UPDATED: ‘I’m Ready For a New Challenge’: Arlington’s Fisette Will Not Seek New Term Print

By: Scott McCaffrey, Inside NOVA

Created: Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The decision by Arlington County Board Chairman Jay Fisette not to seek re-election to a sixth term drew a slew of praise for his nearly two decades of service, and set off behind-the-scenes jockeying to succeed him.

Fisette made it official Feb. 22, confirming he will not seek re-election to the post he has held since January 1998.

“Twenty years of service – it’s really been a complete honor and privilege,” Fisette told the Sun Gazette before the official announcement. “I’m ready for a new challenge – there are a lot of interesting opportunities.”

Fisette said he “absolutely” would complete his term, which runs through Dec. 31. He suggested his next step could be working to sustain progressive values in the era of President Trump.

A Democrat, Fisette was first elected to the County Board in November 1997 to succeed Ellen Bozman, who was then wrapping up 24 years in office. He previously had been unsuccessful in a 1993 special election for County Board, which he lost to Republican Ben Winslow, to fill the seat of William Newman Jr., who had been elected to the Circuit Court by the General Assembly.

In 1997, Fisette defeated Barbara Favola in a late-spring Democratic County Board primary for the seat of Bozman. But when incumbent James Hunter III resigned due to illness later that year, Favola won a special election to succeed him, getting to the County Board slightly earlier than Fisette did. (Favola later was elected to the state Senate.) Fisette defeated Republican-leaning independent Amy Jones-Baskaran in the 1997 general election, Republican Mike Clancy in the 2001 race, Green Party candidate John Reeder in the 2009 race and Green-backed contender Audrey Clement in 2013. He was unopposed in 2005. Fisette was tapped to serve as chairman – a position that rotates among board members – in 2001, 2005, 2010, 2014 and 2017. Currently, he has more tenure in office than his four board colleagues, combined.

Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th) said the institutional knowledge and experience Fisette brings to local governance would be impossible to replicate. “Jay’s departure from the County Board is an enormous loss to the Arlington community,” Hope said. “He leaves behind a lasting legacy on Arlington that will last generations, and he should be proud of his service.”

Fisette’s retirement is likely to spawn a race within the Democratic ranks to succeed him; the party voted earlier this month to hold a caucus to select its nominee for the lone County Board seat on the ballot this year. Final rules have not yet been approved, but it is likely caucus voting will be held in May, perhaps in conjunction with an already scheduled School Board caucus. Likely, the caucus would operate not under winner-take-all rules, but under instant-runoff balloting that has been used in recent Democratic caucuses, in which voters rank candidates in their order of preference, and low-performing candidates are eliminated in a series of rounds until the top finisher achieves more than 50 percent of the vote.

Fisette said he would wait to decide what field emerges before deciding whether to support a County Board candidate within the Democratic nomination process. In recent weeks, a number of prospective candidates have been testing the waters quietly.

While serving on the County Board, Fisette has been seen as a voice for fiscal restraint – at least by Arlington standards – while also supporting social-safety-net and economic-development issues. He has been seen as generally friendly to the local business community at a time when some of his past colleagues were viewed as less so, although he and the Arlington Chamber of Commerce recently have been at odds over towing regulations in the county.

Kate Bates, president of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, said Fisette was always willing to listen.  “While at times we have taken differing stances on some issues, Jay’s dedication to our community is undeniable – and that is the legacy he will leave behind,” she said, calling Fisette “a pleasure” to work with.

Fisette served as board chairman during 9/11, when public-safety agencies of the county government were called on to respond to the terrorist attack on the Pentagon.In 2014, when he also was chairman, Fisette and County Board colleague Mary Hynes switched sides on the controversial Columbia Pike streetcar project; their opposition effectively killed the transit effort. Speaking then, Fisette said that his decision to join Hynes in switching to the anti-streetcar position advocated by board members Libby Garvey and John Vihstadt was a reflection of the mood of the Arlington public. “We cannot ignore the political realities,” he said in November 2014, acknowledging that Vihstadt’s big victory over Alan Howze – the second thumping taken by county Democrats in eight months – was as much a referendum on county-government priorities as anything else. “This was a powerful message to the board,” Fisette said at a press conference in which he announced the switch, which took regional leaders and transportation advocates by surprise. He also has been active at the local, regional and state levels on environmental issues, and regionally on transportation issues.

Clement, who won 31 percent of the vote running under the Green Party banner against Fisette in 2013, offered up positives and negatives of his tenure. “Jay’s strongest suit was his interest in and support for environmental initiatives,” Clement said. “Yet Jay was perceived by some as too cozy with developers. To the extent that the priorities of developers and environmentalists disagree, I think Jay’s environmental focus was blunted. But I think that’s true of the Democratic Party in general, rather than a personal criticism of Jay.”

A resident of Ashton Heights and a former staffer of the U.S. Government Accountability Office and Northern Virginia executive director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, Fisette became the first openly gay elected official in Virginia history. In 2013, Fisette wed his longtime partner, Dr. Bob Rosen, in the District of Columbia, before such marriages were legal in Virginia. Fisette’s sexual orientation was an issue, albeit one largely kept below the radar, in his 1993 and 1997 races. Late last year, in a reception honoring veteran Democratic activist Peg Hogan, Fisette recalled asking for the support of Hogan (his neighbor) in his first bid for office. Fisette recalled beating a path to Hogan’s door in hopes of gaining support and access to her organizing ability, but recalled wondering if there would be “an apprehension [on her part] of working in a campaign with so many good-looking gay men?” Fisette said.