The couple cut to the chase with the candidate who stood on their doorstep, seeking their votes in the coming Arlington County Board special election.
“Are you the Republican?” asked Alicia Korten, a staunch Democrat and founder and chief executive of a small business.
John Vihstadt replied that he is running as an independent “fusion candidate,” an important distinction in Arlington, the bluest county in Virginia. But, yes, he’s a Republican.
“Did you vote for Mitt Romney?”
Vihstadt gulped, then said that although he cast his ballot for the 2012 GOP White House nominee, he did not vote for Ken Cuccinelli II, the Republican who lost the Virginia governor’s race.
In a field that includes a well-funded Democratic nominee and two lesser-known independents, Vihstadt is trying to capitalize on his belief that the all-Democratic board could use an independent thinker. He sees growing voter opposition to big spending on public works projects, including the Columbia Pike streetcar, the Long Bridge aquatics center and the county’s notorious million-dollar bus stop.
His main opponent, Democratic nominee Alan Howze, has also begun expressing skepticism about some county spending decisions. And it is an open question whether Vihstadt’s opposition to the streetcar and his call for an independent county auditor will be enough to loosen the hold that Democrats have had on the County Board since 1999.
“Arlington has diversity in so many ways, except for thoughts on the County Board,” Vihstadt said. “It’s become an echo chamber.”
The candidates are vying to fill the seat of longtime board member Chris Zimmerman, who resigned in February. The winner on April 8 will finish Zimmerman’s term and could run as an incumbent for a four-year term in November.
Howze, 39, an IBM management consultant, has also knocked on Arlington doors, more than 3,000 of them, by his count. He beat two other Democrats in a hard-fought primary. All but one of the four sitting board members have endorsed him; Libby Garvey broke party ranks and supports Vihstadt.
Howze agrees with most of the actions of the County Board, routinely telling voters: “I’m not Chicken Little. The sky is not falling on Arlington, and we should not lose track of what is right with Arlington.”
But since the primary, he has started sounding more notes of fiscal caution. He criticizes $1.6 million spent two years ago on the James Hunter dog park in Clarendon, saying the amount “well exceeded” what was needed. He has doubts about the costs of the proposed aquatics center, even though he ran the county’s $50 million bond campaign in 2012, most of which was earmarked for the center.
“While there is significant demand in the community for aquatics, we need to ensure that any new facility is affordable,” he says on his campaign Web site. “No project has a blank check. . . . We must protect our fiscal integrity while continuing to make important investments in our community.”
At a candidate forum last week, Howze said he thought turnout — typically low in special elections — remains the key to victory. The last two non-Democrats on the board won their seats in special elections: Republican Mike Lane in 1999 and Ben Winslow, a Republican running as an independent, in 1993.
“I always assumed [this election] would be a close race,” Howze said.
None of the candidates or political organizations have conducted polling on the race, and campaign finance reports for the candidates are not due until the end of March. Still, it’s clear that Howze and Vihstadt have significantly more resources on hand than their rivals, independent Green candidate Janet Murphy and independent Stephen Holbrook.
Neither Murphy nor Holbrook has the money for yard signs or campaign fliers, and both say they have almost no contributors.
Howze and Vihstadt, 61, say transit-based development and long-term planning are good for Arlington. Both support spending more on schools, as well as funding affordable housing and a new homeless shelter.
Holbrook, in contrast, is calling for an immediate freeze on all county spending, elimination of the homeless shelter and cutting taxes. The 67-year-old retired FBI accountant compared Arlington’s finances, which are rated AAA by three credit agencies, to those of bankrupt Detroit.
“Government is not a charitable organization,” Holbrook said last week at the Radnor/Fort Meyer Heights civic association. “Affordable housing? It’s not a government issue; it’s not a right.”
Murphy, 64, wants more money put into travel and tourism advertising. She campaigns on an environmental platform, explaining to voters that she is a vegan and has no car. She wants to revive rooming houses in Arlington to deal with the escalating cost of housing.
On the campaign trail, Arlington voters respond positively to candidates’ promises to act as watchdogs against government excess. Residents in the historic Maywood neighborhood nodded in agreement this month as Vihstadt described the need for an auditor. Some chimed in with their own stories of wasteful county spending.
But there are also services that residents demand.
“We need a stop sign,” Korten’s husband, Lorne Epstein, told the candidate, citing a nearby intersection that neighbors think is dangerous for children. Hundreds of area residents signed a petition asking for the sign, but county employees told them there wasn’t enough traffic at the intersection to justify it.
“Metrics and benchmarks are fine, but they have to be calibrated to the needs of the neighborhood,” Vihstadt said sympathetically.
Epstein saw an opening. “If you get me a stop sign, I’ll vote for you.”