Five weeks before Election Day, Arlington County Board candidates are being pressed by a variety of interest groups to stake out their positions on key issues, an illustration of how much is at stake with two of five board seats open for the first time in more than 30 years.
Candidates have begun slogging through 14 scheduled debates and candidate forums — twice as many as two years ago.
The events are hosted by a panoply of neighborhood civic associations and advocacy groups, many of which have strongly held positions on whether to build more affordable housing and where; how to preserve green space; what to do about overcrowded schools; and whether the county needs to rein in spending on major public projects.
On Monday night, residents of the Arlington Forest neighborhood pressured Democrats Katie Cristol and Christian Dorsey and independents Audrey Clement and Mike McMenamin on whether they would pledge to keep affordable housing out of a proposal to redevelop the community center at Lubber Run Park.
The pointed questions led Dorsey to decry “litmus tests” for candidates on specific issues and prompted Cristol to warn that the county needs leaders who “are not beholden to a single faction.”
“Everybody is gathered around their own issue,” McMenamin said Wednesday. “It’s a vigorous process this time around.”
Last year, independent John Vihstadt successfully rode a wave of citizen dissatisfaction over county spending to a seat on the County Board, becoming the first non-Democrat elected in 15 years.
He has continued to question spending decisions from his seat on the dais, usually joined by Democrat Libby Garvey.
With two of the other three board members retiring at the end of this year, one or both winners of the 2015 elections will almost certainly be part of a new board majority.
The high stakes are fueling a sense of urgency at campaign events, such as the forum on Monday.
“Arlington faces budgetary pressures due to high commercial-vacancy rates and higher-than-expected school enrollments,” Dorsey said Wednesday. “It is my duty to be as responsive as possible to groups and individuals by demonstrating my understanding of the issues and being as clear as possible on how I want to resolve them.”
At the Arlington Forest event Monday, there were questions on taxes, street repairs, trash and parking, in addition to the controversial proposal to include affordable housing along with a rebuilt community center at Lubber Run Park.
But the moderator’s follow-up questions dealt only with whether candidates would pledge to oppose such housing, which the neighborhood group has strongly resisted.
Some advocates say there is a danger in having so many special-interest, group-driven forums — even as their own groups continue to push ahead with their agendas.
“If all we have are negatives — don’t build that school here, keep housing out of the parks — what is the positive way forward?” asked Marc DeFrancis, an organizer with VOICE, a interfaith group focused on affordable housing.
Its candidate forum is Sunday evening.