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Election 2012: Not Your Every Day Q&A with Gerry Connolly

Incumbent U.S. Rep. and Democrat faces several opponents in reelection bid for Virginia's 11th District.

(Editor's note - One of the greatest powers Americans have is their right to vote. Patch respects that, and wants our readership to be as informed as possible before walking into that voting booth on Nov. 6. With that in mind, this is the first in a series of in-depth interviews with candidates vying for Virginia’s 11th Congressional District seat.)

Sequestration, foreign affairs and campaigning for reelection were among a few topics raised last week in an interview with U.S. Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-11th). Connolly spoke candidly in an interview with Patch at the Silver Diner in Reston. 

Northern Virginia voters sent Connolly to Congress in 2008, after he won a special election against Republican Keith Fimian, who he again defeated in 2010, by 981 votes. This year, Connolly has a $1.47 million war chest – three times the amount of Republican Chris Perkins, a retired Army colonel, who is one of his opponents in the race. He also faces Independent candidates Chris DeCarlo and Mark Gibson, Independent Green Party candidate Peter Marchetti and Green Party candidate Joe Galdo.

Connolly, 62, is a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the Committee on Foreign Affairs. He was born in Boston, Mass., and earned a degree in Literature from Maryknoll College in Illinois and a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. From 1979-1989, he worked for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee; was later vice president of SRI and was community relations director of SAIC. A lifelong Democrat, Connolly was elected the Providence District Supervisor in 1995, was reelected in 1999, and, in 2003, he was elected chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. He won reelection in 2007, but left the chairmanship after being elected to Congress. Connolly has lived in Mantua since 1979, is married and has a daughter.

Q&A:

Patch: How much sleep do you get at night? 

Connolly: I’m a night owl, and I get up fairly early, so I would say five or six hours on average.

Patch: What time does your day begin?

Connolly: I usually get up at around 6-6:30 a.m., and when we’re in session I probably leave the house at around 7:30 a.m.

Patch: What did you want to be when you were a kid?

Connolly: I wanted to be a priest. I grew up in an Irish Catholic home and was the product of a Catholic education. I liked the message of the church and wanted to help other people.

Patch: When did that feeling change? When did you decide you didn’t want to be a priest?

Connolly: I was in the seminary, actually (at Maryknoll). It was during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement and I was strongly against the war and I felt my church was not (against the war)… And it made me convinced that to make my mark in the world I needed to pursue it in a different way. Celibacy was a bit of a problem, too.

Patch: Do you have time for fun, for hobbies? What are they?

Connolly: You don’t have a lot of time for a personal life with this job, to be honest with you. But because I do need so little sleep, I’m a voracious reader. I read a book a week.

Patch: What do you read?

Connolly: I love biography and history, especially. Right now I’m reading a biography on Cromwell.

Patch: Can you describe your leadership style?

Connolly: My leadership style – you have to separate when I was chairman (of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors) and I had control of the agenda versus being in Congress, when you’re one of 535 members.

In the chairmanship …that leadership style was very aggressive, very assertive and I think very successful for Fairfax County. In the Congress it takes a different kind of leadership. You’re one of 535, and I’m a sophomore and have to work very closely with either your chairman or ranking member and with your colleagues to get things done. It’s persuasion. I’ve had, for a sophomore, a lot of legislative success and have had a lot of bills signed into law.

Patch: What characteristics does it take for a person to do your job?

Connolly: First, I think you have to know a lot... If you ask me to get up and speak about the whole problem of the U.S. Postal Service and what the competing bills are, I could talk for an hour. It’s the same with Medicare, Social Security, the Affordable Care Act. I’ve made it my business to know these issues.

I’ve never lost an election, and that’s everything from being the president of my high school, president of my college, president of my graduate school at Harvard, a twice-elected national delegate, president of my freshman class in Congress and I’ve won eight elections. This will be my ninth. But I’m very wonkish. I really love public policy and getting into it.

Patch: Have you ever been in a fistfight?

Connolly: No. I don’t believe in physical violence. I hate it. I can remember once I was in college and my friends and I were at a bar just having a beer and a fistfight broke out and a guy punched another guy very hard, and the sound of it was sickening to me. It was not like television at all, and I insisted when the guy got arrested that I was going to testify against him. And we did – all of us went into court and testified willingly. I don’t think things should ever be settled that way – physically… I’d rather win on the basis of the skill of the argument. That’s how we should always settle our differences in America.

Patch: You’re pro-choice, pro-gay rights and generally stand by the principles of the Democratic Party. Where do you stand on the legalization of marijuana?

Connolly: I’m not averse to legalization for medical purposes. I am worried about gateway drugs, even marijuana and part of my background when I worked for the Senate for 10 years was international drug control…I don’t think the public supports it (legalization) and I suppose we should have a healthy discussion about it, but I’m wary of the legalization of what are now illicit drugs. And maybe it’s because of my generation. I’m from the Sixties, and a lot of my generation experimented and got hooked with drugs and I saw a lot of damage.

Patch: Have you ever used drugs?

Connolly: When I was in college on two occasions I smoked marijuana… I never have liked the idea of ingesting anything that can alter your behavior in a profound way or affect your mental capacity. It never made sense to me why anyone would do that.

Patch: So, are you a teetotaler as well?

Connolly: No, but I drink in moderation. In my job you cannot drink. I know people who do it, but I don’t know how they do it. You can’t ever have alcohol on your breath and you can’t ever risk having a drink when you’re working. I enjoy a glass of wine when I have time off with my wife.

Patch: Can you describe the political environment in Washington?

Connolly: Toxic. Congress is polarized. The country is polarized. Sadly, the Congress reflects the polarization of the electorate.

Patch: Why do you think members of Congress can’t work together?

Connolly: It goes to the reward/punishment process of our political system. In all too many districts in most states, if you’re a Republican and your reputation is that you’re willing to work with Democrats and you do, and do so successfully, you will be primaried. They will come after you. Less so in our party, but it still happens.

Patch: What is your opinion of Grover Norquist?

Connolly: I agree with my Republican colleague Frank Wolf (VA-10th). We take one pledge when we are elected and sworn in to Congress, and that pledge is to the Constitution of the United States. You don’t take pledges to any outside group. You don’t give away your vote in advance to anybody. Sadly – you want to know why we’re polarized – all but seven Republicans in the House have taken that pledge (to not raise taxes), and to his credit, Frank (Wolf) has condemned that.

Patch: How do you anticipate the 2012 election returns and how will that impact your job in 2013?

Connolly: Well, based on what we know right now, this is not going to be a decisive election. So, the polarization we’re talking about is likely to continue. Now, if President Obama gets reelected, and I hope he does, in some ways that may help, because the Republicans are stuck with him for four more years. He can’t run for reelection and so trying to defeat him and make sure he’s unsuccessful really doesn’t matter as much as it did in the first four years.

I also think that Republican ranks are likely to be thinner on the House side. I think the Democrats are likely to hold onto the Senate. So, there’s an opportunity for cooperation, but dramatic changes in how Congress operates (won’t be) based on the returns that are likely to occur in four weeks.

Patch: Is sequestration inevitable? Given the polarization, can Congress come up with an alternative plan for that $1.2 trillion?

Connolly: I don’t think it (sequestration) will happen. I do think it will be addressed in a lame duck session. I think it should have been addressed in August, and I called for cancellation of the August recess. I called for cancellation of this recess, but the Republicans prefer to use this as a wedge issue rather than deal with it. Remember, we’ll have been out for 12-14 weeks before the election. I thought it was a crisis.

Patch: What’s the answer regarding sequestration?

Connolly: The answer is that the Republicans are going to have to cave on some revenue, and I think they will. There are signs of that.

Patch: Does that mean raising taxes?

Connolly: Well, on some, like the wealthiest in the country. I think the Bush tax cuts will have to expire. We’re going to argue about what level that is. I’m for a higher (income) level than the president. He’s for  $250,000 and above. I think that’s too low. Tim Kaine (Virginia's Democratic Senate candidate) has said $500,00 and above and I can live with that. I could live with a million, because the revenue difference isn’t that great.

Once that’s agreed to, that there will be some revenue on the table that’s significant, the rest of it falls into place. But I will not support transferring all of that as cuts to the domestic side. If you think $500 billion is devastating to defense, try $1.2 trillion in the civilian side. It would be a huge problem, so we have to make sure it doesn’t happen, and it won’t, and in my opinion, that is one thing that I think we will work out.

Patch: Why did you vote for the Budget Control Act (which triggered the sequester after the super committee failed to reach an agreement on debt reduction)?

Connolly: Because I didn’t want us to default. The choice was that or default, which I think would have returned this country to a recession, a steep one, and would have demolished the markets and our bond rating and everything else. I took an oath to protect the United States. I cannot let that happen. So, as a member in Congress, all of our choices are binary – it’s yes or no. So, I weighed the risk of default and I condemned the Republicans for playing games with default. I wasn’t about to do the same.

Patch: You talk about the polarization. You vote 91 percent with your party, according to Open Congress. How are you a part of the solution for a workable Washington?

Connolly: James, that’s a very shallow measurement, because that includes procedural votes, where you usually vote with your party to maintain discipline and have some influence on the floor. But I broke with my party on the Bush tax cuts twice. I broke with my party on unemployment insurance because it wasn’t paid for. I have broken with the liberal orthodoxy in my party on a lot of defense and homeland security measures…

My whole record says that I’m not an idealogue. I’m a Democrat, a passionate Democrat and believe in Democratic values. That’s why I ran for office, but I’m not a rigid partisan. I’m not. I’m a moderate-to-progressive Democrat and I look at issues on their merits and make it my business to find out what the issues are. I read bills, we have staff meetings and I want to hear the pros and cons. I go and meet with committee members who draft the bills and talk to their staff. So, I’m pretty diligent and I call it like I see it.

Patch: On foreign affairs, you recently said that the Republican-led Congress is partly to blame for the Sept. 11th attacks on our embassy in Benghazi, Libya, because it failed to give President Obama all the money he requested for embassy security. Can you tell me a little about that?

Connolly: The new majority in the House has reduced his (Obama’s) request every year rather significantly, both with the State Department in general, in the foreign affairs part of the budget and for security in particular. That’s a fact. So, (for Republicans) to wring their hands about a lack of security in Benghazi when they had no problem voting to cut those budgets, I think is a bit much.

I’m not making the demagogic charge that they (Republicans) were responsible for Benghazi. What I am saying is that the Republicans have to take a fresh look at their rather mindless approach to budgeting and slashing everything in sight, and foreign affairs has been one of their favorite targets. That means that we don’t have all the resources that we need, that the president thinks we need to keep people safe abroad. And I think that’s not right.

Patch: To some, that may sound like a political statement to gain power for Democrats, because clearly, questions are growing about the State Department not responding in time to support the Ambassador and staff who were killed. Wasn’t it the State Department that dropped the ball?

Connolly: I don’t know. I don’t think we know that yet. There’s an investigation underway. But for some of the loudest voices that are trying to exploit this for political purposes - my view is that people need to be reminded on how they voted for the State Department budget to improve security. You can’t have it both ways. 

Patch: So, if you’re reelected, what will you do to ensure that the State Department fulfills its obligation to protect our emissaries abroad?

Connolly: I will do what I have been doing, which is to be a strong supporter of the foreign affairs part of the budget – the smallest part of the budget, I might add – to have a robust presence abroad, but to also make sure that our foreign service personnel are kept safe.

Patch: What’s your position on Israel and Iran? Should the U.S. intervene? What options should Israel employ to defend itself against a nuclear Iran?

Connolly: It’s a fair question, and I pause because the answer isn’t easy. Both the United States and Israel have said it’s unacceptable for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Well, if it’s not acceptable, that means at some point we are willing to use the military option.

There is a difference of opinion, I think between (Israeli) Prime Minister Netanyahu and us and also he and members of his own government, including his defense minister and the president of Israel… I’m not unsympathetic with his (Netanyahu’s) point of view that Israel will be the first to pay the price if anything goes wrong, and I don’t think that President Obama is unsympathetic either, I just think that he has a legitimate difference of opinion of letting the sanctions against Iran work.

Now, there is lots of evidence that the Iranians right now are hurting from sanctions. They’re having trouble selling their oil…Their currency is in freefall. Inflation, officially is 29 percent, but is more like 69 percent and growing. They just had riots protesting price increases all over Iran. So, I think there is plenty of empirical evidence that sanctions are taking hold and they’re pretty rigorous sanctions. Will it be enough to get Iran to cease and desist their nuclear development program? I think the next few months will be critical in answering that question, but I think preemptive, premature military intervention has consequences that are enormous for Israel, for us, and cannot be taken lightly. I think we need to be on the same page before that happens.

Patch: Shifting gears slightly. Should we lift the embargo on Cuba? Do you smoke cigars?

Connolly: Sometimes I do. My view on that is a little nuanced. I think we have to side toward some kind of functional relationship with Cuba, but you don’t give away things for nothing. Whether you think the sanctions over the last 50 years have worked or not, right now the Castro brothers desperately want us to lift that.

Their economy is in deep trouble. They are now, instead of being this vanguard of Marxist, socialist innovation, they are seen as a throwback to an era that now makes no sense. Their economy is failing, which threatens the social systems they put in place… If we’re going to make a change in our policy, we’re going to need something in return for it – freeing dissidents, allowing a free press, political expression and religious freedom… Everything’s about timing and everything’s about conditionality.

Patch: So, timing. Does that mean that we just have to wait until the Castro brothers die?

Connolly: No, not necessarily. If the Castro brothers were to say, ‘Ok, let’s sit at the table and talk about that,’ well, let’s talk. 

Patch: I’ve heard you speak about (Republican vice presidential nominee and House Budget Committee Chair) Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc). Are you not a fan?

Connolly:  I like him personally. We were on the budget committee together for two years… I think he’s an amiable radical. His personal demeanor notwithstanding, what he stands for is, to me, antithetical to the America of the true progressive era. He would have no safety net, and we would return to the law of the jungle, survival of the fittest – that’s what his budget represents. It is the most radical document introduced in Congress as a serious document in generations, and it would profoundly alter the social contract between Americans and the federal government in a very bad way.

Patch: How approachable is Ryan? Can you go up to him and tell him what you think of his budget?

Connolly: He walks in the corridors with headphones on, either dictating or reading emails or listening to music so that he doesn’t have to talk to people. It’s very odd. I found that he was not unfriendly in the (Budget) Committee, but very unapproachable…

Patch: Is this unusual in Congress? 

Connolly: I think he’s an introverted personality. Most politicians are introverts. Bill Clinton is an extrovert, but Barack Obama is an introvert by nature. Look at the presidents: John Kennedy was not an extrovert by nature; Richard Nixon was not only an introvert, he was a misanthrope – he didn’t like people. That doesn’t mean they can’t do the job, but it lends the question as to why so many introverts are attracted to politics, but they are. If you think about it, on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, if we went through that list - Cathy Hudgins (D-Providence), (Chairman) Sharon Bulova, Jeff McKay (D-Lee), John Foust  (D-Hunter Mill), John Cook (R-Braddock)– all introverts.

Patch: What about you?

Connolly: I started out life pretty introverted, but I’m ending life much more on the extroverted side. I’m an odd combination, because I love shutting down for the weekend and reading a book – and that’s an introverted quality. But I don’t want to do it too much, because I get antsy and want to go meet people – a classic extroverted quality.

Patch: On transportation, what is your ultimate goal for Northern Virginia and how can you help us get on that road?

Connolly: In Congress, it’s my role to try to make sure we are protecting Metro. We have $150 million a every year for ten years at stake in capital improvements in federal monies for localities, trying to make sure we have funding for phase II of Rail to Dulles, and I’m trying to work in a bipartisan basis with Frank Wolf to make that happen. And I think we’re going to have a very good announcement maybe later this month. Right now there’s zero federal participation in phase II from Wiehle Ave. to the (Dulles) airport. I believe we are going to be able to identify TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) funding – federal transportation bonds – the equivalent of about 25 percent (about $950 million) of the total cost. That’s going to be a big accomplishment. I am very confident that is going to happen.

Patch: On to the election. In your first campaign for Congress you were outraised and outspent, outraised and outspent in the second election and now you have three times as much money as your Republican opponent, retired Army Col. Chris Perkins. Are you worried about this election?

Connolly: I worry about every election, which is how I’ve won eight of them. You always have to run like the devil is on your heels.

Patch: What is your opinion of Perkins?

Connolly: He doesn’t live in the district because of redistricting, but two years ago, when he did live in the district (prior to congressional redistricting), he did not vote in the midterm elections. In the time he left the military (in 2006, after a 25-year career) he has missed as many elections as he has participated in. He has absolutely no record of civic involvement since he took off the uniform.

Patch: So, do you think he’s trying to make a career for himself by running for office?

Connolly: He is a registered lobbyist. That’s what he’s done (since leaving the military). Period. He hasn’t testified, ever, on any issue. He hasn’t volunteered for a board or commission and has a limited voting record. He wants to represent us in Congress, but he didn’t think it was important enough to vote two years ago in the most contested race for this seat ever.

He also doesn’t know the issues…When we were at Bonnie Brae Elementary for a candidate forum, he was asked about Sarbanes-Oxley, which is a huge accounting responsibility put on businesses. It’s regulation. He didn’t know what it was. How can you be the champion of small business if you don’t know what their issues are? I mean, this is October, and he’s been running for over a year. No one forced him into this, and he’s proven not very adept at any command of local or federal issues, other than his mantra that we can’t let defense cuts happen. Well, I don’t want them either, which is why I called for a cancellation of the recess, which he didn’t call for.

Patch: How would you characterize Perkins’ candidacy?

Connolly: He has no credentials in the community since he retired in the military. If you want to run for office, surely you want to show you are a civic leader, run for your homeowner’s association, a local board, volunteer in the county. He hasn’t done any of that, even to the point of not voting in seven of the last 10 elections. That’s how bad his regard for civic involvement has been, so it’s chutzpah to then turn around and say that none of that matters and that he wants to be our representative. I honor him for his service, but what has he done since?

I think he (Perkins) is a nice guy, and he worked as a liaison in the House when he was in the military, and I think that he developed the attitude that being in Congress, that anyone can do that. And it always looks easier from the outside than it is. But what you and I have just established is that it’s a lot of work. It’s a huge commitment of yourself and your time… And I think that he’s proved that he’s not ready for prime time.

Patch: Will you ever retire?

Connolly: I don’t know the answer to that. I find the idea of retirement to be kind of a strange concept. It doesn’t mean I’ll always be in elected life, but I think you stay involved. A life well led is a key to success – an old Greek ideal. I’m a big believer of what Teddy Roosevelt talked about –always being in the arena, not being one of those timid souls on the sidelines.

Patch: You’re 62 years-old, and…

Connolly: Do you have to remind me of that?

Patch: What advice do you have for young people?

Connolly: Get involved. Don’t be discouraged. Play for the long term. Understand that life is filled with cycles. Don’t look for immortality in your name being on a building or a road. Be satisfied with your contribution. Make it the best you can, but understand that accomplishments are selective and cumulative representations. Lots of people came before you and lots of people are going to follow you, and if you have a role to play, don’t waste it. Play that role as best you can and be satisfied with it.

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