The likely winner of an Arlington County Board race would normally be the candidate who raises the most money and collects the most recognizable endorsements.
Arlington politics, however, has been unusual for the past few years.
The strongly Democratic electorate twice chose a Republican turned independent for the board in 2014, even though he came up short on cash and endorsements in his first election. Just last year, incumbent Libby Garvey, who had plenty of cash but had lost the support of the party establishment, held off a primary challenger, Erik Gutshall, who had captured the endorsements Garvey had lost.
Democrats next week will choose from among four candidates — including Gutshall — for a nominee to fill an open seat on the board, a decision that is likely to determine the outcome of the general election in the deep-blue county.
Gutshall is the clear leader in fundraising and getting backing from names that voters know. But those accomplishments may no longer be enough.
“Arlington is sort of unique; looking at how much money a candidate has raised in the last few years has not been particularly helpful,” said Frank Shafroth, director of George Mason University’s Center for State and Local Leadership. “The community tends to be very involved, and their decisions are made at the last minute.”
In addition to Gutshall, owner of a home improvement business, the candidates include tax accountant Peter Fallon, nonprofit official Kim Klingler and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Patil. They are competing in an unusual three-day party caucus in which voters will be asked to rank their choices as part of an instant-runoff feature.
If one candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes during the first round of counting, that candidate wins. If not, the candidate with the fewest number of first-choice votes is eliminated and each of his or her ballots is redistributed to the candidate listed as the second choice on that ballot. The process continues until one candidate reaches the majority.
Each hopeful has enough support that party insiders expect the “second-choice” votes to be decisive.
Voters will caucus May 9 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Key Elementary School; May 11 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Drew Model School; and May 13 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Washington Lee High School. The last major candidate forum is Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the NRECA building, 4301 Wilson Blvd. Three School Board candidates vying for one seat will also appear.
No Republicans have announced an intention to seek the County Board seat in November; a perennial candidate, Audrey Clement, will run as an independent.
The four Democrats identify as progressive politicians eager to uphold Arlington’s culture of smart growth, strong schools and welcoming diversity. They also say they will focus on improving the climate for businesses and boosting the struggling commercial real estate market.
Gutshall, 47, raised $22,512 in the first quarter of 2017. He lists multiple current and former elected officials as supporters, including incumbent Jay Fisette, who is stepping down after nearly 20 years.
Against Garvey last spring, he emphasized the need for homes that will fit the budgets of young families and working people priced out of Arlington’s expensive market but too affluent to qualify for subsidized affordable housing.
He’s the current chairman of the county planning commission, a former member of the transportation commission and a past civic association president, experience that he says will help him “connect the dots, because all those other things — schools, housing and transportation — are possible only when we have the commercial tax base to pay for them.”
Fallon, 53, who raised $10,129 in the first quarter, came in a close third in a six-way race for two open board seats in 2015, and ran twice before that.
A former transportation commissioner, civic association president and planning commission chairman, he has called for more transparency in decision-making and said the current board is too “passive” in its response to school overcrowding, Metro’s financing needs and housing affordability.
Fallon broke with other Democrats to say he would consider voting for independent John Vihstadt for board chairman, a heresy for some activists. “Mr. Vihstadt is one of the most conscientious, responsive and dedicated board members,” Fallon said. “We should not be hyperpartisan.”
Klingler, 35, a former volunteer emergency medical technician, a current civic association president and advisory commission chairman, raised $5,065 in the first quarter. She came in fourth in a 2012 party caucus won by Garvey and said she was motivated to get back into electoral politics after the 2016 presidential election and the Women’s March in January.
Her campaign has focused on improving public safety and emergency response times, boosting government efficiency and increasing spending on public safety.
“There are a lot of areas in the county where we could do better,” said Klingler, a former management consultant.
Patil, 41, a first-time candidate who raised $20,320 in the first quarter, says he has big ideas to create “green and clean” jobs in the county, which would include positions for highly educated tech innovators as well as those who work in manufacturing.
An engineer who came to the United States from India 18 years ago and has started two businesses, he has called for more creative thinking to improve housing affordability, transportation alternatives and school capacity shortages.
“When it comes to our values about the environment, about women’s rights, about equal pay, let us stand up and be known for something,” he told a gathering of Arlington Young Democrats in April. “We may be slapped on the wrist, but I am willing to stand up.”