Wait. A Parrot Named John Adams? Seven-Term U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly Pays a Visit to Democracy Lab

A man in a dark suit with gray hair and a moustache sits in front of a Democracy Lab and points to students in front of him.
U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) discussed his career in politics, current events, and his parrot named John Adams with students in the Schar School’s Democracy Lab. Photos by Ron Aira/Creative Services
A man in a dark suit with gray hair and a moustache sits in front of a Democracy Lab banner.
Connolly: 'But the [close race] kind of liberated me in a way; I thought, if I lose my seat trying to do the right thing, well so be it.'

Some 25 students enrolled in the Schar School’s Democracy Lab learning community received a master class in “retail politics” the Friday before Election Day in the intimate auditorium of Eisenhower Hall on George Mason University’s Fairfax Campus. Seven-term U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) was the political science professor for the day, at the invitation of Schar School associate professor Jennifer N. Victor.

Connolly, who represents Virginia’s 11th District, kicked off the hour-plus session with a few general observations about the political landscape—November 8’s Election Day loomed large—and several personal anecdotes, including the news that that his household has a patriotically named pet parrot, John Adams.

Having served on the Fairfax Board of Supervisors prior to his time in Congress for 14 years, five of them as chairman, Connolly is well-versed in the kind of hands-on efforts local politicians are called on to make. “It makes no difference if you’re a Republican or Democrat to fill a pothole,” he suggested. “A career legislator” who has bypassed the local level of government “actually hasn’t done anything.”

Which brought up a question from the students in the audience, one of whom asked which is more important, local, state, or federal government? After considering the question, Connolly said none was more important than the other but “democracy is built from the ground up.” As an example, the politicizing of local school boards, formerly run by well-meaning parents who “just want the best for their kids and your kids,” are now being taken over by “idealogues” with political agendas. 

Government and international politics major freshman Zane Ryan-Hart, began a well-intended question that was cut off immediately by the congressman. The offending phrase? “Given that your seat is safe…”

“No seat is safe!” Connolly said firmly. “And do you know why? Money.” Specifically, “dark money” that’s parachuted into campaigns from unknown sources. He gave examples of contests that were far tighter than they should be thanks for dark money sources paying for ads vilifying candidates.

Once Ryan-Hart got to ask his question—“what did running in a close election really teach you?”—Connolly recalled the lessons learned from his surprisingly tight race in 2010 in which he won by the narrowest of margins.

“Well, it didn’t change my values or my voting patterns,” he said. “Maybe change my communication tactics. But 2010 was an extreme example. The Tea Party was toxic, it really was. They were unpleasant people. But the [close race] kind of liberated me in a way; I thought, if I lose my seat trying to do the right thing, well so be it.”

Other conversation points included relations with Turkey, the mindset of politicians (“All politicians are Pavlovian: They respond to reward and punishment”), what can be done about divisive politics (“It’s going to require a catastrophic loss by the Republican party to clean out all that stuff”), the historic successes of the last congress, attending October’s Crimea Forum with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, predictions for Tuesday’s elections (“We have a fighting chance to hold the Senate”), and his early experience in public speaking (“Catholic nuns are tough judges; be comfortable with yourself and be authentic”).

International Ukrainian first-year student Gabriella Grabovska, whose parents remain in her war-torn native country, thanked Connolly for his remarks about continuing bipartisan support for Ukraine and then took the opportunity to ask what can be done to improve funding of Mason which is located in his district?

“That’s a state question,” he replied. “But in my opinion, Virginia colleges have come a long way, and we should be proud of them all,” he said, naming several public colleges in the commonwealth. “But if I were running for governor, I’d run on a platform of supporting state universities” even more, he said, because an educated workforce benefits the population at large.

“This is fantastic and I’m just super glad I got the opportunity” to meet with Connolly, Ryan-Hart said after the talk. “He gave me some insight on what’s going on in Washington and insights on the actual campaigns and their issues.”

“Now that I'm 18, now that I'm a voter, and especially as an independent voter, asking candidates questions and knowing their stances on issues is really, really important,” said government and international politics major John Brennan IV. “And it's my first time since being a registered voter that I've been able to ask a genuine question [of a politician]. And the question I asked [about the viability of election deniers as candidates] I think was very important given our current state of the nation and country.”

A man in gray hair and moustache is surrounded by college students out doors.
Connolly continues conversations with Democracy Lab students after the event.