Chastened members of the Arlington County Board said Wednesday that they will examine what, if any, message voters were sending when they elected a Republican running as an independent to fill a vacant board seat in this strongly Democratic county.
In a special election with low turnout, independent John Vihstadt beat Alan Howze (D) 57 to 41 percent, becoming the first non-Democrat elected to the board since 1999. Three of the four Democrats on the board endorsed Howze in the race; the other, Libby Garvey, backed Vihstadt.
“We’ll take stock [and] fully assess what the message is and how we can be responsive,” said Jay Fisette, the board’s chairman. “I’m taking it seriously. . . . This is an unusual outcome for us.”
Voters interviewed outside polling stations Tuesday said they were eager for an independent voice on the board and frustrated by what they perceived as the board’s focus on pricey projects, including the Columbia Pike streetcar and an over-budget Long Bridge Park Aquatics Center.
Vihstadt promised to oppose both of those projects and prioritize spending to relieve school overcrowding, improve road and infrastructure maintenance, and create an independent auditor position.
The true depth of voters’ frustration might be revealed in November’s general election, when Vihstadt again will face Howze and turnout is expected to be much higher.
The last non-Democrat elected to the board was Mike Lane (R), who won a 1999 special election by 169 votes but was defeated in the general election, when Democrats came out in force.
“We certainly lost. We lost badly” on Tuesday, said Kip Malinosky, chairman of the Arlington County Democratic Party. “We need to do much more to listen, much more to engage, much more to rebuild the trust that has eroded over the years.”
Tuesday’s turnout, 16 percent, was better than that of two years ago, when about 12 percent of the electorate voted in a special election for a board seat. Garvey won that race with about 7,000 votes, 2,000 fewer than Howze amassed in defeat.
Fisette said the special election had “become a referendum” on the $310 million streetcar project, a subject of pointed debate.
“We’ve known the community is divided on that project,” Fisette said. “Over the last 12 hours, I’ve been trying to figure out what I feel comfortable considering.”
Garvey, a critic of the project, said she was “hopeful” that Vihstadt’s victory will prompt her colleagues to reconsider the proposal.
Tuesday night, Vihstadt said the election showed that “Arlington decided party labels were not important.” He said he was “optimistic” about winning again in November, given his margin in the special election.
But board member J. Walter Tejada said he thinks the message from the election is that the county needs to do a better job of explaining what is at stake with the streetcar project and what went into the board’s decision to proceed with it.
“We’re doing a modern streetcar line that will bring economic vitality,” he said. “We have an obligation to explain. We need to improve our communication. Citizens need to know more.”
Vihstadt will be sworn in Friday afternoon, and voting on the county’s budget starts next week.
Board member Mary H. Hynes said that Vihstadt’s strong win Tuesday does not necessarily mean that his views will hold sway.
“Just because you won the most recent election doesn’t mean you get to reorder priorities, unless you have the support of two others,” Hynes said.
“It may be a mistake to say that because  percent of the county came out and said ‘X,’ that we need to change our way.”