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A region that's out of touch?

November 20, 2005 1:06 am

AS DEMOCRAT Tim Kaine was trouncing Republican Jerry Kilgore wherever there are growing numbers of Virginians, the Fredericksburg area was bucking the trend.

It speaks volumes that Kaine beat Kilgore in traditional Republican strongholds such as Virginia Beach and Prince William and Loudoun counties--something not even Gov. Mark Warner was able to do. Voters in those localities decided they were pleased with Warner, even if he is a Democrat, and figured Kaine would stay the course.

Around here, though, the only localities that preferred Kaine as governor were the city of Fredericksburg and Caroline County, both of which have large minority populations and generally vote Democratic.

In Stafford, Spotsylvania, King George, Orange, Culpeper and Fauquier counties, Kilgore ran strong. The former attorney general clobbered the lieutenant governor in each of those counties, claiming nearly 56 percent of the vote. That's a landslide--especially in a three-candidate field.

The results tell us a lot about our area, in particular that it is in the midst of an identity crisis: Despite all of the earmarks that it is becoming more suburban, it still clings as best it can to its country roots. At some point, people will accept the inevitable--the sooner the better.

There are various forces at work here. Those who don't like the way the region is changing include many who are native to the area, and many who came here from elsewhere but want to slam the door on everyone else.

We should sympathize with their feelings, but not much. Everyone has idyllic memories of the way things used to be. We all grow nostalgic from time to time and yearn for the simpler life of days past.

But people are kidding themselves to expect that life will stay the same forever. The changes here over the past generation or two have been remarkable. The Baltimore row-house neighborhood where I, and my parents before me, grew up has changed dramatically. The routes of our Sunday drives in the country are now lined with housing developments and shopping centers.

People have choices. They can accept the changes, work to manage them and appreciate the positive aspects of them. Or they can pack up and set out in search of their perfect spot. Or they can stay put, mope about the changes and try to stop or reverse them. (These are the folks who would try to prevent the incoming tide from ruining their sand castles. Good luck.)

The tide-fighters posted victories in the area counties that went for Kilgore. It suggests a motivated electorate, but not necessarily a representative or progressive one.

Kilgore successfully wooed the hunting and fishing vote, for example, but had no plan that would help preserve from development the places that area residents like to hunt and fish. He billed himself as a country boy who wants to put the death back in death row, and that was about it.

For many voters, sadly, that was good enough.

Many of the come-heres, as we are called, have not yet made the Fredericksburg area "home." Some haven't taken an interest in the local politics, and may not even bother to vote. If they're from Northern Virginia and continue to commute there or to Washington each day, they may be less focused than they should be on the place they return to each night.

They don't recognize the changes that have taken place because they're accustomed to the strip-mall landscape, and accept gridlock as a normal part of life. Many came here looking for relatively inexpensive housing, and that still hasn't changed.

The Kaine candidacy resonated in Northern Virginia and in Hampton Roads partly because he is promising to give localities the power to deny new development if local roads can't support it. In those areas, that might seem like closing the barn door long after the horse is gone, but at least it's a step toward real local control.

With development interests maintaining so much power in the Fredericksburg area, and those who would manage growth intelligently unable to muster a unified voice loud enough to be heard, it's no surprise that conditions here appear to be deteriorating.

Hopefully Stafford and Spotsylvania, which have about one-tenth the population density of Fairfax County, won't wait until their populations double again before effective growth and economic-development strategies can take hold.

Stafford County voters decided to oust four one-term incumbents and replace them with four political neophytes. These voters traded the devil they hardly knew for the devil they don't really know. They are impatient now and torn over the future. They think that anything must be better than what they're saddled with now.

Such voter vacillation brings into play all the bad things about term limits. The opportunity for officials to gain experience and share it is lost. Ideas that could have proved sound might not be carried to fruition.

Four years is hardly enough time to set a new course after 30 years or more on the old one. Fine-tuning a growth plan could take a decade.

Residents should vote for change as they see fit--but making wholesale changes in every election could be as bad as leaving the same souls in charge for life. Voters need to blend some patience with their peevishness. Otherwise, as traffic worsens and taxes continue to soar, they'll get into the habit of kicking the bums out every chance they get.

Speaking of taxes, it was candidate Kilgore who offered the brilliant idea that all tax increases be left to voter referendum. That's a cop-out by a politician who fears the fallout of tough decisions.

Sometimes people don't know what's best for themselves and their communities. That's especially true of people around here, who think government's only responsibility should be to cut taxes.

Rather, they should seek visionary elected leaders whom they can trust to run a tight ship. When Gov. Warner and Republican state Sen. John Chichester agree that a revenue boost is needed to keep up with traffic congestion and meet education goals, they're probably right.

The right leaders are also those who encourage the sort of jobs that pay enough for people to live where they work, and let them take that bigger tax bite in stride.

A key step, which many here still seem reluctant to take, is to acknowledge that the area will continue to grow and never be what it was before.

RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.





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