By Arlington County Democrat Cragg Hines
Now and again, analysts will refer to the determined and wildly successful Arlington Democrats in battle-hardened military terms. Onslaught, commando, and scorched earth come to mind. Those are usually employed in relation to the fall campaign when yet another Republican, an “independent” who is really a Republican, or a real independent (often a pesky candidate who finds a way onto the ballot almost every year) is about to be drubbed in an election in the small but intensely political county just across the Potomac from the nation’s capital.
But in the Arlington Democrats’ School Board endorsement race that concluded late Monday, what was technically a contest between two Democrats quickly became a test between long-active Democratic “regulars” and a spirited, edgy campaign led by a lawyer whose candidacy came to embody the open-our-schools-at-any-cost movement.
In the end, it wasn’t close. “Regular” Democrat Mary Kadera, whose career has been in teaching and education policy, won with 61.8 percent, to 38.1 percent for Miranda Turner, who became something of an insurgent candidate even though they are both seeking a seat that one-term incumbent Monique O’Grady is giving up.
But despite the significant spread in the final vote, there’s nothing like a “good mean scrap among the righteous” to test a few political theorems.
Perhaps most interesting, candidates – both statewide and in House of Delegate race – who have been hoping to base whole campaigns on the school-opening issue might want to ask their pollsters to poke around in the stew of public opinion once more to see what voters are really saying.
Arlingtonians love schools, and regular support for major school bond issues is virtually an article of faith. But so is school safety, including health safety, and not that many voters seemed impressed by an opportunistic campaign seeking to exploit the fact that the pandemic has laid public schools low. It may have been the school focus, though, that prompted a record 6,207 Arlingtonians to participate in the Democratic caucus.
Unfortunately, the number of participants was swelled by what seemed to be a record number of Republican crossovers, who chose to lie in pledging on the ballot application that they were Democrats and believe in the party’s principles (which they almost certainly do not). By one tabulation, when just under 4,000 votes had been cast, 8% of the voters were probably Republicans, judging by their participation in Republican primaries or other political activities.
Notably, “Independent” John Vihstadt, the only non-Democrat to serve on the Arlington County Board in recent years, openly urged his supporters to give little thought to the pledge. Until running for the board, of course, Vihstadt had been a lifelong Republican. Turner threw in with Vihstadt’s effort, posing with him for campaign photos.
That figured in a string of strong Arlington Democratic officials backing Kadera, including the triple-threat in local politics: Mary Margaret Whipple, a former state Senator, former County Board member and former School Board member. Also backing Kadera were County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti; Vice Chair Katie Cristol; State Senators Adam Ebbin and Barbara Favola; Delegate Alfonso Lopez; Circuit Court Clerk Paul Ferguson; former School Board and County Board member Mary Hynes; former County Board member Jay Fisette; and former School Board members Nancy Van Doren and Tannia Talento.
Because of the pandemic, caucus voting was online and extended over seven days. The Arlington County Democratic Committee partnered with Democracy Live, the largest provider of mobile and cloud-based voting, and the process was made possible by a grant from the National Cybersecurity Center.
Because of the way the voting was tallied, in batches of 30 secret, coded ballots, it was possible to see how the race developed over the 168 hours it was live online. Early on, the race remained fairly close, although Kadera never trailed. About two-thirds of the way through, the ballots the tally began to spread; Kadera was soon over 60 percent and never dipped below again.
It seems fair to say that by that point, Turner had motivated almost all her voters, leaving the final few days to Kadera and her campaign pouring it on and the juggernaut of “regular” Arlington Democrats kicking in, with Turner getting as few as 5 votes in one late batch of 30 – and many 6s, 7s, and 8s in others about that time.
Note: “Good mean scrap among the righteous” is the delicious phrase used by the late Washington Post political chief David Broder, a longtime Arlingtonian, in reporting on the 1976 presidential primary in Maryland between Jimmy Carter and Jerry Brown.