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Former treasurer Frank O'Leary remembered for community service

O'Leary, who died June 7, served more than 30 years in elected office

He occasionally would refer to himself jocularly as “Landslide O’Leary,” owing to his very narrow (89-vote or 0.26%) first victory in the political arena.

But after that win – defeating Republican Dorothy Grotos for Arlington County treasurer in 1983 – Francis Xavier (Frank) O’Leary effectively had the job for as long as he wanted it.

O’Leary, who served as treasurer for 30-plus years before retiring in the summer of 2014, died June 7 after battling leukemia for the preceding six months. He was 80.

O’Leary was “a great Arlingtonian, one of those remarkable people who have helped make Arlington the thriving community that it is today,” County Board Chairman Libby Garvey said as news of his death began to circulate.

“Frank was a force of nature whenever he took on a project that he thought would benefit Arlington,” Garvey told the GazetteLeader. She termed O’Leary “a friend and mentor.”

“He really was unique,” added Paul Ferguson, clerk of the Circuit Court for Arlington and Falls Church. “He was devoted to Arlington and its history. He truly was an historic figure in Arlington.”

“Never have I seen someone with the combination of smarts, high energy, willingness to innovate despite the possibility of failure, and the refusal to let people tell him ‘it can’t be done’ – he would find a way,” Ferguson told the GazetteLeader.

Upon his retirement from office a decade ago, O’Leary pointed to three main accomplishments during his long tenure as treasurer: a much-reduced delinquency rate on taxes; a higher rate of return on county investments while maintaining the safety of the principal; and a strong commitment to customer service.

“I have loved every minute,” O’Leary said then of his 30-year, six-month tenure, which ranked him third in all-time seniority among Arlington elected officials, behind Commissioner of Revenue Harry K. Green (who served 1920-51) and Clerk of the Circuit Court David Bell (1976-2007).

He had been “sorely tempted” to stay in office and beat Green’s record, O’Leary told the Arlington County Democratic Committee around the time of his retirement, but ultimately opted against it.

“I decided that what you did in office is more important than how long you did it,” he said then. “It was time to start enjoying the rest of my life.”

And for the past decade, he and his wife Linda did just that – traveling, enjoying family and friends. While Frank O’Leary never quite lost the political bug (in recent weeks he was sending out his views on how the legal travails of Donald Trump might impact the 2024 presidential race), other activities occupied a majority of his time.

Among them: Ensuring the ongoing relationship between the Arlington community and its namesake U.S. Navy ship, the USS Arlington; helping to boost the county government’s efforts marking the 100th anniversary of World War II; and staying active with the Optimist Club of Arlington and its philanthropic efforts.

Sandy Bushue, a fellow Optimist Club member and president of the Inter-Service Club Council of Arlington, said O’Leary brought a zestful attitude to everything he did.

“He loved Arlington. He loved the service clubs. He loved his family and his friends. He loved life and lived it to its fullest,” she said.

Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) said O’Leary was a good friend, and made many contributions outside elected office – often below the public’s radar.

“What most people probably don’t know is the Frank who raised tens of thousands of dollars for various charities, especially for people with disabilities,” he said.

“A few decades may have separated Frank and me in age, but we had more in common than most anyone I’ve ever known,” Hope told the GazetteLeader. “I could listen to Frank all day tell stories about Arlington politics, close elections and other hijinks.”

When Ferguson in 1995 was making his first bid for County Board (where he served for a dozen years before being elected clerk in 2007), O’Leary took him under his wing.

“Frank put so much energy and enthusiasm into my campaign that sometimes I felt he wanted to win more than I did,” Ferguson told the GazetteLeader.

Garvey, too, was a beneficiary of O’Leary’s political organizational skills on behalf of Democratic candidates, particularly those with independent streaks. “Frank supported me in my early run for the School Board, at a time when most in the local party were not supportive,” she told the GazetteLeader.

(Later on, when Garvey had moved up to the County Board and at times found herself at odds with the county’s Democratic establishment, O’Leary coined the term “Libby-tarians” for those across the political spectrum who supported her in subsequent elections.)

In his own first bid for elected office, O’Leary in 1983 squared off against Grotos (a Republican County Board member) in the race to succeed Republican treasurer Bennie Fletcher Jr. During the campaign, O’Leary told voters his knowledge of computers and management would bring the office into the modern era, and he won 16,857 votes to Grotos’s 16,768.

Except for that first race, plus a low-key general-election challenge from independent Richard Sincere Jr. in 1991 and a somewhat more bruising Democratic primary battle against challenger Bob James in 2007, O’Leary found himself unopposed in election after election. Through the years, he worked methodically, almost compulsively, to whittle the tax-delinquency rate to record lows and make his office more responsive to the community.

“He earned the respect of Republicans and Democrats alike for his dedicated and innovative public service,” said Scott McGeary, a former Arlington County Republican Committee chair and county Electoral Board member who knew O’Leary for four decades.

“He will be deeply missed – another icon passes from the Arlington scene,” McGeary said.

Upon O’Leary’s 2014 retirement, chief deputy treasurer Carla de la Pava automatically took the role. She won a special election later that year to fill the remainder of O’Leary’s term, won a full term in 2015 and was re-elected in 2019 and 2023.

“Frank O’Leary was first elected more than 40 years ago by making a promise to Arlington’s voters that he would create a more fair, efficient and professional Treasurer’s Office,” de la Pava said. “For over 30 years, he worked to realize this vision and Arlington citizens were the beneficiaries of his hard, relentless work. He was my mentor, and I am proud and honored that he trusted me to continue this vision.”

The treasurer’s office is one of five elected constitutional offices specified in the Virginia Constitution. Not every jurisdiction has all five, but Arlington does: treasurer, commonwealth’s attorney, commissioner of revenue, sheriff and clerk of the Circuit Court.

They are independent offices but rely on the county government for a large chunk of their funding, leading to what at times are complicated relationships with County Board members and staff. During his tenure, O’Leary sparred with county leaders over investment policies for the hundreds of millions of dollars that flowed through his office each year. He also found something of a sparring partner in Geraldine Whiting, the county’s longtime (1978-2003) elected commissioner of revenue.

O’Leary also was a chronicler of local political history and the history of the treasurer’s office, and made an often very successful hobby of forecasting voter turnout and its impact on key races in Arlington and beyond.