The infighting among Arlington County Democrats took a sharp turn in the past week, with elected officials and their supporters now publicly debating whether campaign materials criticizing an incumbent on the County Board are misleading or a fair assessment of her record.
Erik Gutshall, who is challenging incumbent Libby Garvey in the June 14 election, mailed campaign brochures to thousands of local residents that accuse Garvey of failing to plan for school overcrowding and of implying that a real estate tax exemption for seniors could be eliminated.
That triggered rebukes from two Democratic officeholders, state Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington) and County Board member Christian Dorsey (D), who said the mailings were negative, misleading and mischaracterizations of Garvey’s positions. Both statements, in public Facebook postings, then spawned their own debates among followers of both politicians, neither of whom have publicly endorsed either candidate.
The back-and-forth has grown, with 11 current or former officeholders weighing in with support for Gutshall and calling his campaign material well-documented and “well within the bounds of robust healthy democratic debate.” That statement was posted on Gutshall’s campaign website.
The campaign had been relatively sedate, with face-to-face debates that have been polite and noncontroversial. But the mailings have revealed the intense intra-party differences that occasionally flare up in Arlington.
And party leaders remain angry over Garvey’s support of Republican-turned-independent John Vihstadt two years ago over Democrat Alan Howze. Vihstadt won both a special and general election, ending 15 years of an all-Democratic County Board.
The mailing that sparked the controversy claims the board chair is “threatening the ability of our most vulnerable seniors to live in Arlington” and is “putting Arlington’s seniors at risk.” It included large photos of two concerned-looking older women.
Gutshall said Friday that although he stands by the substance of the brochures, “I agree that the overall message could have been communicated without such emotional imagery.” He revised his statement Saturday to remove that line and to say that he has not and does not intend to attack Garvey personally, but wants to call attention to “legitimate policy differences.”
Garvey said Saturday that the charges are false and misrepresent her stances. Her campaign manager, Scott Pedowitz, said that “they are trying to turn a question or a vote for further study into a policy position.”
Garvey suggested earlier this year that the county look into eliminating real estate tax exemptions for certain middle- to low-income senior homeowners. At a March board meeting and at a campaign debate Wednesday, she said the exemptions create “a windfall” for seniors or their beneficiaries when the homes are sold.
She would prefer that more seniors be funneled into the county’s less-popular tax deferment program, which would recoup the unpaid taxes when properties are sold. Gutshall immediately noted that paying back the deferred taxes upon sale would prevent low-income seniors on fixed incomes from staying in their homes without passing on a large tax burden to their families.
Garvey has not addressed the second point in the mailing, that she twice tried to cut the amount of money devoted to Arlington’s Affordable Housing Investment Fund, a revolving loan fund that helps nonprofit organizations build low-cost housing, often for those on low or fixed incomes.
Another Gutshall flier asserted that while Garvey was on the Arlington School Board for 15 years, she “failed to plan” for the predicted crisis of skyrocketing enrollment that is now enveloping the schools. Garvey also had suggested this year that schools could start as early as 5 a.m. and run until 11 p.m. to allow the facilities to be used more fully, especially for high school students who work in the afternoons and evenings.
Garvey, who has responded to those charges on her campaign website, said she worked to renovate or build nearly two dozen schools and never advocated “forcing” students into early or late classes. But she added that “creating flexibility for high school students and their families who want to choose a different sort of high school experience” could be useful.
Gutshall’s next campaign mailing, which is expected to go out early this week, calls for Democrats to work together but raises questions about Garvey’s failure to support party nominees in other races.
The next debate between the two candidates is at 7 p.m. Sunday at Campbell Elementary School, 737 S. Carlin Springs Rd.