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Part 2

The Education of Pat O'Bannon


Pat O'Bannon's resume says something about how she has ordered her life. She lists her family — husband and three grown children — before her education, professional and civic accomplishments.

Her vita shows the evolution of the doctor's wife who led the medical auxiliary's big fund-raiser to the neighborhood activist who edited the civic association newsletter and served as president of the River Road Hill Neighborhood Association. In the mid '80s, O'Bannon joined the Henricus Foundation board, which supports a Chesterfield County tourism site. You'll still see her decked out in an official T-shirt and selling cold drinks at special events.

How she manages her life, she says, is no accident: "I always had to do it myself." Patricia Steinmetz wasn't born into the sort of well-appointed suburban household in which she raised her own children. "We were poor," she says, and her father's antiques and furniture-building business sometimes was shaky. He sent her two older siblings to college, but when it was Pat's turn, he told her they couldn't swing another tuition. "I figured it out that if I wanted to do anything, I had to learn to do it myself," she says. "Experience showed me what you have to do to achieve what you want."

What she did was to work hard and adapt. To get a scholarship, she majored in social work. In school and aspiring for a semester abroad, she boned up on grants and awards. To qualify for a prize for a stint at Oxford, she switched her major to English. Later, she switched again, to education.

Working her way through VCU, she shelved books at the public library and was an 11-to-7 shift emergency room clerk at Richmond Memorial Hospital on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. She gave up those date nights, but it was a more than fair trade: It's when she met the young lab tech she would marry, John O'Bannon, now a neurologist, former chief of staff at Henrico Doctors' Hospital and a leader in Richmond medical circles.

In John she found love, security and a soul mate who reflected her own experience and values: "John's father was a farmer and they didn't have anything either." She also saw in John her own work ethic and love of politics — Republican politics. (She still has a Goldwater button from volunteering in 1964.) An MCV student, John was politically involved in medical issues while, over on the VCU campus, Pat had been a student government officer.

After they married, she taught for two years, then stayed home with their children, gradually increasing her civic involvement and work time. Two paying jobs helped build her skills. Starting off as a part-time worker, she mastered computers, editing, calendar, and community news for the now-defunct Henrico County Line and other Suburban Newspapers properties. Next, she did a stint in the development office at Central Virginia Public Broadcasting. What was in effect an entry-level role grew to include working with volunteers and writing grants — useful skills for a politician. There, as it seems at every step in her life, she did far more than the minimum.

[image-1]Photo by Stephen SalpukasO'Bannon says she learned early on that she needed to spend time on the links if she wanted to be a player in county politics. During one fund drive, she couldn't line up a restaurant to feed the volunteers. "So she took it upon herself to make a big pot of soup," recalls Amy Chown, who led the development office.

"I was exhausted and working so hard, and she came over to me and said, 'Won't you sit down and eat some lunch.' This is someone who goes the extra mile. She not only takes care of business but she takes care of people, too. She cared so much."

It seems people — their needs and their problems — are at the core of O'Bannon's philosophy of public service, which harkens back to the ideal of the citizen-servant.

She talks about government's responsibility being "to solve problems for people" and how "running a government should be like running a nonprofit."

"I really wish there were fewer lawyers in government," she says. "Attorneys think in terms of win-win. People have different ways to approach a problem."

Idealistic, but not foolish, she knows the crux of running for office is to figure out "who will vote for you and why. ... The reason to run for public office is to win."

By 1995, irritated by how county Republicans were managing the election process, O'Bannon ran as an independent within her own party. She handily defeated her opponent — promoted by high-dollar consultant Boyd Marcus, now Gov. Jim Gilmore's chief of staff, who more recently engineered the ill-fated Republican primary candidacy of Ruble Hord against Del. Panny Rhodes.

O'Bannon was disturbed that her opponent was new to the neighborhood and to public service, and by what she saw as manipulation of the GOP's local candidate selection process. "If you feel that there is a problem, you have to correct the problem. One way to correct the problem is to run and win," she says. "You take action rather than just complaining."

These days she shrugs off the race as ancient history, "an old wound." Party unity, grassroots power and broadening the appeal of the GOP are more important. "Rather than seek and destroy, I approach things with reconciliation in mind. … If you can't go to people who were against you and work it out, then what good are you in government?"

For his part, Gilmore has appointed O'Bannon to two state posts, including the powerful Workforce Investment Council. "That the governor was willing to place me in that kind of position, that's a reason to move beyond the past," she says. "You work these things out. You get over it. You try to work with people. And I think the governor thinks that way.

"I've learned that if you're persistent enough, you can make things happen."

[image-2]Photo by Stephen SalpukasTuckahoe Planning Commissioner Elizabeth Dwyer, left, says O'Bannon "makes a real effort to understand all points of view." O'Bannon's election was historic: She is the first woman elected to and to chair the Henrico County Board of Supervisors. She senses the history, but doesn't make a fuss about it. She does act on it, quietly and effectively: When she joined the board and realized the county manager and some fellow supervisors often did business on the golf course, she didn't whine and pout about any good-old-boy network. She learned to play.

Young women today really can't understand the world in which O'Bannon came of age. Graduating from college in 1971, she was on the cusp of change. She ran track before Title IX. In her world, women were stewardesses, not flight attendants, and certainly not pilots. Pregnant teachers had to quit work when they started showing. "When you hear Elizabeth Dole talking about being the only woman in her law school class, it's hard for young women to grasp that and really understand that's the way it was," she says.

"In the eighth grade, all of us were given 'aptitude' tests to give us direction as to what we should do as a profession. I scored very high on understanding how plans translate into three-dimensional figures. At my meeting with the guidance counselor, he — yes, he was the basketball coach — took my scores and pulled out a chart. He put his finger on the chart and said, 'With your skills at reading blueprints and designing things, this says you should be a seamstress.' I looked at the chart and noticed that one column said 'boys' and the other column said 'girls.' I looked at the boys' side and it said 'architect.' Only the girls' side said 'seamstress.'

"So, I asked the coach-guidance counselor, 'The chart says 'architect.' Why don't my skills say I can be an architect?'

"He said, 'Because you're a girl.'

"I never got over how shortsighted that chart was. And I purposely refused to take home-ec and learn to sew. ... By the way, my skills at reading blueprints and plans come in handy these days."

Mention the intersection of Patterson and Parham to anyone who lives near the thoroughfare that moves cars to the Willey Bridge and you get a visceral reaction.

In 1995, when O'Bannon campaigned door to door in neighborhoods near what she calls the worst intersection in Richmond, "every house I went to, somebody said, 'You've got to do something about Parham and Patterson. It's clogged up morning, noon and night.'"

O'Bannon promised to do something, and she did. First, she studied the problem and pored over traffic studies. She learned thousands of cars zigzag through residential streets to avoid the crush.

Told that her road-building proposal would go absolutely nowhere until it was on Henrico's short list of big road projects, she got it on the list. And all along she's bugged Henrico's state lawmakers. In the meantime the police have outlawed truck traffic; now she's waiting for the state to set its transportation priorities.

O'Bannon estimates the new road is still at least six years away. It will take two years to do the engineering and four years to do the construction. And it is a very expensive road project: The engineering costs alone could be $5 million; the construction, $35 million. Now the project is in the purse string-holding hands of the governor and the county's General Assembly delegation.

"Every citizen out here knows it's an issue, the worst traffic problem in Richmond," she laments. "Route 288 is getting all the publicity. Now that Motorola has delayed and delayed, I'd like us to correct what we know is a problem rather than move on something we're not sure is going to happen."

She talks on as if she's mentally doodling, penciling a solution, connecting dots, looking for another way to make it all work.

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