In 1952, Robert H. Detwiler, a prominent Arlington pediatrician, was drafted to run on a slate of conservative candidates for a two-year term on the county board as a member of the Arlington Independent Movement. Detwiler led the slate to victory but served only one term, after deciding a busy medical practice and politics didn't mix.
Today, 30 years later, his son, Stephen H. Detwiler, is carrying on the family tradition. But Detwiler hopes to be more than a one-term board member as he seeks reelection to the seat he won four years ago.
Like his late father, Detwiler is an independent (although he has been endorsed by the county GOP), and is viewed by many as a conservative.
Although Detwiler agrees with that label on some issues, like fiscal matters and strong school discipline, on "social and human service areas, I consider myself a liberal," he said.
Detwiler's first county-related job was as an appointee to the Commission on the Aging nearly 15 years ago, an experience he says made him sensitive to the needs of the elderly. He later copublished a national newsletter, ACTION, on the problems of the elderly.
His father and his work with various community groups, he said, were among the driving forces that led to his decision to seek his first four-year term on the county board, and again to his reelection bid, in which he faces Democrat Mary Margaret Whipple.
"I think the desire to run came from examples my father had set and my involvement in the community with such groups as the Red Cross, the Chamber of Commerce, the YMCA and other community organizations," Detwiler said. "Being able to hold a seat on the county board and participate in the decision-making process is a fulfillment of the whole progression of community services."
Detwiler was born in his family's North Arlington home and went to county schools until the eighth grade, when he transferred to Randolph-Macon Military Academy in Front Royal. He was graduated from Randolph-Macon in 1961, and spent a year at a preparatory school before winning an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy.
Detwiler had planned a career as a Navy flier, but an eye problem resulted in a medical discharge after 2 1/2 years at Annapolis. He later earned a degree in business administration from George Washington University after almost five years of night classes.
During college, Detwiler launched his career in banking, starting as a bookkeeper in an Arlington bank and leading, several banks later, to his current post as senior executive vice president in charge of savings, marketing and data processing for the Continental Federal Savings and Loan Co., with headquarters in Fairfax City.
"There are very few major things that have happened in my life that I planned or had anything to do with," Detwiler said. "Almost everything has happened by chance and circumstance and timing."
One thing Detwiler is not leaving to chance is his current campaign. Aside from his own desire to win reelection, Detwiler is mindful that his defeat would return control of the county board to the Democrats.
His campaign manager, Robert E. Harrington, who ran unsuccessfully for the board last year, said the Detwiler campaign hopes to raise $40,000, mainly for mass mailings, with any surplus earmarked for radio advertisements. So far, Harrington said, the campaign has raised $26,000 to $27,000. Detwiler said there have been few fund-raising events thus far, with the major exception being "my 'last' 39th birthday party" in June at Columbia Gardens Cemetery, which is owned by a former Republican county board member, Ned Thomas. (Detwiler is 39.)
Late last spring, Detwiler hired a political consultant to conduct a poll of county voters to help map out campaign strategy. Although he will not release the results, Detwiler said the poll has two purposes: to determine the issues on voters' minds and to gauge voters' recognition of and satisfaction with the candidates.
"I was pleasantly surprised by the percentage of citizens who did identify me and my positions as chairman of the board, although not all of them agree with everything I've done," he said.
"If I could sit back and rely on the findings of the poll," he added, "I'm going to be reelected by a comfortable margin. But, like any lay person, I'm somewhat skeptical about the validity of polls, even if scientifically prepared. . . . It was done early, in the late spring, and there are any number of things that could have taken place through the summer and between now and the election that could make a difference. And polls don't get people out of their homes to vote."
What he hopes will bring voters to the polls -- to cast their ballots for him -- are the differences between him and Whipple, whom he criticizes as "harping on the past" and of having "high-handed, self-serving tactics."
When a reporter noted he had taken "the gloves off" at a recent debate with Whipple, Detwiler responded, "Mrs. Whipple took them off to begin with, with the press releases about a single contribution made four years ago in my campaign and the release on a 'secret meeting' regarding the firing of former county manager Vernon Ford."
In 1978, Detwiler received $500 from the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC). Detwiler, who said he did not solicit the funds, believed NCPAC decided to contribute to that campaign because it has headquarters in Rosslyn and pays business taxes to the county. "It had nothing to do, I'm sure, with their national strategies," he said.
He is especially rankled by Whipple's contention that "open government" in Arlington has been eroded in the past few years. Although Whipple cites several examples, the handling of the Ford firing has been the most heated issue.
Although Detwiler says he told Ford to resign or be fired at a private meeting between the two men last summer, Detwiler says he knew he would have the support of the board's two other GOP-backed members, Walter L. Frankland and Dorothy T. Grotos, when the issue came up at an executive session that week. However, the issue came as a surprise to the board's two other members, Democrat John G. Milliken and Democrat-backed independent Ellen M. Bozman, who were not consulted on the matter. Bozman, who had a previous commitment and could not stay for the closed session, learned of the firing the next day.
Ford, who is suing the board over his retirement benefits, eventually was fired formally at a public board meeting. Detwiler argues that the matter was handled "in a completely proper and legitimate fashion. I did not detect then, nor do I now, a blazing community concern over this matter."
He and Whipple also have some differences on what constitutes quality economic development, particularly on the issue of "bonus density credits": allowing developers to construct buildings higher than usually allowed by zoning laws in exchange for the developer's agreement to provide amenities such as parks and street and sewer improvements.
Detwiler, who contends many of the highest buildings in Arlington were approved by Democrats, says if the community wants lively, people-oriented places with open plazas, fountains, trees, parks and other things that contribute to an aesthetically pleasing ambiance, it must make some concessions, too.
"We have to make some contribution and that contribution can be direct payments by us from the taxpayers' dollars or we can work with developers and give them an extra floor of a building to get those things at no sacrifice to the community," he says.
Detwiler said he will not take a position on a proposed curfew for children under 16 until a public hearing, scheduled for Nov. 20.
On another issue, a proposed housing authority that has created much debate in the community, Detwiler said he has not made up his mind, but expects to announce his position before the election Nov. 2.
"I recognize the valuable tool [authority-issued] tax-exempt bonds could have for preserving rental housing," he says, "but I have difficulty with the broad-brushed law creating them and their autonomous powers, their perpetuality."
Detwiler says he has little spare time because of the board job, but likes to spend it with his wife, Betsy, and their two sons, Jim and Bill, a senior and sophomore, respectively, at Yorktown High School.
When he does get a free moment, he likes to play tennis, weed his garden or fish for blues near his family's summer home on the Chesapeake Bay. The leisure activities help lend a sense of balance to his life, he says: "I'm becoming more and more of a politician, but I will not let myself become a stereotypical politician."