Mindful of last year’s election of John Vihstadt (I), the first non-Democrat to win a seat on the board in 15 years, the candidates are pledging allegiance to fiscal responsibility.
The climate is different from a year ago, when Vihstadt rode a wave of opposition to the now-canceled Columbia Pike streetcar to victory.
But his ascent, and the decision of two longtime board members to retire, creates an opportunity for whoever wins in November to forge a new board majority — either joining Vihstadt and Democrat Libby Garvey, who frequently are skeptical of county spending and decision-making, or aligning with Jay Fisette (D), a strong defender of county projects.
So far the candidates have been reluctant to line up on either side.
“I’m not looking to join anyone’s faction,” said Christian Dorsey, 43, an executive with the Economic Policy Institute who will face off Tuesday against Katie Cristol, Peter Fallon, James Lander, Andrew Schneider and Bruce Wiljanen.
Dorsey’s campaign manager previously worked for Vihstadt, and Dorsey won Garvey’s straw poll in April. But he said voters should judge him on his own merits. “I’m going to take a close look at spending to be sure we have the money we need for affordable housing, schools and other priorities,” Dorsey said. “I do want to control spending, but not with a hatchet or across-the-board cuts.”
The two top vote-getters will advance to the general election ballot in November. In Democratic-leaning Arlington, they will be heavily favored.
Schneider, 40, an alumni manager for the College of William and Mary who has raised $60,882, more money for the race than any other candidate, said the board needs “to put an end to the sandbox politics of the past few years. … Our first priority is helping restore public confidence.”
Fallon, 51, said what should matter is being willing to ask hard questions: “The County Board needs to appreciate dissension as a natural part of the democratic process.”
Cristol, 30, an education policy analyst who is second in fundraising with $40,360, said factions are less interesting to her than the needs of young adults, young families and immigrants.
“I don’t think most Arlingtonians could pick Jay and John apart in a lineup,” she said of Fisette and Vihstadt. “It’s probably true on housing affordability commitments, I’d align more with Jay, but I also could see voting with John and Libby on some issues.”
In terms of politics, there are limited differences between the six candidates. They all want to keep the local schools well-funded and find ways to reduce overcrowding. All denounced the County Board’s sudden decision in May to put the historic Reeves farmhouse up for sale. Most support the construction of a public swimming pool complex at Long Bridge Park, so long as the project is reduced in scale from earlier plans.
What routinely comes up when they knock on voters’ doors, they say, is the rising cost of living. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the county was $2,114 in 2014, up from $1,999 in 2012; The average single-family home in Arlington is assessed at $579,800, compared to $552,700 a year ago.
All the Democrats say they are concerned about a growing vacancy rate in office buildings, spurred by cuts in federal jobs. The commercial vacancy rate is topping 20 percent countywide and approaching 30 percent in Crystal City. Empty offices and storefronts mean lower property assessments, which translates to less property tax revenue — and sales tax revenue — for the county.
“Taxpayers need to have confidence again that their money is not being wasted,” said Fallon, an accountant. “We are in a different world now. … We need to take care of baseline things, rather than be distracted by shiny new things.”
That’s not to say the Democrats entirely eschew new spending. Several emphasized the need for a next-generation transit solution in the southern part of the county, following the sudden cancellation last year of the planned Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcars.
Lander, 46, called for better options to connect north and south Arlington, as well as the east-west corridors of Crystal City and Columbia Pike.
A school board member since 2010 who has chaired the board for the past year, he said he wants to move community college classes and vocational education students into the vacant offices in Crystal City and also draw technology and small businesses that could provide those young people with potential employment.
“Our competition is not the surrounding jurisdictions. It’s Seattle, Denver and Austin,” said Lander, a retired naval officer and Gulf War veteran who works for the Consumer Federation of America.
Schneider said he will focus on four issues: school improvements, a stronger economy, improved customer service by the county and resurrecting the notion of “one Arlington,” which has taken a battering as interest groups face off over limited space.
Wiljanen, 63, who has not run for office before, said Arlington has a need for “mature, common sense” decision making. Asked at a voter forum question to take a stand on the County Board’s factionalism, he responded: “We can’t afford this pettiness.”
This is the first time in 30 years that Arlington has had two open board seats and the first time in a decade that the Democrats opted for a primary instead of a caucus or “firehouse primary,” where voters have to assert they support Democratic principles in order to participate.
Since Virginia voters don’t have to declare a party registration, anyone can vote in a primary, even if they’ve always supported the other party. But Arlington Democratic Party Chairman Kip Malinosky said he isn’t worried about crossover voting.
“All six candidates have been running on Democratic issues,” he said. “There’s been no split, cross-cutting or partisan issue like we had last year.”
The new board members will be confronted with a potentially thorny decision as soon as they are sworn in: whether to elected Garvey to the rotating position of board chair.
Garvey is next in line for the job. But she is also persona non grata in the Democratic Party, because she supported Vihstadt over his Democratic opponent in 2014. The vote will be the first indication of the new board’s political outlook.
Asked whether they would back Garvey at an Arlington Young Democrats forum in April, the candidates declined to answer directly. They were not much more open in interviews in May.
“I will support a chair who builds up Arlington,” Fallon said. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”