Arlingtonians for a Better County has been condemned as a power-hungry political machine, envied as an effective, disciplined, political organization and praised as a long-lived model of good government in action.

Any way it is viewed, ABC has been among the most powerful political forces in Arlington County for more than 20 years. This year the ABC, in its traditional coalition with Arlington Democrats, faces its toughest challenge in nearly a decade over control of the county board.

The announcement by ABC supported board member Joseph S. Wholey that he will not seek a third, four-year term, has left the coalition without a highly popular, well-known incumbent candidate. The current board has two members elected with ABC-Democratic endorsements and two elected with Republican endorsement. Should the ABC candidate for Wholey's seat lose to a Republican-backed challenger, ABC would lose control of the board for the first time since the late 1960s.

Of the five board seats, one is open every year except every fourth year, when two are open. Because of the large number of federal employees living in Arlington who are barred by the Hatch Act from partisan political activity, board candidates run as independents with party major endorsements.

ABC, one of the oldest reform movements on the East Coast, has been closely aligned with the Arlington Democrats since the mid-1960s. But unlike the Democrats, who are also concerned with state and national races. ABC's sole concern is the election of candidates to the five-member County Board.

Except for its alliance with the Democrats, ABC does not appear to have changed profoundly since its founding in 1955, some long-time observors say. "ABC has matured a great deal, but (board member) Ellen Bozman and Joe Wholey would have been typical ABC candidates then," said Robert Cox, an ABC founder and a former County Board chairman.

Although membership has grown from an original 55 members to about 600, many of ABC's basic concerns, among them school quality and land-use decisions, remain the same. However, as Arlington has become increasingly urban, issues like tenant-landlord relations have replaced earlier concerns such as the regularity of trash collection.

ABC grew out of the burst of post-World War II independent political movements. According to Leo Urbanske, who says he is one of the organization's founders, it was generally regarded as "a bunch of 'new people' who had lived in Arlington less than 20 years" banding together to oppose. Republicans, Byrd sympathizers who controlled the county Democratic Party and conservative independent movements.

One of the primary rallying issues for ABC, Cox and Urbanske recalled, was the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation. Two years later in the face of Virginia's pledge of massive resistance to integration, Arlington's School Board drew up a desegregation plan (some say in order to be able to sell school bonds of the New York market). The General Assembly responded by convening a special session and replaced the elected school board with an appointed one.

Angered by what they considered a usurpation of their powers by the legislature, many residents supported the newly-formed ABC. In 1957, ABC captured a majority of the seats on the County Board, a position of dominance it has since maintained except for a few years in the late 1960s.

"We became the real whipping boys," Urbanske said. "We were considered the dangerous radicals of Northern Virginia."

A rather puckish man with a folksy manner, Urbanske embodies a host of apparent contradiction: He was not one of the "new people" but a native Arlington whose parents were staunch Bryd Democrats. A former County Board chairman, Urbanske broke with ABC in the early '70s over school busing and now considers the group "socialistic" and says he is a conservative Republican.

For their part, some ABC members say they hold Urbanske's brand of politics in equally low esteem.

Critics of ABC, who run the gamut from disillusioned former members like Urbanske to conservative Democrats and Republicans, say ABC's purported nonpartisansship is a sham. In reality, they say, ABC is merely an extension of the liberal county Democratic party. They also claim that ABC controls Arlington County by appointing its members to influential county advisory groups and the school board and shuts out its political opponents.

"The ABC dominates the Civic Federation, all the citizens' associations and even the Committee of 100," said Walter L. Frankland Jr., a conservative, Republican endorsed board member. "They have at least one of their people on all the committees. The school board is solid ABC."

"ABC is both mislabeled and exaggerated," said David Anderson, a member of the ABC executive committee and one of four men seeking the ABC-Democratic nomination for Wholey's seat. "It's become shorthand for objectionable liberal policies.

"But the notion that it's some kind of juggernaut in terms of county politics is beneficial in that it gives us stature and political clout we might not otherwise have. What ABC is, is a farm team for developing interest in local government and finding the players," Anderson said.

Ten years ago, Everard Munsey, a former member of the Arlington County Board, wrote an informal history of ABC. Munsey is skeptical about Frankland's contention that ABC runs the county. "It's a little silly to talk a group of citizen activists dictating what happens in a county, especially when there's an election every year. The ABC and Democrats couldn't accomplish anything without citizen approval."

Leader of ABC and the county Democratic Party admit there is an overlap in membership of the two groups. Several ABC leaders also said they can't think of any Republican members.

"I think the more conservative civil servant may feel that in the long run their goals and aspirations are served by the Republican Party," Anderson said. "The more moderate Republicans probably feel that ABC does enough for them."

The lack of Republicans in ABC is something current ABC chairman Helen Weyant says she would like to remedy. Weyant talked about the ABC recently in its headquarters near Clarendon Circle. The cramped four room suite resembles a respectably scruffy campaign headquarters which it is each year from May through November.

"ABC has really changed," said Weyant, a member since 1959. "It used to be a social club but with Joe Wholey's campaign in 1970 things got much more political. He's really responsible for putting together a nuts-and-bolts political organization.

"In general, the Republican (Party) spends money to do things that we use people for," she continued. "When Joe Fisher ran for Congress in 1974 he took advantage of this great machine and all these workers. Our people on the board generally come to our meetings. They don't just get elected and forget."

The typical ABC member is usually "a professional, well-educated, politically liberal and very conscientious. We're really awfully boring," said Weyant, laughing.

Other long-time members note that ABC has been beset by factionalism and occasionally bitter internal fights. The schism which developed over Wholey, some say, may be couched in philosophical terms - that Wholey's fiscal conservatism has hurt the school system - but only thinly conceals intense personal and political jealousies within ABC.

As the April nominating convention approaches, another long-simmering Arlington conflict - charges by South Arlington that it is ignored by North Arlington where most county officials live - threatens to erupt. "Obviously there will be a fight for the nomination," said school board member Ann Broder, an ABC member since 1956. "There are a lot of ABCers who are South Arlingtonians who think they should get a seat on the board. And each year that they don't get one they get madder. I hope ABC can handle this problem without any divisiveness."