to be welcoming but also take “gang members preying on immigrant communities” off the streets, a stance that his opponent rebuked as vilifying immigrants by associating them with gangs.
“I think the partisan nature of national politics is going to impact the race,” Herrity told the Fairfax County Times in an earlier interview. “I just hope it isn’t the deciding factor for people, because when it comes to local public service, it’s not partisan issues. It’s common sense issues.”
Facing a crowd thinned perhaps by unforeseen competition from the Washington Nationals’ first-ever home National League Championship Series game, Herrity and Sperling offered voters a choice between experience and change with the former emphasizing his past accomplishments from 12 years in office, and the latter positioning herself a fresh face who can lead an evolving district into the future.
First elected to serve as Springfield District’s supervisor in November 2007, Herrity was born in Washington, D.C., but has established roots in Fairfax County, especially Springfield, where he has lived since grade school and graduated from West Springfield High School.
As the son of former Board of Supervisors Chairman Jack Herrity, who represented Springfield on the board for 12 years, Herrity says that a commitment to public service for Fairfax County run in his veins, one that he believes is enhanced by his concurrent work in the private sector as a chief financial officer for the Reston-based information technology company Intelligent Waves.
During his opening remarks for the Springfield District Council candidate debate, he rattles off a litany of achievements ranging from his role chairing the Fairfax County Sports Tourism Task Force to the introduction of drop boxes in county police stations where people can dispose of unused medications.
“I’ve been your supervisor for 12 years,” Herrity said. “We’ve got a lot accomplished. Give me four more years to get a lot more accomplished. It's about that simple.”
Herrity cites transportation as one of his top ongoing priorities. He helped acquire funding for a north loop on Rolling Road and pushed to upgrade Fairfax County Parkway to a primary road to get more state construction and maintenance funding, among other projects.
In fact, Herrity provided a laundry list of road improvement projects at the debate long enough that he ran out of time to answer the second part of an audience question about the candidates’ plans to address congestion and encourage mass transit in Springfield.
While he says he wants to continue working on improving transit options, Herrity argues that road projects are still critical for relieving bottlenecks and traffic, even as Fairfax County tries to encourage commuters to find alternative means of traveling other than sitting in their cars.
“You can have all the bus routes in the world, but the number one reason people take mass transit is if it gets them there quicker,” Herrity said.
Even as Herrity touted his work on transportation, Sperling criticized the sitting supervisor for the lack of progress that Fairfax County has made in fixing safety issues at the Popes Head Road and Fairfax County Parkway intersection in Fairfax Station.
Limited visibility, its narrow width, sharp turns, and the speed of vehicles coming off a major roadway have conspired to make the Popes Head and Fairfax County Parkway intersection notoriously dangerous among residents in the surrounding area.
Just four days before Sperling and Herrity met for their debate, a motorcyclist traveling south on Fairfax County Parkway was killed after colliding with a car attempting to turn left onto Popes Head Road. The Fairfax County Police Department reported on Oct. 11 that it was investigating the fatal crash, citing speed as a potential factor.
The Virginia Department of Transportation hopes to improve the intersection by replacing the existing traffic signal with an interchange as part of its plan to widen Fairfax County Parkway, but that $195 million project remains in the design phase almost two years after the first public information meeting was held.
Sperling accused Herrity’s office on Sunday of not being responsive to residents, especially community groups affected by the Popes Head and Fairfax County Parkway interchange project.
“They send emails. They don’t get replies,” Sperling said. “We need a supervisor who's going to view it as their full-time job and view communicating with the community, listening to the community, and finding out what their concerns are as a top priority.”
Herrity acknowledged that the Popes Head/Fairfax County Parkway project has been “difficult,” attributing the delays to meddling by other supervisors and unnamed state legislators “who shouldn’t be involved.”
A lifelong Fairfax County resident who lives in Clifton’s Little Rocky Run neighborhood with her husband and their two sons, Sperling currently works in marketing after leaving a career in education that included teaching stints at her alma mater George Mason University, Northern Virginia Community College, and the University of Phoenix.
The former professor is a graduate of the University of Virginia Sorenson Institute’s candidate training program and sees her bid for Springfield District supervisor as an extension of her past community work.
In addition previously chairing the Little Rocky Run Homeowners’ Association’s community activities committee, Sperling is a Little Rocky Run Board of Trustees member, an at-large commissioner for the Fairfax County Transportation Advisory Commission, and an ambassador for the Greater D.C. Diaper Bank, a nonprofit that provides baby and personal hygiene products.
This is Sperling’s first time running for elected office, but she has spent her campaign making the case that her lack of history in politics is an asset, rather than a cause for skepticism.
“I know the challenges that district residents are facing, because I am the average, dual-working-family district resident,” Sperling said. “I know that we have challenges in our current supervisor’s office, and we need fresh eyes and a new perspective.”
Sperling would not be alone as a newcomer to the Board of Supervisors. Four of the board’s 10 members are retiring at the end of 2019, including Chairman Sharon Bulova and Herrity’s only fellow Republican, Braddock District Supervisor John Cook.
Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck is the only incumbent running unchallenged for reelection. Former Fairfax County Planning Commissioner Walter Alcorn and Fairfax County Economic Development Authority national marketing director Rodney Lusk are unopposed in their races for Hunter Mill and Lee Districts, respectively.
Where Herrity argues that he could provide experience and a sense of balance on a county board facing a potentially unprecedented amount of turnover, Sperling sees that impending change as an opportunity for Fairfax County to bring new voices to persistent challenges.
With two children who will be attending Fairfax County Public Schools for the foreseeable future, Sperling says investing in education would be one of her top priorities, pledging to explore innovative solutions to confront facility and resource challenges.
She points to Bailey’s Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences, which opened in 2014 in a converted five-story office building, as an example of how FCPS can mitigate overcrowding without relying on trailer classrooms.
Expressing a commitment to maintaining resident’s current quality of life, Sperling is open to finding areas in the county where “it makes sense to up-zone” and providing incentives to developers in order to create more affordable housing, though she does not think it would be prudent to allow development in the Occoquan Watershed.
Like Herrity, Sperling sees transportation as one of the biggest challenges facing the Springfield District, where she says it is particularly hard to go anywhere except in a car.
She wants Fairfax County to expand its mass transit network in the area by adding routes to its Fairfax Connector service and ensuring that buses are available at convenient times and to places where people actually want to travel.
“A lot of our public transit patterns were developed 30 years ago, when people lived in Fairfax County and worked in D.C., and that’s not the case anymore,” Sperling said.