When the five-member Arlington County Board convenes tonight, Republicans will find themselves in the minority for the first time since 1979.
The turnabout occurred when Democrat Mary Margaret Whipple upset then-incumbent board chairman Stephen H. Detwiler in last fall's elections, giving Democrats a 3-to-2 majority.
Detwiler, as well as GOP board members Dorothy Grotos and Walter Frankland Jr., recently met with Washington Post editors and staff writers to discuss their tenure as the board's majority and to look at what lies ahead for the county and the new Democratic majority.
The following is an edited transcript of that meeting. Questioning the three were Assistant Metropolitan Editor Bob Signer, Virginia Editor Bill McAllister, Weekly Editor Don Nunes, Assistant Virginia Editor Walt Harrington, Arlington Bureau Chief Patricia E. Bauer, and staff writers Michel Marriott and Nancy Scannell.
Q: Do you think Arlington has changed substantially since you took office?.
Frankland: It's a much better county than when we came in four years ago. It looks a lot better: cleaned up areas, improved areas . . . . Just the visual impact is better. I mean, you go into Arlington from Key Bridge now and it has a more pleasing look. Some people say it may be overdeveloped, but if you go up Lee Highway it's a lot neater and I think more pleasant.
Detwiler: When I came on the board,a lot of the infrastructure funding, the maintenance of the physical plant of Arlington, had been neglected. It was one of the easy areas to cut in the budget, where the citizens groups wouldn't scream quite as loudly as if you were cutting social programs, and the board was shifting funds more toward the social program areas. . . .
I think there's more sense of a community in Arlington today than there was when I went on the board. We've got people proud of their community, instead of complaining all the time.
Frankland: We've gotten away from the sense of arrogance, or appearance of arrogance, on the part of the government . . . . I think we brought open government to the county for the first time. It may sound funny but it's true. When we took over, all of the decisions were made in the back room.
Q: If you were looking at your tenure as a group, what do you think you ought to be remembered for?
Grotos: When we were elected, you have to remember that the Democrats had all five seats on the County Board. Certainly, they had become arrogant and unresponsive, and so I think that we opened the government to the citizens again. They had been increasing taxes by 17 percent every year. We certainly offset that without cutting services. Our capital budget had been cut every year. We increased that steadily. We certainly improved our infrastructure. The county employes have been well-treated. I really am serious when I say that I believe history will show it was the best four years that Arlington County ever had.
Frankland: I think you can carry it over to the schools, too. We put money in there to help correct some of the things that were wrong, like open classrooms. We probably have gotten most of them closed up now. We improved discipline in the schools.
And the tax thing certainly is a very important. We really broke the back of that year-after-year increase on taxes. For it to go from 17 percent a year to flat for four years, or three years, anyhow . . . is an incredible accomplishment when we didn't have a Proposition 13. It was just the three of us that voted "yes" for that type of an attitude.
Detwiler: I think we were able to keep Arlington on a steady course and moving forward through a very, very difficult time. Prior to my getting on the board, there was a lot of unrest in Arlington. The county employes were quite upset about their pay situation, taxpayers were extremely upset about the tax they'd been paying, the school teachers were terribly upset about what was happening in the school system. I think we have provided the leadership that was necessary to bring a balance back to Arlington . . . . Today, all aspects of the community feel much better about Arlington than they did when I came on the board.
There was a split with regard to development. People were saying, "No, we're not going to allow any development at all." The development community was saying, "We want to come in with the maximum amount of density that we can." I believe now we have a better balanced approach to development in Arlington. The developers realize that the community expects to receive something more than just the tall buildings. And the community's saying now, "We're willing to accept the development as long as it's quality."
Q: What are the problems ahead for the new board? What should the public be looking for?
Grotos: We left Arlington in such good shape, they probably won't have any problems for a while. It'll take a while before they start messing it up again.
Q: What about Arlington's traffic problems?
Detwiler: The traffic problems in Arlington are not caused by Arlington's development. Certainly, development has contributed to the number of cars on the streets, but it's Arlington's geographic location in the greater Washington metropolitan area that creates Arlington's traffic problems.
Grotos: We have no traffic problems compared with Fairfax County, Tysons Corner or Springfield.
Detwiler: Our citizens are used to having very good traffic flows through the county. Now, we may have more traffic congestion because of the development that we're having in certain areas.
Q: You think that's a tradeoff that people will accept?
Detwiler: If they want to live within four miles of the nation's capital, yes. I don't think we can expect not to have Arlington develop more of a downtown environment due to our physical location.
Q: Does that mean higher taxes in the long run?
Detwiler: No. If we don't have development , it will mean horrendously higher taxes. Commercial and office development are the major positive contributor of Arlington's taxes. Single-family homeowners are actually being subsidized.
Q: I've noticed that there's a perception in Arlington that the Democrats are the party of better government, the civic association party, the party of people, and that the Republicans are the party of development. Do you think that perception is accurate?
Detwiler: It's a complete sham. It's a total falsehood if anybody wants to really look at the record. The Democrats built Rosslyn and Crystal City--not the Republicans.
Frankland: The people that support us, as a base, just do not follow these things that closely. The civic federation is dominated completely by the Democrats with a few exceptions.
Grotos: For a candidate or a party, it's all an image that you're building. And the Democrats certainly build the image of Republicans that are negative to the general public. I don't blame the papers for printing what they say, but I believe Mr. Milliken Democratic board member John Milliken was quoted as saying that Mr. Detwiler lost because voters consider Republicans to be developers and big business. If anyone wanted to take the record and check development votes over the last four years, there is no way that they could say it was the Republicans that did that. So it was a complete myth that they built.
Q: What will the Democrats do in the next few years that will differ from the image they have developed for themselves?
Grotos: They'll talk one way and vote the other way, as they always do. They'll be voting for development.
Detwiler: They will increase funding for public schools.
Q: How will they do that? By raising taxes?
Detwiler: Or they'll start by cutting back again on the capital budget . . . . In the case of taxes, I think they are too politically shrewd to create a major shift all in one year. That's political suicide.
Grotos: They'll have the assessments keep going up as they always do, and they'll keep that money and they'll keep talking about how low tax rates are . . . .
That's the games we play. On the courthouse proposal, the Democrats had some of their friends come in and say the Arlington Civic Federation had not had a chance to discuss this . . . . So, I agreed to postpone the decision for a couple more weeks. And then I got the letters saying that the civic federation had already discussed it, and had defeated the proposal to have another public hearing. These are the games we're going to see.
Q: Do you think those people in the civic federation were put up to it by the Democrats?
Frankland: Oh, they are. The Democrats control those people.
Grotos: It's all politics . . . . It was very obvious in that meeting they wanted to say the Republicans gave the Courthouse Plaza project to developer Charles E. Smith.
That's the kind of games we're going to have now. The proposal for a housing finance agency is another example . . . . You know, normally when somebody dies you at least bury them before you marry somebody else. The citizens of Arlington County just defeated a housing authority proposal last fall, and now the Democrats are going to Richmond with a new proposal. Of course, during the campaign these very people said this proposal could not pass in the General Assembly.
Q: So, are you saying that the civic associations are essentially a tool of the more liberal Democrats, and do not really represent the groups of the people whom they supposedly are there to represent?
Detwiler: I would say on any of the, what you would call the major issues--the housing authority, development-type issues--the Democrats use the civic associations as their tool to back their positions . . . .
In most of the established neighborhoods, the 20 people who show up at the civic federation meetings and take very liberal positions are not homeowners. I think it is fair to say that the Democrats represent the citizen activists--and I underline the word "activists"--in Arlington. And the Republicans represent the typical single-family homeowner.
Q: So would your forecast for the next few years be for more intense partisan squabbling on the board than we've seen in the past?
Detwiler: Yes. I don't see Walt and Dorothy being able to find the compromise positions with what they're going to want to do that we were able to achieve with our majority.
Q: And you see less of an inclination on the part of the Democrats to do any kind of compromising as opposed to what you've done in the past?
Detwiler: It's going to be their show and they're going to make that very clear from Day One.