Max Blumberg, 4, curiously checks out Democrat Alan Howze as Howze goes door-to-door as he campaigns for an Arlington County Board seat on Oct. 11. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Arlington Democrats want desperately to believe that last spring’s special election was a fluke.

In a county that routinely and overwhelmingly elects Democrats, their party’s nominee for an open County Board seat lost by 16 percentage points to John Vihstadt, a Republican-turned-independent who capitalized on voter opposition to a proposed streetcar line and frustration at perceived overspending.

Now the Democratic nominee, Alan Howze, is facing off against Vihstadt for a full four-year term.

Howze is campaigning more energetically than he did last spring, hopeful that a bitter Senate race in Virginia will spur higher turnout on Nov. 4 — including a wave of Arlington Democrats who back both him and the Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar project.

“The higher the turnout, the better it represents the views of all Arlington,” Howze said one recent, rainy Saturday after knocking on the 10,158th door of the campaign.

More than 55 percent of county residents voted in the 2006 general election, the last time there was a Senate race but no presidential contest. In the special election that put Vihstadt in office, turnout was 16 percent.


John Vihstadt, the incumbent and independent candidate running for the Arlington County Board, greets voters at Columbia Pike farmers market on Oct. 19. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

The incumbent remains confident, however, that he can persuade Democrats frustrated by county spending decisions to vote for him, regardless of whom they’ll back in the Senate contest.

“We need better core services and smart investments for today’s economy,” Vihstadt told voters at several community forums this fall. “Not vanity projects like gold-plated streetcars, million-dollar bus stops or aquatic centers.”

All about the streetcar

Ross Hyams came to the front door of his Fairlington home as if he’d been waiting for a candidate to knock.

“What’s your position on the streetcar?” he asked Howze, a 40-year-old father of three. Howze, who was carrying his own campaign literature and pro-streetcar fliers, replied that he supported the project.

“I can’t vote for you,” Hyams said.

For 15 minutes, he railed against the spending decisions of the current board, from the “super ” bus stop to the delayed Long Bridge aquatics center to the money-losing Artisphere. But most of all, Hyams disliked the idea of streetcars.

Howze, an IBM consultant by trade, listened patiently and then pointed out that a county-hired consultant concluded that streetcars could deliver billions in economic benefits. He noted that he was among the first to call for a voter referendum on the streetcar, a request that a majority of County Board members rejected.

Howze didn’t convert Hyams. But he found other voters that day who promised him their support.

“I’m a straight Democrat,” said Elizabeth Willingham, who answered her door with a kale-and-fruit smoothie in her hand. “I always vote Democratic — that’s why I live in Arlington. I come from a family of Democrats. It’s pretty simple.”


While going door-to-door on Oct. 11, Democrat Alan Howze chats with Rose Jackson and her daughter Quincy. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Howze emphasizes to voters that if he’s elected, he’d be the only board member with children in Arlington’s overcrowded public schools.

He says he would work to address overcrowding without sacrificing parks and open space and would push for high-quality pre-kindergarten classes for all.

Vihstadt, Howze asserts, is a “Dr. No,” turning every discussion into an anti-streetcar argument.

Wary on spending

Campaigning at the Columbia Pike Farmers Market on a chilly Sunday, Vihstadt made his skepticism about county spending decisions clear in conversations with voters, gesturing toward the nearby and infamous bus stop and citing an over-budget dog park, the Artisphere and an aquatics center — which may be funded with money from a bond issue that Howze helped pass but is now on hold.

Vihstadt, a 62-year-old real estate lawyer, is calling for a new internal auditor who would track spending and report to the board, not the county manager. He also wants the board to sign off on any expenditure of $1 million or more.

“I’m very pleased that someone is looking at runaway spending and saying, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” said Sandra Hernandez, who left the market with two Vihstadt yard signs after talking to the candidate.

She identified herself as “a recovering Democrat” who is worried that the County Board is more concerned with transportation and development than keeping public schools up to date.

The last non-Democrat elected to the Arlington County Board was Republican Mike Lane, who won a partial term in a 1999 special election but defeated in the general election.


John Vihstadt, the incumbent and independent candidate running for the Arlington County Board, greets voters at Columbia Pike Farmers Market. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

Vihstadt says he can do better. One factor that will affect his chances is the increasingly tight Senate battle between Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) and Republican challenger Ed Gillespie (R).

Warner won 76 percent of the vote in Arlington when he was elected senator in 2008. With his lead over Gillespie narrowing to single digits statewide, he has launched a barrage of attack ads and an aggressive turn-out-the-vote effort in Arlington and other Democratic strongholds.

Higher turnout among Democrats will make it more difficult for Vihstadt to keep his County Board seat. Howze and the local Democratic establishment are slamming Vihstadt for his vote in July against Arlington’s 10-year capital-improvement plan, which budgets money for school construction, affordable housing and parks.

Vihstadt said he would have supported the plan had the board agreed to remove streetcar funding from it. “Asking questions and raising issues is not divisive, it’s responsible government,” he said. “Our resources are not unlimited.”


Democrat Alan Howze, right, chats with Alan Bow while campaigning for an Arlington County Board seat. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

John Vihstadt, the incumbent and independent candidate running for Arlington County Board, greets Arlington resident Michael Jackson. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

There are signs that some Arlington voters are growing weary of the streetcar debate.

The election “has basically become a referendum on the streetcar,” said Jim Green, who works in advertising. “I’d like a decision one way or another. We are talking this thing to death.”

Luis Viera, who was squiring his two young children around the Columbia Pike Farmers Market in a stroller, also said the arguments are getting out of hand.

“I’m concerned with the rhetoric on the streetcar,” he said. “I view it as an investment in our future.

“Most of all, though, I’d like to see an adult discussion.”