Home Local Politics Winners and Losers: Arlington County Board Special Election 2014 Edition

Winners and Losers: Arlington County Board Special Election 2014 Edition

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I was debating whether or not to do a “Winners and Losers” list for the Arlington County Board election yesterday, but ultimately decided what the heck, I’ll throw my picks out there to get a conversation going, if nothing else. I’m going to do it a little bit differently this time around, as you’ll see below. Also, check out Ben Tribbet’s “What Happened In Arlington” post at Not Larry Sabato. Finally, as always, note that this is not – repeat, NOT! – a comprehensive list, just a few things that jumped out for me. Please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section. Thanks.

Losers

1. Chris Zimmerman: A major undercurrent of this election was Arlingtonians’ attitudes regarding the legacy, vision, and personality of long-time Board member Chris Zimmerman, whose resignation earlier this year prompted the special election in the first place. Clearly, many voters wanted to send a message that they weren’t pleased with Zimmerman, even though (as I pointed out to a liberal Democratic neighbor who told me she was voting for Vihstadt to “send a message” to the Board) isn’t even on the Board anymore. Clearly, Zimmerman was a powerful force on the Board, and I’d argue that was mostly a good thing. But, as we saw yesterday, a decent number of Arlingtonians – a majority of the small percentage who actually voted, anyway – weren’t pleased with Zimmerman’s vision for the Columbia Pike streetcar project, nor did they necessarily like his governing style (the words “arrogant,” “insular” and “non-communicative” came up over and over again) or personality (again, I hear the word “arrogant” frequently when Zimmerman’s name comes up in conversation). The question is whether this election was a short-term or long-term setback for Zimmerman’s vision for Arlington – on the streetcar and possibly in other areas as well. Another question: was this election a “one-off,” in that voters wanted to “make a statement”/”send a message” once, but now that they’ve gotten it “out of their system,” they’ll come back to the Democratic fold? We’ll find out in November, I guess.

2. Jay Fisette, Walter Tejada, Mary Hynes. In addition to anger directed specifically at Zimmerman, almost 13,000 Arlingtonians yesterday voted to put a Republican on the County Board, whether because these voters are Republicans, or because they’re independents and Democrats who believe Arlington needs someone on the Board to check and/or oppose Fisette/Tejada/Hynes. Again, the words “insular,” “arrogant” and “non-communicative” come up frequently with regard to these three Democratic County Board members. I’d add “lack of transparency” as well, on such things as the ArlNow story about absurdly high assessment increases on Clarendon businesses, to which there’s STILL been no substantive response as far as I’m aware, other than that there would be a review. Alrighty then, feeling better now?!? Ha. Anyway, the big question for these Board members is whether the message voters intended to send got through, and whether it will result in any changes – in policy, attitude, responsiveness, whatever. Almost 24 hours since the polls closed yesterday, I haven’t really heard anything from the Board regarding what they thought the voters were saying yesterday, whether they HEARD what voters were saying yesterday, and also whether they believe any changes – substantive, stylistic, whatever – should be made in response to yesterday’s election.

3. The “Arlington Way”. I’d argue that this has mostly been an empty slogan for a long time now. As one Arlington Democratic friend said to me, the reality is that county “staff holds all the cards and citizens, even on our vaunted commissions, are given no authority, no real place at the table, other than to nod and smile.” Then we have examples like this hypocrisy (quid pro quo?), or this (major real estate developers with tremendous influence over Arlington County government). In general, if the “Arlington Way” is to mean anything, it comes down to several requirements: a) responsiveness to constituents (aka, “taxpayers,” “customers”); b) two-way, respectful, open communications (that includes use of social media, which most County Board members seem averse to using); c) empowerment of more people than a select few (e.g., a system in which decisions are driven by the community, which does not seem to be the case today);” d) transparency; e) honesty; f) accountability; etc. Right now, a significant number of Arlingtonians aren’t feelin’ it.

4. “Million-Dollar Bus Stops”: I personally think this whole issue was wildly overblown, but it apparently symbolizes for many Arlingtonians a lot of what drives them crazy about the Board, and about Arlington County government in general. I mean, ok, people make mistakes, even big ones, but as an Arlington Democratic friend of mine wrote on Facebook, “people lost faith in the Board after staff’s ridiculous response to the amount that was spent on one superstop, etc….Nobody was fired, however, so there is a lack of accountability as well…[and] the Board never communicated with the public as to what type of funds (state? federal? general fund?) are used for what projects.” Ugh.

5. Streetcar Advocates: I’ve been saying this for a couple years now, but advocates of the streetcar project have needed to step up their game big time. Instead, it seemed like these folks were largely absent from the discussion the past couple years, with articles and comments on local forums (e.g., ArlNow) overwhelmingly against the project. As far as I’ve observed, supporters generally were not out there fighting back (at least not effectively) against all the disinformation, and making their strong case for the project. Why not? Did they just assume the project would go forward, and that the arguments against it were so ridiculous (which many of them, like the Tea Party’s insane “Agenda 21” conspiracy theorizing, certainly were), so they didn’t think it was necessary to fight for it? It’s baffling to me.

Mixed

1. Libby Garvey: Her endorsed candidate wil now be a Board member, which means that Garvey won in the short run. The long run, of course, may be a very different story. If, for instance, Garvey isn’t given the Democratic nomination when she’s up for reelection in 2016, she’ll be on the ballot against a Democratic candidate during a Presidential election, when Democratic turnout is at its highest. That could be a tough obstacle for her to overcome.

2. Columbia Pike Streetcar: Opponents definitely came out on top yesterday, but does it matter? For starters, there’s still a 3-2 Board majority in favor of the project, unless somebody “flips” from “yea” to “nay” (and there’s no sign of that happening). Also, I’m not sure there are any more votes needed to keep the streetcar project moving forward at this point. Finally, although I certainly don’t think we can or should assume streetcar supporter Alan Howze will win in November (in general, assuming a win goes beyond stupidity and into extreme political malpractice territory), he certainly has a decent shot at doing so. If that happens, it will be back to a 4-1 pro-streetcar majority on the Board.

3. Alan Howze: Yes, he lost yesterday, but I haven’t heard almost anybody blame him for that. Also, Howze DOES have a decent shot at winning the general election this November, when Mark Warner and the Democratic nominee for House will be on the ballot with him. But he obviously can’t ASSUME he’ll win, which I’m sure he know. The question is, do other Arlington Democrats “get” that, or are they thinking November’s a done deal? I sure hope the latter is not the case. Also, I would definitely recommend that Howze criticize the Arlington County Board and government where it’s deserved, such as on the assessment fiasco. And, I’d advise him to call out Vihstadt’s lies and deceptions more forcefully in the general election.

4. Aquatic Center: Hopefully, this election will not kill the aquatic center, as there’s clearly high demand for the services it will provide. For now, though, it’s taken a number of hits, and its future looks uncertain. Perhaps something good can come out of this if the aquatic center plans are revamped so that the cost comes down significantly, but the center still ends up being a high-quality facility. We’ll see.

Winners

1. Arlington Republican Party: Obviously, a win’s a win, and they can savor this one…the first time they’ve had a Republican on the County Board since 1999 (and hopefully the last until 2099 or so). The question is how long-lived this victory will be, and whether there will be others in the future (I’m highly dubious). Still, for now, Arlington Republicans get to celebrate. Enjoy it while you can, guys! 😉

2. John Vihstadt: This one’s obvious. He ran a strong, winning campaign, even if it was dishonest to its core (e.g., the claim that this lifelong Republican is really an “independent;” that Bus Rapid Transit is possible on the Pike, which it’s absolutely not; that the study showing a massive Return on Investment to the streetcar was somehow invalid; on and on). Hopefully, Vihstadt’s stay on the Board will be short, but for now at least, he’s a winner.

3. Nobody: It’s possible that nobody really emerged a “winner” from this election. The bottom line is that, in spite of its problems, Arlington has been – and continues to be, at least for now – one of the best places to live, not just in the region or the state, but in the country. That prosperity has been built on proximity to the federal government, of course, but also on a great school system; smart, even visionary long-range planning (e.g., the Orange Line corridor); one of the lowest tax rates around (Vihstadt, of course, ignored that and focused on what he called the tax “burden,” which is the low rate multiplied by the assessed value of high-value Arlington homes); great public amenities, including parks, recreation, and much more. Today, Arlington faces challenges, given federal/state government austerity (e.g., the idiotic “sequester”) and new competition from places like D.C. and Tysons, and we need to be on our “A game” if we’re going to remain as one of the best places to live in the country. I’m not sure that electing a Republican, one whose campaign centered on attacking much of what makes Arlington great, is the answer. We’ll see, I guess…