Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Finding Common Ground in Falls Church

Late Senate Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen (R-Ill.) once remarked that “when all is said and done, the real citadel of strength of any community is in the hearts and minds and desires of those who dwell there.” Almost everyone involved in Falls Church community affairs believes that this is a place worth the best efforts. Even when we differ, we stand on common ground.

That does not mean we do not disagree, especially during election years. On the national level, elections are controlled chaos that occasionally gets out of control. This year, both parties are convinced that unless their candidates prevail, the country will suffer grave harm. Senator Dirksen looked past divisiveness to find common ground, as he did when he and President Lyndon Johnson worked together to provide Republican votes in the Senate to pass the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Open Housing Act (1968). Most Southern Democrats would not – perhaps could not – support those bills. Asked how he secured the last few votes, Dirksen pointed out that “we knew we couldn’t get it done state-by-state, city-by-city. It was the right thing to do and long overdue.”

Dirksen, like many Republicans, believed that decisions are best made at the “lowest practical level of government.” Opponents of the Civil Rights Act claimed Dirksen meant that the states and local communities, not the federal government, should decide. Dirksen reminded them that he had said “lowest practical” not “lowest possible” level of government. When something is right, it has an urgency that compels action by all levels of government. If local and state governments do not act, then the federal government must. But that should be the exception.

Dirksen died in 1969 and was buried on a late-summer afternoon near Peoria, Illinois. The Washington dignitaries sat beneath a canopy, shielded from the warm sun. I stood with Cook County Republican Chairman Timothy Sheehan, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Congressman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), who was savvy enough to stand in the sun with the mayor rather than sit under the canopy with the folks from Washington! As we waited, the three men talked with the easy familiarity of friends discussing common problems.

“We lost Dirksen’s clout with Washington,” Rostenkowski remarked. In Chicago, the definition of “clout” was not the raw power of LBJ, who could be like a run-away freight train speeding downhill. Clout was subtle. Clout involved working with people to achieve your goal as you helped them achieve theirs. Clout meant working with and through others. As the service concluded, Sheehan agreed to set up meetings with key Republicans and Daley agreed to discuss the redrawing of congressional districts following the coming census. Sheehan often quoted his friend and former colleague in the House of Representatives, Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Tex.): “A jackass can kick a barn down but it can’t build anything.” Clout was about building.

In effective legislative bodies, the center aisle dividing the parties is a busy thoroughfare, with people crisscrossing as they seek common ground and find mutual interests. Rayburn encouraged that with late afternoon “bourbon and branch water” gatherings in his office. Congressmen of both parties put aside their differences and discussed what they had in common. Sheehan told of having a furious argument with Rayburn on the house floor. Later, joining the gathering in Rayburn’s office, Sheehan brought up a bill of mutual interest to Texas and Illinois. The earlier bitterness vanished.

Somewhere, somehow, the center-aisle thoroughfare has become blocked by one-way signs.

Republicans may differ from our Democratic neighbors in our desire to have most decisions affecting local matters made at the local level. We bridle at Richmond or Washington making decisions that affect where a stop-light can go or how many police we need. We are skeptical about trickle-down power. We want to decide for ourselves. We are concerned about federal and state grants and matching funds that seem to encourage Falls Church to implement programs that seem like good ideas to somebody across the Potomac. Somehow, Falls Church ends up paying for unwanted, unneeded results. The “Ped Plan” with its provisions banning on-street parking is a recent example of how well meaning governments from elsewhere can turn neighbor against neighbor here in Falls Church.

To try to minimize that, the Republican Committee was pleased to join with the American Legion in creating the Community Issues Forum, an attempt to bring citizens into the decision-making process sooner rather than too late. We want to end the ill will that comes from imposed programs, however well intentioned. November’s Forum on zoning issues will be sponsored by the Citizens for a Better City and the Falls Church City Democratic Committee.

We may not agree on who should be president, but we can work together to make Falls Church better.


Ken Feltman is Chair of the Falls Church City Republican Committee.