Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Confined to their homes with time to ponder, many of our civic activists are rethinking the county’s system of governance.

A key question: does the 90-year-old practice of electing board members countywide, with staggered yearly elections, give short shrift to minorities or those representing certain neighborhoods?

Two citizen engagement groups have launched exploratory projects that delve back in Arlington’s racial history. The Arlington Civic Federation last month assembled a task force to review that and other questions about modernization — such as whether the county manager should be elected. And a new group called the Arlington Alliance for Representative Government is planning to boost political participation through “education, policy development, advocacy and innovation.”

The latter is pursuing “parallel, complimentary activities” as part of a single movement,” I’m told by one proponent, former county board candidate Chanda Choun.

The Civic Federation, said president Allan Gajadhar, is still determining the scope of its charge, set in motion by a recent inconclusive effort to seek state permission to adopt ranked voter choices. But the driving problem, he said, is “the idea of inequity. The current system goes back to when there were 20,000 people in the whole county,” he noted (compared with almost 237,000 today). At least one reason that system was created was “to dilute or mitigate minority voting,” primarily Blacks,” but eventually Latinos, and those from South Arlington.

Those communities are now stronger, Gajadhar added, but “can’t make their voices heard if they are outnumbered.” Virginia’s historic practice of minimizing the impact of Black votes “still has impact.”

Both groups have studied Arlington’s history going back to the 1930 referendum creating the nation’s first county manager system (elected officials appointing a professional manager for day-to-day decisions). In 1931, four Black candidates ran for the board and sheriff using the countywide voting districts. All four lost.

The losing sheriff candidate was George Vollin, from the Arlington View neighborhood. In the 1970s he was party to a civil lawsuit by Green Valley residents challenging the at-large method, as described in Sherman Pratt’s 1997 Arlington history.

Vollin recalled the 1930s voter intimidation by the Ku Klux Klan in his neighborhood. For decades, most successful county board candidates were from North Arlington, Pratt reported.

“Precincts with African American neighborhoods voted No to the referendum, but were overridden by the white majority,” says Choun’s group. “After the switch, no person of color was elected to the board until the late 1980s. Since then, there have only been four persons of color: three Black, one Latino, and zero Asian.”

Former county board Chairman John Milliken confirmed to me his continued belief that this 90-year-old approach is still valid for our small community of 26 square miles.

“While we have numerous distinct neighborhoods, we have only one community,” he said in a 2017 speech. “Everyone faces the same set of candidates and the same policy choices. That has a unifying effect, even in those infrequent years where the prevailing political atmosphere is `for a change.’ And we have a local election every year…. It means that unhappiness with local government has an outlet and does not have to wait and build up over four years. It also means changes are incremental; the passion of the moment cannot throw all the bums out at once, a recurring problem that has plagued other communities in Virginia.”

It’s not often that Arlingtonians can celebrate someone who lived through both the 1918 Spanish flu and the current pandemic.

Vera Punke is set to mark her 105th birthday on Aug. 29 with a socially distanced dinner, cake servings and drive-by offerings of congratulations planned at the Jefferson retirement community.

Event planners have booked county board members, police and fire department officials along with folks from the Commission on Aging to display tributes in the facility’s N. Taylor St. driveway and courtyard.

Punke enjoys 10 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the area.