City Council Candidates Face Off at In-Person Debate

AT THE ONLY IN-PERSON candidates forum of this fall’s election cycle, Falls Church City Council candidates appeared before the monthly luncheon of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce this Tuesday. Left to right, Debbie Schantz-Hiscott, Marybeth Connelly, Caroline Lian, Stuart Whittaker, Scott Diaz and David Snyder (Photo: News-Press)

With some citizens having already voted, the official election day for this Fall’s critical statewide races in Virginia and locally for the City Council and School Board in the City of Falls Church is now less than two weeks away. By Tuesday, Nov. 2, just around the bend, when the City’s three polling places close at 7 p.m., it should be all over but the counting (Note we said “should.”)

In the first major race since the chaos associated with the presidential election last November and its subsequent coup-intended madness. Virginia will select its next governor, and the race has become a crucial test of what the aftermath of the criminal presidency of Donald Trump and his attempt in January to overthrow American democracy through a violent insurrection at the Capitol holds for us.

To the extent that the Trump surrogate, first time candidate Glenn Youngkin, tried his best to present himself to voters as a businessman and family man, and to the extent that temporarily boosted his standing in the polls, that advantage against Democratic former governor Terry McAuliffe began to crumble thanks to Trump’s personal intervention on his behalf into the race. That happened at a Steve Bannon-run political rally in Richmond last week where Trump called into the event to offer his heartfelt endorsement of Youngkin, assuring the faithful there that Youngkin would do everything Trump wants.

Youngkin hopes his Trumpian campaign will also lift more Republican novices, equally radical candidates for attorney general and lieutenant governor, over seasoned and solid Democratic veterans, incumbent attorney general Mark Herring and state delegate Hala Ayala.

Due to the extraordinary circumstances of this first post-Trump year, there is no way that Falls Church’s local elections for City Council and School Board can be seen as simply local. They all are surrounded by the taint of national politics.
In that context, perhaps the most important of the sequence of local candidate forums this month is coming tonight, when the F.C. Citizens for a Better City (CBC) hosts a virtual event involving the seven candidates running to fill four vacant School Board seats. The debate begins at 7:30 p.m., and the link can be found on the CBC website.

Why is a School Board race so important in the grander scheme of things?

First, one need look no further than Falls Church’s neighboring Fairfax and Loudoun counties, where angry and violent behavior has forced the shutting down or more than one school board meeting as Trumpian right wingers have disrupted proceedings with whacked out claims of conspiracies and “critical race theory” untruths exposing a racist underbelly to some of the protests. This is exactly the Trumpian formula for chaos.

Second, in the case of Falls Church’s race, itself, there is a candidate in the running who has brought in over $30,000 in outside money after launching his campaign with a column in the Wall Street Journal that ignored the local nature of the race and its issues, and included disparaging comments about the award-winning Falls Church schools. The candidate, Ilya Shapiro, is a top level operative in the D.C.-based rightwing think tank, the Cato Institute.

Other candidates have played big roles in the attempts to stir up citizen dissent in the City over the School Board’s handling of the extremely challenging Covid-19 pandemic crisis, and attempting to rally opposition to the School Board’s courageous effort to bring the City in line with the national anti-racist movement by electing to change the name of two City schools away from early leaders of the nation who stood for democracy but unapologetically owned many slaves.

Voter discernment in this race, with its seven candidates and no incumbents, is vital and Falls Church citizens have a penchant for smart decision making. To the extent some can’t make up their minds, tonight’s forum will help and, minus that, the News-Press will reiterate its final, updated endorsements for the City Council and School Board on its editorial page next week.

Two forums highlighting the City Council race in the last week proved particularly helpful in drawing out the strengths and aspirations of the six candidates seeking the four open seats.

One, the first of the two online events hosted by the CBC, was made particularly useful by the moderator role assumed by young Falls Church native Pete Davis, Harvard Law School graduate, co-founder of the Democracy Network, and author of the new book, “Dedicated, The Case for Commitment in An Age of Browsing.” Davis kept the candidates on topic and within their allotted times to respond.

(Tonight’s debate will be moderated by local veteran PTA and F.C. Education Foundation leader Cecily Shea.)
The second was the first in-person forum event of the campaign hosted by the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce at an outdoor venue, the backyard lunch facility of Dominion Wine and Beer.

There, the candidates got to see each other in person all in one place for the first time and with the Chamber’s Andrew Painter as the moderator, they all made forceful cases for their candidacies and achievements of the current board, with a partial emphasis on business development issues of special interest to the Chamber.

The three incumbents in the race, Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly, David Snyder and Deborah Schantz-Hiscott, despite their wide disparities in years of service (Snyder since 1994, Connelly seeking a third term and Hiscott appointed to fill a vacancy only last fall), laid out the considerable achievements of the current Council solidly, and challengers Caroline Lian, Stuart Whitaker and Scott Diaz all acquitted themselves effectively.

An evidence of the interrelationship between Trumpian priorities of Youngkin, the GOP gubernatorial candidate, and the local races here is reflected in the comment made to the News-Press by veteran Councilman and candidate for re-election to a seventh four-year term David Snyder, reflecting on Youngkin’s “threat to cut state school funds to jurisdictions who would remove the role of School Resource officers.”

While he favors keeping the officers “as safety threats regrettably have not dissipated,” Youngkin’s threat “clearly indicated a future return to bureaucratic command and control from Richmond,” Snyder wrote. “We don’t need Richmond to dictate what is right for our community or our schools.”

All expected to participate in the School Board debate tonight are candidates all seeking public office for the first time: Shapiro, Lori Silverman, Jerrod Anderson, Courtney Mooney, David Ortiz, Kathleen Tysse and Tate Gould.