‘Spins’ Vary on F.C. Election, Hockenberry Loss Lamented

Gardner Has Votes to Stay On as Mayor

Depending on who one talks to, interpretations differ widely on the significance of last week’s municipal election in the City of Falls Church.

Some characterize the defeat by a 57% to 43% margin of an anti-development referendum as a “vote of confidence” for the current course of economic development in the City. Others point to the fact that the margin was actually only 300 votes, and shows that public disdain for the current course is widespread and will manifest itself in the next City Council election only two years away.

Of particular concern to many was the defeat by a 39-vote margin of popular two-term Council member, Vice Mayor Lindy Hockenberrry. It prevented backers of her two other colleagues on the Citizens for a Better City (CBC) slate, both of whom won, from fully rejoicing in last week’s outcome. Hers was a similar fate to that of then Vice Mayor Steve Rogers, who lost by only 16 votes in a re-election bid in 2002.

However, last week’s overall outcome virtually insures that Mayor Robin Gardner will be re-elected by a newly sworn-in Council on July 1 to a second two-year term as mayor. She was the top vote-getter among seven candidates in her bid for election to a third Council term last week, but being elected mayor will depend on votes of the seven-member Council. She won by a narrow 4-3 margin over Former Mayor David Snyder in 2006.

If Gardner is returned as mayor, it will mark only the second time since 1988 that a mayor has served more than one two-year term, reflective of more than a decade of political instability in the City during the 1990s. A string of six one-term mayors was not broken until Dan Gardner was elected to a second term in 2002, followed by a third.

Many viewed her top vote total last week as the strongest indicator, along with the referendum’s solid defeat, that the City’s electorate wants the current economic development course to be sustained.

 But Former Vice Mayor Sam Mabry, who initially filed but then declined to run for a third Council term this spring and still spearheaded pro-referendum and non-CBC candidate efforts, took a different view in a letter published in this edition of the News-Press. He said that the election of “independent challenger” Nader Baroukh, taken with the combined votes of three other unsuccessful “independent” candidates “makes one wonder what would have happened if there had been a slate of independent candidates running against the CBC nominees.”

Mabry also claimed that the 300-vote margin of loss for the referendum is “a clear indication…that the issue will not soon disappear.”

While not saying so explicitly, his comments could be interpreted as a foretelling of the next City Council election in two years, when four seats of Council incumbents will be up for challenges.

Councilman David Snyder, a supporter of the referendum, echoed Mabry’s words in comments at the City Council meeting Monday. “The fact that four out of 10 voted for the measure sent a signal,” he said. “The election was not a vote of confidence, but reflected a deeply divided concern, and in a small town, we need to have all on board.”

But Councilman Hal Lippman took a contrary view, while expressing concern that only 31% of the City’s registered voters went to the polls last week. He said the vote represented “an emphatic rejection” of the referendum, and the low voter turnout constituted “a de facto endorsement of the status quo,” because everyone in the City knew about the issue.

The News-Press shared Lippman’s interpretation of the election results in editorials in last week’s and this week’s editions.

A referendum like the one defeated last week is not likely to be repeated for awhile, since this year’s was the second, almost identical anti-development measure placed on the ballot, and defeated, in Falls Church in six years. While Falls Church does not yet have a provision in its charter limiting the frequency of same-issue referenda, many jurisdictions do, and City leaders may take a cue from that.

Commenting on Hockeberry’s narrow defeat last week, Former School Board member Jay Grusin, in another letter printed in this week’s edition, said he “shared the deep disappointment of hundreds” following her loss. “Lindy has done the work of the City every day of every week, and she has done so since long before joining the City Council,” he wrote, noting her many years as a teacher in the Falls Church School System.

Grusin noted he’d lost a bid for re-election to the School Board by 29 votes, but decided to run again two years later and won.

Mayor Gardner and Council members Dan Sze and Lippman also made comments at Monday’s Council meeting praising Hockenberry’s contributions.

Hockenberry has not made any future plans known so far, but many have already encouraged her to accept an appointment to the powerful Planning Commission when her Council term expires on July 1, and then to consider another Council bid in 2010.

Another major issue in last week’s election was the fact that the CBC-backed Lawrence Webb, by winning, became the first-ever openly gay Afro-American elected official in the history of Virginia. That news spread this last week like wildfire over the Internet to both national and international destinations as a significant civil rights victory.

Webb had appealed for support from the Washington, D.C.-based Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which responded by deploying five volunteers who worked Falls Church’s five precincts on his behalf from their 6 a.m. opening to 7 p.m. closing. He won by only 39 votes.

Mayor Gardner, commenting on Webb’s victory at the City Council meeting Monday, said the City “rightfully celebrates both the similarities and also differences among our citizens.” Affirming diversity, she said, “makes Falls Church a richer, more vibrant community.” Her comments were a rejoinder to those of Councilman Snyder, who said he did “not like” the use of “labels” to characterize candidates.

The role of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce in the election outcome was also hailed by many as significant. The Chamber mobilized opposition to the referendum, including supporting the F.C. Citizens for a Prosperous Future political action committee, and sponsored a Council candidates’ debate focusing on economic development issues.

Its debate was seen as a counterbalance to one organized jointly by the F.C. League of Women Voters (LWV) and Village Preservation and Improvement Society (VPIS). In that one, the co-moderator, the president of the VPIS, was an avid supporter of the referendum. As a result, some felt its debate co-sponsorship with VPIS tarnished the non-partisan principles of the LWV.

At any rate, the three Council candidates who failed to participate in the Chamber debate, one arguing the Chamber was biased and the others giving no explanations at the time, were all defeated in the election, and poll workers noted a number of voters asking, “Which were the candidates who did not show up at the debate?” 

On the other hand, the role, or lack of it, of the Falls Church City Democratic Committee in the election came under criticism. After voting to endorse local candidates in 2006, the committee reversed itself last year, and therefore was on the sidelines in this election. Meanwhile, members of the Republican Committee mobilized its supporters in support of the referendum and the non-CBC candidates.

Some have commented that had the Democratic Committee endorsed Council candidates this spring, given the City is over 60% registered Democrats, that Hockenberry would have won. However, it was also noted that the CBC, which staunchly maintains a non-partisan posture, had fiercely opposed Democratic Committee endorsements.