The four candidates running to replace Chris Zimmerman on the Arlington County Board held one of their first debates Tuesday night.
The debate, at the Arlington Civic Federation’s monthly meeting, was relatively short and did not give the candidates much time to delve deeply into issues. But by and large, Republican- and Green-endorsed independent candidate John Vihstadt tried to position himself as a choice that would be palatable for local Democrats who oppose the county’s big-ticket streetcar and aquatics center projects.
“I don’t want to upset the applecart, I just want to rearrange some of those apples,” said Vihstadt, who arguably has the best shot at being elected to the Board of any non-Democrat in years. “[My wife and I] love Arlington, we want to give back to Arlington.”
Vihstadt said he uses mass transit to commute on a daily basis, but “this $310 million streetcar is not the way to go on Columbia Pike.” He instead said he favors “a modified form of bus rapid transit.”
Vihstadt also differed from the current County Board in calling for an independent county auditor, by wanting to “break down the silos” between county government and Arlington Public Schools, and by suggesting that he opposes some of the development currently taking place in Arlington.
“I have serious differences with this Board about density and where that is taking our county right now,” he said to applause from the Civic Federation delegates.
Vihstadt, however, was also careful to point out areas where he agrees with the County Board. He supports gay marriage, increased spending on schools, and the new homeless services center in Courthouse.
“I support the new homeless shelter,” he said. “On balance I think it’s the right place and the right thing to do.”
“I’m not going to hide my Republican background, but i’m running as an independent,” Vihstadt said. “I’m running to add balance… because we need to recalibrate our spending priorities. We have to concentrate on core services like public education… roads and infrastructure maintenance… and neighborhood quality of life.”
“I’m giving voice to so many people across the political spectrum who are frustrated, who are concerned about where we are going as a county and where we are spending of our dollars at a time of skyrocketing school enrollment,” he said, pledging to be “fair, even-handed, bridge-building and nonpartisan.”
Democrat Alan Howze enters the race as the odds-on favorite thanks to the party’s well-honed get-out-the-vote effort, which will be needed as the race will be decided by a special election. Howze largely toed the party line — supporting a social safety, affordable housing, a “progressive community,” etc. — but suggested that he would be a bit more cautious when it comes to spending and a bit more aggressive when it comes to economic development.
Asked about something about which he disagreed with the County Board, Howze said the design and cost of the $1.6 million James Hunter dog park in Clarendon “well exceeded what was needed for the space and the community.”
Howze touted his private sector experience working at IBM and said he would work to “help strengthen the commercial base in Arlington,” thus combating rising office vacancy rates.
Like Vihstadt, Howze said he supports gay marriage, the county’s new homeless shelter, and increased spending on schools. (“Rising school enrollment is the biggest challenge facing our community,” he said.) Howze, however, supports the Columbia Pike streetcar project and has said he would like to see the Long Bridge Park aquatics center built provided it doesn’t exceed its original $79 million budget.
“We need to improve our community,” he said. “We can’t give any project a blank check, but neither can we stand still. I’m not chicken little… the sky is not falling. We can’t just say no — no is not a solution. Short term solutions that are politically expedient today but don’t lead to long-term prosperity.”
Also participating in the debate was perennial Independent Green candidate Janet Murphy and independent Stephen Holbrook, who provided plenty of red meat for local conservatives.
“I can tell you something, very simple: we have a problem with our budget,” Holbrook said in his opening remarks. “We’ve got to cut spending. I’m even considering leaving because of the high tax structure here.”
“I’m going to tear the budget apart,” he continued. “I’m going to force the issue and demand the Democrats and those on the Board listen to the residents of Arlington county and not their party.”
Holbrook spoke out vehemently against the new homeless shelter and pledged to cut spending and taxes. He called Arlington Public Schools “overpriced” and said he would cut the school budget as well.
“No one up here is talking about cutting,” he said. “They don’t care — they’re going to spend to buy your vote. I’m the only one talking about cutting and giving the money back.”
“Detroit has many of the problems we have,” Holbrook added, comparing Arlington to the Motor City, which has been racked by foreclosures and economic collapse. “There are many similarities — very close.”
Murphy, meanwhile, couldn’t come up with an issue with which she disagreed with the current County Board. As someone who works in the hospitality industry, however, she said she supports increased tourism promotion spending. She also spoke in favor of increased investment in solar energy, environmental sustainability and transit.
“We need more trains, less traffic,” Murphy said. “Think globally, act locally. Let us act locally here in arlington to build for a greener, more sustainable future.”
The County Board special election is scheduled for Tuesday, April 8.
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