For the first time since she was first elected in 1995 to her post as the Mason District’s representative on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Penelope A. “Penny” Gross is facing a Democratic primary challenge this spring. A much younger community activist, Jessica Swanson, has filed to oppose Gross in what will be a June 9 primary election, and with the passing of the filing deadline last week, it has been established that she will be standing alone to challenge Gross.
Gross, whose Mason District butts up to the City of Falls Church on its southeastern side, has always been keen to challenges from a Republican opponent in her five previous campaigns for election to the powerful job. Although she won the open seat for the first time by a margin of only 327 votes, she’s held the seat by margins of almost two to one every time since.
She is known for her pragmatic, results-oriented style and claims a long list of achievements improving with infrastructure, parkland and school construction gains the lives of the 116,000 residents of her district in the last 20 years. “I have done an awful lot to clean up and revitalize” the Mason District, she said in a recent interview with the News-Press.
“Campaigning can be fun, but governance is hard, involving a lot of serious issues. Experience matters when you have to weigh all sides and make tough decisions,” she said, contrasting herself to Swanson, although she insists she is “taking the challenge seriously.”
Well she should, observers point out, because her current primary race bears a certain spooky similarity to another primary challenge that occurred just six years ago in 2009, when State Del. Bob Hull, an entrenched Democratic veteran in the 38th State Delegate district – a district that is a very near overlay of the boundaries of the Mason District – was caught off guard when then Fairfax County School Board member Kaye Kory challenged him in a primary and Kory won.
By the time Hull fully caught onto what was happening, he was behind the eight-ball and lost the primary. Ironically, just as in Gross’ situation now, there was no way a Republican could unseat him, and he was not expecting a challenge from his left flank, so to speak.
By contrast this time, however, Supervisor Gross has amassed a formidable campaign, including compiling lists of about 50 members of the Mason District Democratic Committee and 25 regional Democratic elected officials who are on the record endorsing her reelection. They are all listed on her website.
“I am very competitive and I don’t like to lose,” she said, talking about her primary challenge. “I will work as hard as I have to.”
But with her strongest suit being her effective governance, she said, “I have always been a work horse, not a show horse.”
To readers of the News-Press, Gross is a fixture, penning a weekly “A Penny for Your Thoughts” column every week since she first took on the opportunity in the summer of 1997.
Gross accepted the offer of a weekly column as the News-Press was beginning to expand its distribution into Fairfax County, especially the areas that consider themselves part of the greater Falls Church postal district.
Unlike many elected officials with columns in local media, however, Gross has taken great pride in writing every one of her columns herself. She has also complied with the News-Press’ wishes to make her columns informational and only minimally politically partisan.
As a result, the columns have added up to become an historical chronicle of the developments in the Mason District that she’s played a major role in determining.
Her job is effectively as a mayor of a city of 116,000, as the way Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors works, the wider body generally defers to the local supervisors for important developments in each respective district. But Gross’ leadership on the county board is reflected in the board’s selection of her as its vice-chairman.
The Mason District “has done well” with absorbing the growing diversity in its population, including the aging of seniors and the welcoming of racial and ethnic minorities, especially Korean Americans. Her success lies in her determination that “one size does not fit all,” but a lot of attention to special circumstances needs to be given.
Among the achievements she touts is the renovation and reopening last month of the Woodrow Wilson Library, and the opening last fall of the first new elementary school in 40 years, the Bailey’s Upper Elementary for the Arts and Sciences, built to an urban-vertical design. In all, Gross has overseen the construction of three new schools and the renovation of all three public libraries in her district, along with a new fire station and an addition of 200 acres of parkland, with new walkways and sidewalks installed across the district and bus shelters and a bus hub at Seven Corners.
Overall, she’s said, the Mason District has shifted from a suburban area to “a dynamic and cosmopolitan community” with “growth in ethnic, social and economic diversity.”
As for Swanson, she says “it’s time for new leadership” in the district. She says on her website, “Despite Fairfax County’s strong reputation, Mason District has missed out on opportunities to fully support our schools and manage development in a thoughtful, user-friendly and environmentally conscious way…many in the Mason District have told me they feel they don’t have a supervisor who listens and responds to their feedback. It’s not about the number of town halls our supervisor holds, it’s about taking input and developing a better approach.”
She is the Mason District appointee to the Fairfax County School Board’s Human Relations Advisory Committee and serves on the county Democrats’ Education Committee. From 2010-2014, she was the vice-president of the Ravenswood Park Civic Association.