John Vihstadt, a Republican running as an independent, upset Democrat Alan Howze in a low-turnout race for the Arlington County Board on Tuesday, becoming the first non-Democrat elected to the board since 1999.
Vihstadt, 61, defeated Howze, 39, by more than 3,500 votes, out of about 22,200 cast in the special election. In the four-way race, he received 57 percent of the vote to Howze’s 41 percent. About 16 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, a smaller turnout than what election officials had expected.
The wide margin of victory surprised Vihstadt, a real estate lawyer at a D.C. firm, who noted that most of Virginia’s Democratic establishment lined up for Howze and offered him campaign appearances, phone calls and financial support.
Vihstadt countered the party’s overwhelming strength in Arlington by telling voters that the board would benefit from fresh thinking and a more skeptical approach to spending tax dollars on costly projects such as streetcars and high-end swimming pools.
“They threw everything they could at us,” Vihstadt said Tuesday evening from a neighbor’s home, where he was celebrating. “We forged a true coalition of Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Libertarians and independents who yearn for accountability, transparency, fiscal responsibility and balance rather than a continuation of the echo chamber and status quo.”
Howze, an IBM consultant, conceded an hour after the polls closed. He said, “Clearly there’s a mood of frustration among the electorate, and they had a message they wanted to send, and they did.”
The men, who met by chance while campaigning in the Dominion Hills neighborhood Monday, will meet again on the ballot in November. Vihstadt was elected to fill the seat vacated by longtime board member Chris Zimmerman (D), and the term lasts only through the end of year.
Howze and Vihstadt, both longtime civic activists well-known in their neighborhoods, were competing against two other candidates, Janet Murphy and Stephen Holbrook. Murphy received 250 votes, or 1.13 percent, and Holbrook received 161.
The last time a non-Democrat was elected to the Arlington County Board was in 1999. Republican Mike Lane won a special election and was defeated in the next general election. Except for Vihstadt, all of Arlington’s elected officials are Democrats.
Tuesday’s election may have focused on local issues more than ideology, however. Vihstadt hit the County Board hard over its support of the Columbia Pike streetcar, a $1 million bus stop, the over-budget Long Bridge Aquatics Center and other capital projects.
“The wasted spending on a streetcar was the biggest issue for me,” said Greg Scheifele, 41, who voted for Vihstadt on Tuesday morning at the Fairlington Community Center. “I went with the candidate who would actually oppose the board’s pet projects and be independent.”
Robert Efimba, a 74-year-old civil engineer voting in the same precinct, backed Howze. “I’m in favor of the streetcar,” he said. “I see the importance in developing the transportation infrastructure.”
Robert Matulka, who voted at the Madison Activity Center, supported Vihstadt precisely because he is not a Democrat. “We’re just a one-party county, and that’s always detrimental,” said Matulka. “The county’s very well run in spite of the fact that it’s only one party. One party is not healthy.”
Vihstadt won in many Arlington neighborhoods dominated by single-family homes, but he also carried some high-rise precincts, including Crystal City and Clarendon. His biggest margin appeared to be in Madison, the wealthiest and most Republican precinct in the county, where he received 74 percent of the vote.
Connie Crigler, who voted at the Walter Reed Community Center, said she has been waiting for anti-streetcar candidate in Arlington for 10 years. “I feel that putting trolley cars on an already crowded Columbia Pike would be detrimental to Columbia Pike,” she said.
Crigler, a real estate agent who specializes in residential and mixed-use commercial properties, said that she was denied the chance to speak at a county-sponsored forum on the matter a decade ago and that she’s been against the project ever since.
Vihstadt was endorsed by the local Republicans and Greens, and he was also backed by three well-known Democrats: County Board member Libby Garvey, Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos and Peter Rousselot, a former chairman of the County Democratic Committee and now a leader of the anti-streetcar group Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit.
Most state and local Democrats supported Howze, who won a contested primary for the party nomination. “I got four phone calls last night,” including a robo-call from Sen. Mark Warner (D), said Ann Hitt, who voted for Howze at Kenmore Middle School. “I was trying to make up my mind, and they made it up for me.”
The two candidates raised about the same amount of money in the first quarter of 2014, a sign, political observers said, that the non-Democrat would have a chance.
At Tuckahoe Elementary in the East Falls Church neighborhood, some Precinct 11 voters cited county schools — and spending — as top concerns.
“I’m not crazy about the streetcar,” said David Gross, who voted for Vihstadt. “I’m interested in education and making sure the schools are keeping a grasp on what’s going on in the country.”
Vihstadt said he thought his election was a victory for “a new way of doing things, from the grassroots up and not the top down. I pledge to the people of Arlington tonight: I will reach out to everyone, including those who supported other candidates.”
He congratulated Howze on running a spirited campaign and promised to work with the four Democrats on the County Board.