John Vihstadt’s victory in Arlington election is a wake-up call for complacent Democrats


John Vihstadt waits to greet voters outside the Cherrydale precinct at St. Agnes Parish Hall on Tuesday. His success in claiming an Arlington County Board seat also marks a rare win for a political species once abundant in our area but now nearly extinct: the moderate Republican. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)
Robert McCartney
Columnist April 9

Lifelong Republican John Vihstadt’svictory in deep-blue Arlington’s special election on Tuesday shook Democrats’ complacency there and ought to do the same elsewhere in our region where the left-of-center party has grown smug because of near-monopoly control.

His success in claiming an Arlington County Board seat also marks a rare win for a political species once abundant in our area but now nearly extinct: the moderate Republican.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Vihstadt, well known to voters from three decades’ involvement in civic affairs, ran as an independent but did not hide his GOP past. He hopes his victory augurs a reemergence of GOP centrists in the mold of former congressman Tom Davis of Fairfax and U.S. senator John Warner.

“I would love to reinvigorate that kind of Republican,” Vihstadt told me Wednesday. “I’d love to see both parties come back to the political center.”

As regular readers know, I usually sympathize with the overall goals of the Democrats, who utterly dominate politics in the District, close-in suburbs and the Maryland state government.

But I also worry that the Democrats’ hegemony has helped breed an arrogance that leads them to brush aside citizens’ legitimate concerns over issues such as multimillion-dollar cost overruns, pothole-riddled streets and overcrowded schools.

In that sense, I welcome Vihstadt’s success in adding a reasonable, independent voice to the five-member Arlington board. It had not seen a non-Democrat elected in 15 years.

I also hope it means we’ll see robust, substantive debates in two other elections this year in our region where candidates are openly challenging the dominant, Democratic Party establishment.

In the District, independent D.C. Council member David Catania (At Large), a former Republican, is attacking the status quo in his bid to defeat the new Democratic nominee, council member Muriel Bowser (Ward 4).

“This morning, the city’s political establishment held a ‘unity breakfast’ to support my opponent’s campaign,” Catania wrote in a fundraising appeal Friday. “They are circling the wagons to keep their hold on our city government.”

Among other things, Catania is arguing that the city administration has been too tolerant of the lack of progress in the schools in improving minorities’ academic achievement.

In Maryland, Attorney General Doug Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur (Montgomery), although Democrats, have broken with the party hierarchy to seek the gubernatorial nomination. They are opposing the establishment’s nominee, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, in June’s primary.

Like Vihstadt, Gansler is faulting the Democratic leadership for relying too much on tax increases to balance the budget. Mizeur is running as the progressive alternative in the race, emphasizing her record on health care, women’s rights and the environment.

In Arlington, Vihstadt promises to cast a more skeptical eye on big spending for so-called vanity public projects, particularly the controversial Columbia Pike streetcar. He’s pushing for an independent auditor to help monitor expenditures. He wants more funds channeled to relieve school congestion and repair roads.

He also capitalized on popular frustration with the Democratic establishment’s unchallenged grip on power. He drew support from a broad coalition of groups — from libertarians to greens — that feel ignored by the Democratic majority.

“Voters want somebody in the county building to ask questions and not just nod his head,” Vihstadt said. “Voters have decided that it’s important to add a fresh perspective to a county that embraces diversity in all respects except for political thought.”

Admittedly, Vihstadt could turn out to be more conservative than many of his backers anticipated.

Also, his victory could prove short-lived. He was elected only to fill out the remainder of a term, so he must run again in the general election in November.

Turnout will be much higher in that race, and most of the additional voters will be Democrats.

Still, Vihstadt’s candidacy generated a lot of interest, well illustrated by the many signs supporting him in residents’ front yards. Also, turnout was up from the previous special election.

Audrey Clement, a four-time nominee of the Arlington Green Party, said she set aside ideological differences to support Vihstadt partly to get the Democrats’ attention.

“When one party gets a monopoly on power, it leads to abuse,” Clement said. “They’re basically indifferent to the voters, because they can get reelected without being particularly responsive to them.”

It’s a message that Democratic leaders in Annapolis, the District and other heavily blue jurisdictions should heed.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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