County delegation welcomes Fairfax senator

RICHMOND — Because of last year’s redistricting, Prince William is set to gain a new state senator who is no stranger to Northern Virginia politics — but may be new to some south of the Occoquan.

Sen. Linda T. “Toddy” Puller, D-36th, will add 101,000 residents in eastern Prince William when her district shifts for the 2003 elections. She will keep 85,000 residents in Fairfax County.

“She is part of the delegation,” said Delegate Michele B. McQuigg, R-51st, who, with Puller, gives the county two female advocates in Richmond.

Puller said that she is already embracing the area, meeting residents and officials four days out of the week.

“The Prince William delegation has been very cordial with me,” she said.

Puller’s ties to the area include the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1503 building in Dale City, which is named after her husband’s father, Lt. Gen. Louis B. “Chesty” Puller.

Puller, 56, is known as a determined and straightforward legislator who has overcome much in her own life.

A graduate of Mary Washington University in Fredericksburg — where she was a classmate of McQuigg — Puller had only taught a year at Kilby Elementary School when her husband, Lewis, was wounded serving in Vietnam. He lost both his legs and parts of his hands, and Puller moved to Philadelphia for two years to help him recover.

Lewis Puller wrote about his Vietnam experience in his 1991 autobiography “Fortunate Son” and won a Pulitzer Prize. That same year, Toddy Puller had won the 44th District seat in the House of Delegates.

Her husband committed suicide three years later after a long fight with depression.

Adversity returned in 1997 when she suffered a stroke that paralyzed part of her left side. She kept on in the House, even through rehabilitation, and ran for and won the Senate seat given up by Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. in 1999. By then, she was walking without a cane.

Much of her legislative attention has focused on U.S. 1, which runs through both her current and future district. The new district follows U.S. 1 from Dumfries north and includes the Prince William precincts of Bel Air, Belmont, Bethel, Chinn, Civic Center, Dale, Featherstone, Godwin, Henderson, Kilby, Library, Lodge, Lynn, Minnieville, Neabsco, Occoquan, Potomac, Potomac View and Rippon.

Puller and Delegate John A. “Jack” Rollison, R-52nd, were co-patrons of a 1999 bond bill that, combined with other legislation, brought $104 million for transportation to the region — funds partially used to improve U.S. 1.

This year, Puller, McQuigg and Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter, R-31st, are sponsors of a bill that would have the state and local governments study and develop a long-term plan for mass-transit options in the U.S. 1 corridor.

Puller, like Sen. Charles J. Colgan, D-29th, and McQuigg, supports a sales-tax referendum for both transportation and schools.

“Fairfax really needs the money for education,” she said, as the number of students put in trailers — 16,000 — alone constitutes a large school system.

“The issue I think is coming down to whether it [schools referendum] should be statewide,” she said. Colgan is sponsoring a bill for a referendum for transportation in Northern Virginia and education statewide that would put two questions on the ballot, she said.

Puller serves on Virginia’s Disability Commission, Education for Independence Advisory Board, Healthy Families Virginia Advisory Board, Joint Commission on Health Care and the Northern Virginia Community College Educational Foundation.

Even with this year’s budget shortfalls, she said, there are constituent groups that still need help. She has a bill for an adult abuse registry so that nursing homes can conduct background checks. It would require some funding.

Virginia falls behind other southern states in its funding of HeadStart preschool programs. This puts lower-class children at a disadvantage, she said.

Mental-health-care providers are struggling, as well as nursing homes, with Virginia’s low reimbursement rates, she said, and one proposal of the Joint Commission on Health Care is to increase rates for nursing homes so they can hire and reduce turnover. Puller said that few legislators, however, are willing to sponsor such a proposal because the source for such funding would be difficult to find.

“We’ve got to prioritize and take care of those who can’t take care of themselves,” she said.

Staff writer Chris Newman can be reached at (703) 878-8062.

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