It was pure chance that led Jay Fisette to Arlington in 1983. A college friend had rented a cheap, spacious apartment in Pentagon City, and a nearby unit was available. So Fisette found a roommate among his college swimming buddies and began hoofing the “cow path” — open land that would become the Pentagon City mall — and hopping the Metro to his new job downtown.
He was interested in politics but had no plans to run for elected office, in large part because as a gay man during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, he didn’t know how his new community would receive him.
But 34 years later, Fisette, 61, is retiring from a two-decade career on the Arlington County Board. He is one of the longest-serving local politicians in the region, the first openly gay elected official in Virginia and a perfect example of the type of wonky, collaborative public servant for which Arlington is known.
Stuart Freudberg of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments says Fisette brought his “unbelievably good listening” and consensus-building skills to virtually every major issue the region has faced.
He helped lead the transformation of a once-sleepy suburb into a vibrant destination of “urban villages” and establish the Capital Bikeshare network. When the federal government decided to move 17,000 jobs out of Crystal City, Fisette helped reshape the office-centric neighborhood into a mixed-use enclave.
His arrival in the Washington area was typical. Raised in the Pittsburgh suburbs, he spent a year after college cycling around Europe and another year in San Francisco, then went to graduate school and moved to Arlington. He worked as an auditor at what is now the Government Accountability Office, as a Capitol Hill staffer and as director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic of Northern Virginia. By then, he had met Bob Rosen, the man who would become his husband in 2013.
Eager to become more deeply involved in the civic fabric of Northern Virginia, Fisette ran for an open seat on the County Board in 1993, despite never having attended a Democratic committee meeting. He won the Democratic primary but lost to independent Ben Winslow in the general election. Four years later, Fisette won both.
At his farewell party at Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington this month, an old friend declared him “the spiritual love child of Harvey Milk and Ellen Bozman,” name-checking an assassinated San Francisco gay leader and a former Arlington leader known for her civility.
“Arlington didn’t need to be gayer,” Bob Witeck said, to howls of laughter from the 150-plus crowd of Democrats, LGBT activists and good-government types. Fisette, he said, “spent his time making Arlington greener and greater.”
It was a classic Fisette crowd, people whose cars were festooned with bumper stickers backing progressives present and long past, environmental causes, housing affordability and gun control. Between hugs, they extolled Fisette’s respect for county employees and his community energy plan, which aims to reduce Arlington’s greenhouse-gas use by 75 percent in the next 30 years. They instantly knew the answer when former state delegate Bob Brink commanded, “Raise your hand if you know what the Dillon Rule is.”(The Dillon Rule severely limits local lawmaking power in Virginia, reserving most of it for the General Assembly.)
Fisette is part of a small group of local elected officials who have held office for two decades or more, including Prince William County Supervisors John D. Jenkins (first elected in 1982) and Maureen S. Caddigan (1995), Fairfax County Supervisors Sharon Bulova (1988) and Penelope A. Gross (1995), and D.C. Council member Jack Evans (1991).
His biggest political setback came in 2014, when voters elected independent John Vihstadt to the five-member County Board after Vihstadt campaigned in opposition to the long-planned Columbia Pike streetcar and other high-cost capital projects.
Stunned and dejected, Fisette pulled the plug on the long-planned streetcar, saying he had to face political reality despite scorching blowback from supporters and Fairfax County officials who were counting on the economic development the streetcar would bring.
More than three years later, he still calls it “the most difficult day” of his tenure.
Fisette steps down from his $59,610-a-year post as board chair on Jan. 2, when his successor, Erik Gutshall, takes office. He says he will take his time deciding his plans; he was under consideration for a possible Cabinet post in the administration of Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D), but that didn’t work out.
He intends to stay in Arlington.
“It’s been surprising to me that a person can fall in love with a community,” Fisette said. “I moved here by accident, but if I have anything to do with it, I’m going to die in Arlington. I helped build it, I understand it . . . I lucked out when I landed in Arlington.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report said Fisette had campaigned against the streetcar project. It was Vihstadt who ran in opposition to that and other capital projects. The General Accounting Office, now the Government Accountability Office, was also misidentified.