Can a non-Democrat win in Arlington?

It’s less than a month away from the March 27 Arlington County special election for County Board, and the question that hangs in the balance is: Can anyone other than a Democrat win the seat?

In the famously progressive urban county south of the Potomac River, where bicycles and public transit are at least as popular as automobiles, and where one of the biggest initiatives of the year will be the a discussion of “the Arlington Way,” Democratic nominee Libby Garvey is revving up her troops by warning that Democrats lost two of the last four special elections for County Board seats. That’s certainly true: in April 1993, independent Ben Winslow beat Jay Fisette by 206 votes (out of almost 18,500 cast), and in April 1999, Republican Michael Lane beat Democrat Charles P. Monroe by 169 votes (out of almost 18,800).

“Ninety-three hundred Republicans always seem to turn out,” Garvey said Tuesday, “but the Democratic turnout varies.”

This year, the Arlington GOP had such a hard time finding a candidate for the seat that Mark Kelly, the party chairman, resigned his post and raised his placard at the last minute. He previously ran against board member Chris Zimmerman in 2010 and lost with a respectable 20,570 votes to Zimmerman’s 32,894. The Arlington Green Party endorsed a do-over by Audrey Clement, who just lost in the November 2011 general election to Democrats Mary Hynes and J. Walter Tejada. She picked up 9,728 votes out of 58,841 cast. (Data geeks, all these numbers are available on the Arlington County voter registration site.)

Still, the Democratic dominance in Arlington’s elections is not to be denied. It’s been 13 years since anyone but a Democrat grabbed a County Board seat. In the past 20 years, Democrats have been elected to the County Board 37 times, and while independents or Republicans won five times. Twice, the independent winner was Ellen M. Bozman, who later ran and won as a Democrat.

Hope springs eternal, however. Charles Hokanson, the new county Republican chairman, said Arlington is full of “independent-minded voters” who are looking for someone to challenge the status quo.


Some residents of the condo at left in Arlington’s Courthouse neighborhood oppose a county plan to turn 2020 14th St. (on the right) into county offices and a two-story homeless shelter. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

Clement, meanwhile, is trying to outflank the Democrats on the left by making a push to limit growth, increase recycling in multi-family dwellings and improve insulation to cut energy use.

Local residents can be forgiven if they didn’t realize there’s a county election coming up. Campaign signs are just now starting to appear, thanks to Arlington’s strict zoning ordinances, and civic associations are scheduling candidate forums throughout March.

The special election was required because County Board member Barbara Favola (D) won a state Senate seat last fall. The election is to fill her seat, but it comes with an expiration date; whomever wins will have to run again for the same seat in the fall, if the winner is ready for more campaigning.

Patricia Sullivan covers government, politics and other regional issues in Arlington County and Alexandria. She worked in Illinois, Florida, Montana and California before joining the Post in November 2001.

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