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UPDATED: Vihstadt Wins County Board Special Election

(Updated at 11:35 p.m.) For the first time in 15 years, a non-Democrat will sit on the Arlington County Board.

John Vihstadt, a Republican who ran as an independent with the endorsement of the local Republican and Green parties, has won the special election to replace Chris Zimmerman (D) on the Arlington County Board.

Vihstadt captured 57 percent of the vote to Democrat Alan Howze’s 41 percent. Independent Green candidate Janet Murphy and independent Stephen Holbrook each captured about 1 percent of the vote.

“We won the race by a higher margin than my most aggressive expectations,” Vihstadt told supporters at his victory party tonight. “The most exciting and gratifying measure of our victory was that it was north to south and east to west. There really is one Arlington, not two Arlingtons.”

Given that the race hinged largely on the hot-button issues of the planned Columbia Pike streetcar and Long Bridge Park aquatics center, the result is likely to be viewed by many as a voter rebuke of the County Board’s major capital spending projects.

“People want cost-effective, results-oriented solutions on the local level,” Vihstadt said.

Vihstadt touted his “true rainbow coalition” of supporters. Those supporters included all three candidates for County Board in 2012: current Democratic County Board member and fellow streetcar critic Libby Garvey, Republican ARLnow.com columnist Mark Kelly, and frequent Green Party candidate Audrey Clement. Also supporting Vihstadt was Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos, a close friend of Vihstadt and his wife, Mary.

“It was an easy call for me,” said Stamos, a lifelong Democrat. “He’s a good man and we need to sometimes think outside the box.”

“This is a victory for good government,” Garvey said. “I’m going to get choked up, this is Democracy at its best. This is the way it’s supposed to be.”

“The people have spoken and the County Board needs to listen,” Garvey added.

Vihstadt, whose yard signs were purple to represent a blend of red and blue politics, said he plans to “work in a collaborative fashion to get things done for the county.”

“This was a victory not for one person or one party, but for Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Libertarians and people with no party,” Vihstadt said. “I’m not going to be a captive of any political party, any person, any ideology — I’m going to call issues as I see them.”

Voter turnout today was relatively light, which benefited Vihstadt. With no state or national-level races energizing the Democratic base, its appears that many party-line Democrats stayed home. Total unofficial turnout was 22,209, or about 16 percent of registered voters.

Vihstadt will be the first non-Democrat on the Board since Republican Mike Lane served briefly after winning a special election in 1999. Lane lost in the general election several months later. Similarly, Vihstadt is expected to face Howze again in the November general election, when a U.S Senate and a House of Representatives race will be on the local ballot.

Howze told dozens of his supporters at the Democrats’ election party at Whitlow’s in Clarendon that he continues to believe infrastructure and education investments are the core values of Arlington voters.

“The special election is behind us now, and I look forward to continuing this conversation into November and moving Arlington forward,” he said. “There’s a lot at stake.”

After his remarks, Howze sat down with ARLnow.com to discuss the results. During the conversation, County Board Chair Jay Fisette walked by to offer words of encouragement, telling Howze, “remember, I lost my first election, a special election, in 1993.” Fisette is the longest-serving member of the Board.

“We knew from past special elections that this was likely to be a close race,” Howze told ARLnow.com. “I think voters sent a message with the results of today’s election. Over the next several days and weeks, we’ll look at that… There was an accumulation of frustration with the cost overrun on projects like the Super Stop and Artisphere that led people to express their frustration at the ballot box.”

Arlington County Democractic Committee President Kip Malinosky told the crowd “we have a terrific candidate for November in Alan Howze, but we have a lot of work to do.” Malinosky, looking noticeably exhausted after the special election that began at 6:00 a.m., remained confident in Howze’s chances in the general election.

“Some voters have spoken,” he said. “But many more will speak in November. We are going to continue to listen, to reach out, to engage the community. We will work hard to win in November, because when Democrats vote, we win. We didn’t get enough Democrats to vote.”

Vihstadt told ARLnow.com that some of his top priorities in office will be to establish an internal auditor or inspector general position in county government; to expand participation in county boards and commission; to find ways to save money in the county government; and to collaborate with the School Board on the public school system’s overcapacity problem.

In a show of bipartisanship, Vihstadt’s victory party was visited by the three Democratic County Board members who supported Howze — Jay Fisette, Mary Hynes and Walter Tejada — and by two School Board members — Sally Baird and James Lander.

“We may have different perspectives,” said Vihstadt, “but at the end of the day we’re all working for the common good of Arlington.”

Vihstadt is scheduled to be sworn into office Wednesday afternoon.

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