The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Arlington Dems sort through County Board wannabes

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Arlington Democrats pondered the common conundrum of electoral politics Wednesday night: One candidate’s experience  in office versus a newcomer’s energy versus a known player who splits the difference.

Despite frigid temperatures and a fire alarm that interrupted their panel, about 200 Arlington Democrats listened to three contenders seeking their party’s nomination to a County Board seat soon to be vacated by longtime board member Chris Zimmerman.The party plans four other debates before its two-day caucus Jan.30 and Feb. 1.

For the first time,  those who vote in the caucus will rank their preferred candidates, creating an “instant runoff” in case no one gets a majority on the first try.

The contenders — former Planning Commission chairman Peter Fallon, entrepreneur Cord Thomas and civic activist Alan Howze  — sought to position themselves as the best candidate to take on  John Vihstadt, a Republican running as an independent, and Libertarian Evan Bernick in a special election expected to be held this spring.

Thomas, 31, started and ran the EnviroCab taxi service with his uncle for eight years until he sold it six months ago. He  now co-owns Elevation Burger, and he emphasized his interest in economic development. Pitching himself as the “only candidate here” who has successfully launched a startup business, Thomas said the welcome given his restaurant by the Fairfax City mayor contrasted with the four years it took for his cab company to get a meeting with Arlington County Board members.

He was also the only one of the three to oppose the Columbia Pike streetcar project, saying, “We haven’t earned the confidence of the people yet to take on a project of that scope,” especially in light of the cost of the  million-dollar bus stop along the street.

Howze, 39, a management consultant for IBM and who was Mark Warner’s political director when Warner was Virginia’s governor, argued that the streetcar project, “done right will have significant benefits.” A former neighborhood association president, Howze pointed to the 10-year community process that preceded its endorsement and said that the transit portion is critical to achieving housing and development goals in south Arlington.

An Arlington native, Howze also started a business with his wife, doing energy audits. He ranked his priorities as addressing the rising enrollment in local schools, creating a liveable community and focusing on fiscal responsibility.

Fallon, 49, a tax accountant who has served on the Planning Commission and Transportation Commission, as well as school and civic associations, urged the Democrats to consider who will be their best chance to beat Vihstadt, “the most qualified non-Democrat we’ve seen.”  His experience, he said, means he would “be effective on day one.”

Fallon came in last in a five-way race two years ago for the nomination won by current County Board member Libby Garvey. His priorities in this race, he said, include increasing fiscal accountability, better collaboration with the School Board, strategic investment in local infrastructure and affordable housing.