Three candidates — an IBM management consultant, a restaurateur and a former head of the Arlington Planning Commission — are running in the Democratic caucus to succeed Chris Zimmerman, who is vacating the Arlington County Board seat he has held for 17 years.
But two of the three candidates said the county’s political establishment has lined up behind Alan Howze, which could provide him an advantage in the special election — a two-day caucus that typically attracts about 2,000 die-hard Democrats.
Cord Thomas said that when he approached a board member to discuss a potential candidacy, he was told that “someone’s already been anointed.” Peter Fallon said he’s not “the chosen one” despite his loyal work for the party and the community.
Howze, who has the support of multiple elected officials, endorsements from teachers and the Sierra Club, and the biggest campaign fund, does not apologize for seeking widespread support.
“I’ve lost before. I know what it feels like, and it wasn’t fun,” said Howze, who came up short in a June 2009 primary for the 47th House District. “I’m working very hard to get the support from all across the county so I can adequately represent Arlington.”
Arlington Democrats can vote from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday at Key Elementary School or from 11 am. to 7 p.m. Saturday at Kenmore Middle School for their nominee to run in a general election in April. Voters will be asked to rank their preferences in case no one gets the majority on the first ballot.
The term of the office runs only to November, so the winner will have to plan a second campaign for later this year.
The Democratic nominee will face at least one strong opponent: well-known civic activist John Vihstadt, a former Republican running as an independent. Evan Bernick, a Libertarian, and Janet Murphy, from the Independent Green Party, have also filed in the race. The Republicans will not field a candidate.
Howze, 39, an Arlington native and management consultant for IBM, positioned himself as a progressive who has worked in the private sector, started a small business with his wife, and worked both on Capitol Hill and in Richmond, as an aide to Mark Warner in the governor’s office.
He raised the most money — $16,245 — by Dec. 31 and collected endorsements from Clerk of the Circuit Court Paul Ferguson, County Treasurer Frank O’Leary, County Board Chairman Jay Fisette, Del. Robert H. Brink and Mary Margaret Whipple, a former state senator.
Howze organized outreach and support for Arlington’s successful 2012 bond campaign, which provided $153 million for transportation, parks, infrastructure and schools. About one-third of that debt was to pay for a new Long Bridge Park aquatics center.
On the hot-button issue of the Columbia Pike streetcar, Howze said “we cannot give the streetcar project a blank check. But done right, the streetcar will improve transportation through the Pike corridor and provide broad-based community benefits.”
Thomas, 31, who is using $12,469 of his own money for his campaign, is the former owner of EnviroCAB, which he says is the nation’s first all-hybrid taxi fleet. He sold that company last year and is now a founding partner with Elevation Franchise Ventures, which currently has more than 40 restaurants in seven countries, including Elevation Burger in Arlington.
When he was a child in Salinas, Calif., his family lost their home because of bankruptcy. When he was 10, he found his mother slain in a still-unsolved crime, he said. His father died in a car accident when he was 15. Taken in by a teacher, Thomas depended on social services to survive, which impressed upon him the importance of government safety nets.
Thomas moved to Arlington about nine years ago and launched EnviroCAB with his uncle. He said he was shocked at how hard it was to get a meeting with the County Board members, unlike his later experience in Fairfax City, where the mayor not only greeted him but also brought customers to him.
He said the County Board needs better fiscal restraint and should work to expand the commercial tax base and lower the 20 percent office vacancy rate. He said he will resist “frivolous projects” — such as the Columbia Pike streetcar. A rapid-transit bus system would cost millions less and do the same job, he said, without tearing up the streets for five years. He is similarly skeptical of the Long Bridge Park aquatics facility.
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a swimming pool. I’m just saying it shouldn’t cost $80 million,” he said.
Fallon, 49, a tax accountant, served on the Planning Commission for nine years, including a year as chairman. He also served on the county’s Transportation Commission for three years and been a civic association president for 11 years.
“I’ve been lucky in life,” he said Monday, noting that he was the first in his family to go to college.
Core county services need attention, he says. He supports the construction of a Columbia Pike streetcar, pointing to a decade of community discussion about it. He also said the County Board needs to work more collaboratively with the School Board in order to maintain small class sizes and quality teaching.
When the 27-year Arlington resident came in last in a five-way primary for a County Board seat two years ago, “I didn’t lick my wounds. I stayed involved,” he said. “I did the grunt work on campaigns, and I tried to raise money.”