by Michelle Boorstein, June 29, 2003
Consultant Brings Capitol Hill Savvy to Small Town
In his modish pinstripe suit, open-collared shirt and silver rings, Tom Byrnes sticks out in this Spotsylvania County strip mall, a bright new patch of exurbia where shoppers come and go in pickup trucks and jeans. He looks more like someone you'd find in a casino than in rural Virginia, which is appropriate, considering the gamble he's taking.
Until January, Byrnes was paid for his political skills by people named Daschle and Gephardt and worked at a place called Capitol Hill. Today, Byrnes runs his own show, but his clients are regular folks named Henry and Merl, and his office, on this particular day, is an Einstein Bros. bagel shop on Route 3.
Byrnes, who barely looks his 34 years in a suit and could pass for 18 in shorts and a baseball cap, is speaking in a friendly but firm tone to some new clients, a group of managed-growth proponents.
"You shouldn't use the term 'smart growth,' because it's been co- opted," he says, eliciting nods of agreement. "People think it means liberal, anti-car, tree-hugging."
In the four years since Byrnes moved to Fredericksburg, he has become the area's most prominent political consultant. He has worked with the winning sides in several pivotal campaigns, including two elections that turned over nearly the entire Fredericksburg City Council -- from those who promoted growth to those who prefer to manage it -- and the recent defeat of a large development proposal on a Civil War battlefield.
Activists say Byrnes arrived just as the region began to confront the major changes that come with growth, bringing his former employers' prestige and an outsider's ability to rise above ingrown rivalries. He could get an audience with anybody -- the newspaper publisher, developers, old-boy politicians, preservationists.
"He spoke before the City Council, he wrote letters to the editor, he had clout because he worked for Gephardt. He has good friends on both sides" of growth issues, said Arch DiPeppe, an antiques dealer and preservationist who was active in bringing down the former City Council members. "You need someone like Tom Byrnes. I always say God brought him to us.”
But Byrnes's reputation may have something to do with the fact that he is arguably the only local political consultant. Although he represents the insinuation of a slicker, more sophisticated and open political culture into an emerging region, his new stomping grounds remain in many ways small-town, where election budgets are in the hundreds, not millions, of dollars and many people aren't convinced that change is progress. Whether the area is ready for its own full- time political consultant isn't clear.
"I'd love to see Tom succeed, but to make a go of it, he has to go somewhere where they're accustomed to paying for services, like Richmond or Northern Virginia," said John Goolrick, a Fredericksburg native who has worked in area politics for more than 40 years, first as a political reporter and then in the Fredericksburg offices of several members of Congress.
Only two other people can be billed as local political consultants, but both say their work at the city and county level is primarily volunteer.
Jan Erkert, a partner in a Fredericksburg advertising firm, has been involved in local races since she moved from Illinois in 1981. She said advertising has made area politics more expensive and less personal. Politicians no longer know most of the voters, nor do they go door-to-door, she said, "since everyone is commuting and no one is home."
Otherwise, Erkert said, local politics has remained relatively simple and doesn't really need a professional political consultant.
"Fredericksburg isn't rocket science," she said, noting that the city has only about 10,000 voters, half its population. "You have to keep perspective of what we're doing here. It's not like the city. It's not even like the county."
Byrnes knows his career change could be a long shot. He maintains his contacts with Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), the former House minority leader and current Democratic presidential candidate, and his two biggest clients are businessmen hoping he can help them gain access to Capitol Hill, where Byrnes worked for 10 years. But he really wants to make it in his adopted hometown.
Moving from edgy, urban Adams Morgan to Fredericksburg, which tends to shut down at 9 p.m. and is populated primarily by retirees and families with small children, doesn't seem like an obvious decision for a young single guy. But Byrnes said he was drawn both to Fredericksburg's past and its present.
A self-described "history geek," he is fascinated by the city's old homes and the fact that "I can go to the table where Robert E. Lee sat. . . . That sort of thing turns me on."
It shows in his brand of patriotism. He fires off letters to the editor with titles such as "The Death of the Constitution" or "Save Fredericksburg" and signs his name "Thos" because Thomas Jefferson abbreviated his name.
It's the combination of history and modern politics — what Byrnes describes as "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil-type stuff" — that drives him now. After seeing the relationship between developers and local officials (too cozy, he said), Byrnes decided that Fredericksburg politics could use more professionalism.
In 2000 and 2002, he worked with three of the current City Council members -- including the mayor -- who vowed to be less permissive with developers. Now his clients include a Fredericksburg developer who is trying to build a Marriott hotel in the historic district and a Spotsylvania preservationist running for supervisor.
"Tom is a smart and experienced person who also understands that a lot of these local issues are bipartisan," said Hap Connors, who was appointed to the Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors in January and has consulted for and directed national and state political campaigns.
"He knows the area, he knows the people, and he'll talk to anyone, and I think that's what you have to do."
But Byrnes is also seeing the down side of being a political presence in a small place. Some preservationists with whom he started this venture now see him as a sellout because he works with developers, too. It's all part of the growth process, he said -- moving beyond personal rivalries to plan the region's growth.
Byrnes, who paints and draws, said what he'd really like to do is get paid to produce fine art, but for now, his canvas is local politics.
"I can't get enough of the stuff," he says, "and I'm getting close to breaking even."
© 2018 THOS. M. BYRNES