Progressive Democrats reasserted control over the Arlington County Board on Tuesday night by electing two of their own to leadership positions and refusing to support a bid by Republican-turned-independent John Vihstadt to become vice chairman.
Jay Fisette (D) was unanimously elected board chairman for 2017, the fifth time he has held the position since 2001. Katie Cristol (D), a progressive who just completed her first year in office, was elected vice chairman.
Both vowed to stand up for liberal values in Arlington in the wake of the national elections that will likely see a turn to the right.
Vihstadt, a fiscal conservative who in 2014 became the first non-Democrat elected to the board in 15 years, blamed his defeat on the “corrosive impacts of partisan politics.”
Outgoing chair Libby Garvey, a Democrat who often allies with Vihstadt, nominated and voted for him for vice chairman, arguing that “in this time of deep political division nationally, Arlington needs to model” the political art of working with those of differing opinions.
But the Arlington board traditionally rotates the top two leadership posts among its members from the majority party, based on seniority in office.
Since 1982, when Democrats gained control of the board, the leaders have been Democrats. The previous three years, when Republicans were the majority, the leaders were all Republicans.
“In this country, in this world, in this county, the majority party assumes the leadership, and that’s always been the case in Arlington,” Fisette said.
Even as a majority of the five-member board voted against Vihstadt, they praised his collegiality and work ethic. Gone was the overt conflict that met Vihstadt in 2014, when now-retired board members fought the newcomer’s ultimately successful efforts to shut down the Columbia Pike streetcar project.
It’s been a time of turnover; four new board members have been elected in the past four years, with Fisette the only holdover. He is up for reelection in November, and he said Wednesday he will decide next month whether to run.
Vihstadt, a partner in a Washington law firm who has been a community activist for 35 years, quoted an April statement by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who said elected officials “should be working to reduce partisan rancor, rather than creating new places for it to flourish.”
A decade ago, Vihstadt reminded his board colleagues, the nonpartisan but primarily Democratic members of the Arlington School Board twice elected Republican David Foster its vice chairman and chairman.
Fisette replied that the school board is by law nonpartisan, but the County Board is not.
In an interview Wednesday, Foster said he thought Vihstadt deserved a leadership post on the board. “Even if school boards are nonpartisan by law, that doesn’t mean county boards have to be partisan,” he said. “There’s no Democrat or Republican way to improve roads.”
After the vote, both Vihstadt and Garvey praised Cristol and promised to continue working with the rest of the board. Cristol expressed her “esteem” for Vihstadt but said the vote was about who speaks for the board “and who stands in representation of our values.”
The fifth board member, Christian Dorsey (D), said both he and Cristol have ambitions for the chairmanship and should have an opportunity to serve as understudies.
The chairman primarily serves as the board’s public voice and determines when and how issues come before the panel. The vice-chairman essentially stands in for the board chairman when the chair is not available.
In a speech after the vote, Fisette said he will focus in 2017 on the need for new facilities, including schools, improvements in the county’s economic competitiveness and its housing affordability and “staying true to our vision and values.”
The full remarks of the other board members are available on the county’s website.