Martha Pennino moved to Vienna in 1956 when her husband, Walter, a decorated Army veteran of World War II and Korea, took a Pentagon job. Farmland covered much of Fairfax County, which was home to about 100,000 people and enough cows to make it one of the state’s largest dairy producers.
Pennino plunged into politics and in 1967 won election to the Fairfax Board of Supervisors. For the next quarter of a century, she played midwife to Fairfax’s emergence as a booming metropolis, helping to give birth to such regional anchors as George Mason University, the Dulles Toll Road, and the town of Reston.
By the time Pennino left office in 1991, she was known as Mother Fairfax. A tiny woman made larger than life by her blond beehive and sunny disposition, Pennino charmed everyone.
Everyone, that is, except state legislators. She frequently went to Richmond to advocate for the region only to meet opposition from downstate lawmakers, some of whom sneered at what they called the “people’s republic of Northern Virginia.”
On one occasion she testified before a committee headed by 69-year-old Edward Willey Sr., the irascible Senate majority leader and elder statesman of the state’s conservative Democrats. Willey didn’t see much to like in Pennino’s plan to make Reston the state’s first “chartered community,” with its own elected officials and the power to levy taxes.
Northern Virginia, he told her, had to learn its place. “It just bothers me,” he said, “that you’re always coming up with something special up there, and what we’ve already got isn’t good enough.
“I’m not trying to be ornery,” he added, “but somebody down here has to put the brakes on.”
After more than a few such trips, Pennino’s frustration boiled over. “Madam chairman,” she announced at a Board of Supervisors meeting, “I’d like to suggest that we secede from Virginia and become the 51st state.”
Pennino, who died in 2004, was only half serious when she issued her call for independence in the 1970s. But in the years since, Northern Virginia officials fed up with Richmond have talked often of rebellion. No one has filed legislation to partition the state—politically, that would be nearly impossible. But the idea has lots of appeal.
For starters, Virginia is too damn big. With 7.7 million people, it’s the 12th-largest state. Its westernmost tip at the Cumberland Gap is a seven-hour drive from McLean—and it reaches farther west than Detroit.
Aside from the taxes it pays, Northern Virginia is arguably part of the state in name only. Robert Lang of Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute says Northern Virginia has become an extension of the urbanized Northeast corridor. The region is so different from the rest of Virginia, it’s as though the New Jersey suburbs were grafted onto South Carolina, Lang says.
About a third of Virginians—21⁄2 million of them—live in the state’s 15 jurisdictions that are part of the official Washington metro area. Many are Yankee transplants who care little for state icons, whether Patsy Cline or Pat Robertson.
The two Virginias might coexist peacefully if not for the state legislature’s history of hostility and indifference to the north. Harry F. Byrd—the apple grower who became one of the 20th century’s greatest machine politicians—rigged the lawmaking game against Northern Virginia. Even today, 40 years after his death, the state steers lots of Northern Virginia’s tax dollars to downstate rural areas.
Richmond’s slights infuriate Northern Virginia. The region is one of the most economically dynamic in the country, if not the world. It’s a center, along with Silicon Valley and the Boston suburbs around Route 128, for what some scholars call the “creative class”—the scientists, engineers, artists, educators, and professionals who drive the “knowledge economy.” Eight Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in Northern Virginia—more than in 31 other states, including Maryland. If it were to secede, the new state would be the country’s most affluent and best educated.
“There’s a running joke that if you take Northern Virginia out of Virginia, you get Arkansas,” says Stephen Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. “That’s a little bit unfair, but not wholly.”
Geographically, Northern Virginia isn’t all that big, encompassing 7 percent of the state’s land area. Yet it’s an economic juggernaut that accounts for almost half the state’s economic growth, more than half its new jobs, and nearly half of income-tax revenues.
Yet to hear Northern Virginia officials tell it, Richmond doesn’t give the region a fair shake. Too few of the tax dollars sent to Richmond find their way back, they say. According to some estimates, Northern Virginia gets back only 25 cents on the dollar in cash and state services. Legislative experts put the figure closer to 40 cents or higher. But there’s no doubt that the region gives a lot more than it receives.
“They treat us like the Bank of Fairfax,” says one county official.
Nearly 200 years ago, counties in the northwest corner of the state felt similarly betrayed by Richmond. Apportionment in the legislature was based on a population count that included slaves—a provision that gave plantation owners in the eastern half of the state a big advantage over small farmers scratching out a living in the Appalachians.
The western counties won a few concessions, but eastern aristocrats kept the upper hand. State money and services flowed to eastern Virginia while only trickling to the west.