Tonight I attended the debate between Democratic School Board Member Kathy Smith and Republican Tea Party Member John Guevara, candidates for the Sully District seat on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. Sitting on the western edge of the county alongside Dulles Airport, with about 130,000 residents, Sully is one of the most rapidly growing and changing parts of the Commonwealth. This race is a chance for Democrats to pick up an open seat in a district currently represented by a Republican, retiring Supervisor Michael Frey — who also was the debate moderator.
I have to say that I was surprised when the debate turned ugly, thanks to Mr. Guevara’s comments (which I will address later). For most of the time things were relatively civil and Guevara came across as a polished candidate who seemed committed to a drama-free event. But I guess he couldn’t resist throwing some red meat to his supporters so, as they say, the gloves came off.
Supervisor Frey remarked on the large crowd, which neared 100 people — quite a feat for an obscure political debate taking place before Labor Day. I doubt that there were many undecided voters in attendance. This appeared to be an exercise in candidates and parties getting their supporters out. Us Democrats had a good crowd, with elected officials and many top party activists in attendance. The Republicans clearly had sounded the alarm for the Tea Party folks to come out.
In answers to the questions, Kathy Smith leaned on her experience working on budgets and being involved in the community for many years as a mother, PTA member, active member of multiple local organizations, and as a School Board member first elected in 2002. She stressed that she had worked alongside Supervisor Frey on many issues, and it was clear that she was way ahead of her opponent on most issues of Fairfax County governance. John Guevara was well spoken and although he conveyed that he had some executive experience, he was short on substance and long on generalities.
There were a few things that jumped out at me. The question was raised about how we can deal with the $100 million projected shortfall in both the county and school board budgets. Kathy Smith offered several ideas, one of which was “joint services” where the school system can share with the county, such as busing for some high school students. Later in the debate, Guevara touted joint services as a “novel idea” — proving that he was not paying attention.
One of Guevara’s repeated themes (other than sequestration) was what he saw as the failure of the School Board. He threw out some numbers: that the School Board had asked for a 7% budget increase while the county was only experiencing 3% growth. Regardless of whether or not this is accurate, it shows that Guevara has no experience with budget negotiations. The Board of Supervisors, which he is running for, sets the dollar amount of the School Board’s budget. Obviously the School Board would put in a slightly higher request than they expected to receive, to give themselves negotiating room. Besides, Fairfax County Public Schools had experienced dramatic increases in enrollments while experts had already identified most of the efficiencies to be found in the budget.
After Smith responded about considering a meals tax, Guevara took this opportunity to attack Smith’s family, saying that not all families make as much as hers — implying that somehow she was deaf to the needs of the poor in our county. I have to say that even when I was a low wage earner working for grocery stores, on the occasions that I went out to eat, I did not consider whether or not the place charged a meals tax.
Guevara insisted that buses are more efficient than Metro and “you can quote me on that.” So I have.
Transportation of course was a big issue to be discussed, and both candidates were in support of widening I-66 and expanding Metro. But While Guevara touted HOT Lanes as some kind of great solution, Smith took a more realistic, measured approach to consider whether in public-private partnerships the toll revenue could come back to the state. Additionally, Smith stressed the need for business centers like we have in Reston and Tysons, to reduce the flow of traffic going east to offices in DC.
Now, the more interesting parts. In what I would call an unforced error, Guevara took two infefensible positions at once. It started out as a benign mention from Smith that she will work as a full-time Supervisor. Guevara requested time for a rebuttal, something he didn’t have to do. He took the chance to again attack Smith and to assert that the job of Supervisor should be part time. Somehow he tried to equate the “bloated” government with the fact that Supervisors work full time. Never mind that, as Supervisor, you are expected to work year-round on behalf of your constituents AND join various boards and commissions who meet regularly. And for this, the position pays $95K — quite respectable for a job of this nature and a heck of a lot closer to the median income than most residents. So why would someone be expected to earn that rate but work part-time? Incredibly, Guevara took this opportunity to once again attack Smith’s family, saying “not all of us are as wealthy” as them and that he’d keep his job which offered him the flexibility to work as a part-time Supervisor.
Smith was rightly offended and took the next opportunity to defend her family against Guevara’s attacks. But this being at the end of the debate, Guevara used his closing statement to double down on the extremeness. At this point it was clear that Guevara was running to the right of, and in opposition to, the Republican he hoped to replace. He started ranting that “this is your call to change course” and he brought up the School Board’s recent vote on gender issues, firing up the base in attendance. In fact, his closing statement ended with a dramatic retelling of the School Board meeting where 500 conservatives appeared to oppose the inclusion measures, saying “the offense comes when your own children’s privacy is no longer protected.” He was no doubt referring to the perverted notion that students are going to claim to be transgender just so they can share bathrooms with the opposite sex. So in Guevara’s closing argument he cast himself as the anti-Frey, the change candidate, the “we’re not gonna take it anymore” candidate.