Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpThe Democratic establishment was gobsmacked by the triumph of Republican-turned-independent John Vihstadt in the April 8 county board special election.

His 57-41 percent victory over endorsement-rich Democrat Alan Howze – with Vihstadt taking 40 of 52 precincts – is by no means guaranteed to repeat in November when the two meet again. The congressional elections will energize more than the 22,000 who turned out this month, a mere 16 percent of Arlington voters.

But my talks with candidates and the peanut gallery reveal, for an establishment that has kept the board all-Democratic since 1999, one lesson:

Superimposing state and national ideological issue tests on genuine local disputes won’t trump voter focus on the individual candidates’ qualifications and clarity of message.

I know both Howze and Vihstadt, the latter for much longer, and they’re both smart, accomplished and dedicated. But I think Howze was outplayed in part because he joined with Democratic state Sen. Barbara Favola and Del. Bob Brink in demanding that Vihstadt take a stand on Richmond’s dispute over expanding Medicaid. “This issue affects every locality in Virginia, and local governments like Arlington County are the providers of last resort,” Favola said. Others blasted Vihstadt’s past support of GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney and John McCain.

But Vihstadt homed in on the divisive streetcar project and proposed swimming complex, promising resistance to high spending and greater public consultation. (The latter, Democrats argue, has long been the Arlington Way.) And Vihstadt took a chance that his long civic affairs background gave him credibility as an independent while risking rejection by his longtime Republican compatriots. (They backed him.)

“Attempts to recast local concerns of voters in statewide and national issues were not successful,” Arlington Republican chairman Matt Wavro told me. “John’s victory was testament to the growing number of Arlingtonians tired of a county board that dictates its own priorities instead of listening to the voices and concerns of the community.”

My friend Terry Showman, a homebuilder who has become highly critical of the Affordable Care Act, asked me, “What does Obamacare have to do with the Arlington County Board? The Dems want to take the voters’ eyes off the poor state of the county.”

Vihstadt at his Friday swearing-in stressed unity but also skepticism toward “grandiose projects of questionable need.” He told me he “decided from the beginning not to be captive of any party, political person or ideological agenda. I found going door-to-door that voters by and large do not view local issues like how to educate our kids, deliver human services or pick up trash through a partisan prism.” He isn’t for wholesale cancelling of Arlington’s big projects but for practical downscaling. At least for the next nine months, Vihstadt will focus on “issues the county board can actually do something about.”

Howze says he heard the results loud and clear. “There was clearly a high level of frustration with the current board, and voters used the special election to voice disapproval,” he told me. “People do not expect to agree all the time, but it makes voters angry, and rightfully so, when they feel their concerns are not being listened to and taken seriously. I don’t know it has implications beyond Arlington, other than the universal political truth that when voters lose faith and seek change, results can be swift and severe.”