In Democratic-controlled Arlington County, politics has traditionally been a bloodless sport, played by politicians who focused on issues rather than personalities.
Those days, say some county politicians and activists, may be gone.
With the revamping of the Arlington Republican Party, led by Chairwoman Henriette Warfield, and a surprise victory by Republican Mike Lane in April's special election for a County Board seat, the once-staid GOP is on the offensive. The latest evidence came last week during a candidate debate hosted by the Arlington County Civic Federation, a coalition of neighborhood groups.
Del. James Almand (D-Arlington), a 22-year veteran legislator, was called a "doormat" by opponent Robert Metry Jr. (R), who said Almand "hides from the voters every two years, hoping no one steps up to challenge him."
Challenger John Massoud (R) opened his remarks by criticizing his opponent, Del. Robert H. Brink (D-Arlington).
"The people of the 48th District deserve a legislator who is rated most effective, not least effective," he said, gesturing to Brink. "They deserve someone they can trust, not one who says one thing and does another."
The change of tone is intentional, Warfield said.
"In the past, it was all so polite up there," she said. "When you're the underdog, you've got to tell somebody why they should fire the other guy and hire you. . . . What do you want? Do you want polite or do you want to talk about what's going on?"
Besides, said Republican Party spokesman Tom Brooke, the Democrats can give as good as they get, if not better. Consider, he said, the retort by Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) at last week's forum to challenger Whitney Adams (R), who launched an offensive against Howell on the issue of transportation.
The question of school vouchers arose, which Adams said she opposed. Howell said it was good to know her position on vouchers, because "her two kids go to private school in D.C."
Brooke and Warfield said they were outraged at what they deemed a personal attack.
"Nobody should judge another person's parenting," Warfield said. "How dare anybody attack a parent's decision about what their child needs?"
But Howell said Adams had invited it by mentioning during a previous debate that her parents were public school teachers. "She introduced the personal and I think it's then appropriate to let people know her kids go to private school," she said.
Howell said she was surprised by the tone of the debate this year.
"I found several of the candidates to be more in an attack mode than they have in the past," she said. Some of the Republicans used a harsher tone than is customary, she said. Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington), who also took part in the debate, agreed.
"Maybe they think that a negative approach will create problems for the incumbents," Whipple said. "We'll have to see if that proves to be a good approach."
But Brooke said any complaint by Democrats about a negative tone is "nonsense." He cited more Democratic debate tactics he described as "nasty," including a pointed question to Massoud about whether he offered health care to employees of his company and a choreographed attack on Lane questioning his position on gun control.
After the April shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, County Board member Chris Zimmerman (D) introduced a surprise resolution on gun control at a meeting. Lane, who said he supports gun control, refused to vote on it, saying he won't vote on a resolution he hasn't read. He maintains that his Democratic colleagues ambushed him with it intentionally.
Board Chairman Paul F. Ferguson (D) denies that, saying he, too, learned of the resolution for the first time when Zimmerman introduced it. But Democrats continue to try to use the issue against Lane, and Republicans continue to say the entire episode is an insincere use of the gun issue for political gain.
"This gun thing is just disgusting," Brooke said. "This is why people hate politics and politicians. . . . [Lane opponent Charles] Monroe (D) and his cadre of party hacks should be ashamed."
Brooke had other sharp criticism of remarks in the debate.
Whipple, he said, was "condescending." She touted her success on legislation controlling poultry litter, which led Brooke to say she's "proud of her chicken [expletive] record."
Responded Whipple: "I think he's trivializing an important environmental issue."
Ferguson, who didn't use all his allotted time on a question and then asked the moderator later if he could say more, is a "nice guy," Brooke commented, "but easily confused."
Said Ferguson, "I would expect that type of name-calling from the Republican Party."
Despite the sniping, some longtime debate watchers said last week's event was not a change of tone.
"I don't think it seemed terribly different from prior years," said Tim Wise, secretary of the Civic Federation and the president of the Arlington County Taxpayers Association. If challengers want to be noticed by the voters, he said, they need to be "dramatic."
Just the same, the drama may soften if voters insist.
Metry said his "doormat" comment was meant to attract attention and help him stand out against a 22-year incumbent who has faced few, if any, serious opponents.
"I'm trying to draw a distinction," he said. "I'm trying to say, 'Here's someone who's been in office all this time, and they're not bringing home the bacon.' . . . I had originally chosen a harsher word."
However, he said, a few people spoke to him after the debate, chastising him for the negativity. In the future, he said, he may soften his rhetoric.
"I would probably change the tone of it," he said.