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Washington Post: Primary winners show Arlington County’s new political landscape Print


Created:  Wednesday, June 10, 2015


Kate A. Cristol and Christian E. Dorsey were dark-horse candidates in Arlington County's primary Tuesday — relative unknowns, without the endorsements that used to be mandatory in a county dominated by the Democratic Party establishment.

Yet they beat out four other candidates for the nominations to replace retiring Democratic board members Mary H. Hynes and J. Walter Tejada. Now Cristol and Dorsey are preparing for a general election campaign that includes a Republican running as an independent and that will probably offer a new version of the debate over spending and priorities that has reshaped county politics during the past 18 months.

"There's more uncertainty than the Arlington establishment has faced in many years," said state Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-Arlington), who backed longtime party insider Peter Fallon, the third-place finisher.

Virginia state Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington) said the advance by Cristol and Dorsey "almost feels like a flat-out rejection" of party leadership.

The key question for Arlington residents is whether the winners of the two board seats will ally themselves with Jay Fisette (D), a 17-year lawmaker who has helped shaped the county's ambitious fiscal priorities, or with John Vihstadt (I) and Libby Garvey (D), recent additions to the board who repeatedly have questioned major spending decisions.

Vihstadt, a Republican, won office last year as an independent, becoming the first non-Democrat elected to the board in 15 years.

He argues that Arlington has moved beyond party labels and said his arrival — and the pending election of two new members to the five-person board — represents the change that Arlington voters want.

Although he hasn't endorsed a candidate, Vihstadt expressed admiration for Michael McMenamin, the Republican who is running as an independent along with former Green Party candidate Audrey Clement. McMenamin is seeking the endorsement of the county's Republican Committee next week.

"I think there is a newfound appreciation in Arlington that we cannot do everything for everybody," Vihstadt said. "We have to make tough decisions on taxing and spending, and we have to make priorities on services."

For many voters, Cristol, 30, embodies the energy of the county's growing millennial generation, which is reaching an age where challenges such as overcrowded schools and a lack of affordable housing matter more.

One resident, Caroline Hesse, 33, said she voted for Cristol because she was "the only woman running and had a woman's perspective."

Dorsey, 43, is a former county planning commissioner who bucked the party establishment in the past by trying to unseat then-incumbent Chris Zimmerman in a party caucus.

"That didn't sit well with a lot of people," Dorsey said Wednesday, adding that he "was never trying to hurt our party, but trying to respond to the needs and issues of the people."

As they lay the groundwork for November, both Democratic nominees are speaking more like moderates than the progressive politicians Arlington is known for — seemingly joining a tide of fiscal restraint sweeping the county.

Dorsey, head of government affairs for the Economic Policy Institute, said he would look for creative ways to finance improvements, such as a new school that is needed in south Arlington. "We need flexibility," he said.

Cristol, an education policy analyst who lives near Columbia Pike, said she wants to focus on "non-dollar solutions" to problems such as overcrowded schools and a lack of affordable housing.

"When talking about housing affordability, for example, I want to be thinking also about modest zoning flexibility," she said. "I really have not been talking about large budget expansion, and the reason I haven't is because of the context that we're in."

That context is multilayered.

Arlington, for years Northern Virginia's shining example of smart growth and prosperity, has suffered with the rest of the region from federal job cuts and a growing office vacancy rate.

Last year, a voter backlash against a $550 million project to build a streetcar along Columbia Pike helped sweep Vihstadt — a vocal critic of the project — into office.

Vihstadt assumed the role of spending watchdog on a board that has become more contentious.

He usually was joined by Garvey in questioning board priorities, while Fisette, Hynes and Tejada often took an opposing view.

Fisette, who was a strong proponent of the Columbia Pike streetcar, agreed Wednesday that crowded schools and economic challenges have altered the conversation in Arlington. The county has an office vacancy rate of nearly 20 percent, which has severely affected commercial tax revenue, Fisette said.

"That is a different form of challenge to our community at this point in our history," Fisette said.

Dorsey received support during his campaign from activists involved in the group Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit. Activists from that group also helped Vihstadt win his election. But both Dorsey and Cristol say they will act independently on the board and would never allow another board member to influence their vote.

"A thousands times no," Dorsey said.

"I didn't run to join a faction," Cristol said.

McMenamin, an attorney who is president of the Arlington County Civic Federation of neighborhood groups, said the county needs to better address its aging infrastructure.

He outlined an economic development strategy that includes more tax incentives for small businesses that are willing to move into vacant office space.

McMenamin said he sees a tide shifting in his favor in Arlington, calling 2015 "a watershed year" and noting that this is the first time in 30 years that two board seats have been open at the same time.

"The next two people on the board are going to affect the next generation of Arlington County," he said.

Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.