Press Club

Arlington County Board Candidates Discuss Campaigning Through Coronavirus

While many elections are spaced out over months, sometimes even years at the presidential level, three Arlington candidates have been running for County Board in a 61-day sprint towards the special election on July 7.

Takis Karantonis (D), Susan Cunningham (I) and Bob Cambridge (R) are all first-time candidates in the most unconventional race in recent memory.

“It’s unprecedented and extremely short,” said Karantonis. “We have the COVID-19 [pandemic] and it is a special election [held] right after Fourth of July. Everything you can imagine that is non-typical for an election is typical for this one.”

The 61-Day Campaigns

The special election was triggered by County Board member Erik Gutshall’s resignation in April. Ten days later, Gutshall died after a battle with brain cancer. On May 7, Karantonis bested three other candidates to be chosen as the Democratic nominee in a closed caucus.

Karantonis, and economist and the former director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, faces opposition in the election from Cunningham, a business executive and independent who has been involved in several major planning efforts, and Cambridge, a Republican and former instructor in the CIA.

For each candidate, it’s been a struggle to adapt over the span of weeks to national and local changes — from the phased reopening to the Black Lives Matter protests after the death of George Floyd.

“It was right at the end of April [when Gutshall resigned], ” Cunningham said. “I mulled it over, talked it over, then filed before the end of the month and before the party caucuses. It was not particularly premeditated — it was an unusual time with a lot of grieving and a lot of need. The rest of us were shaken by Erik’s death and we had to get a lot of signatures in the middle of the pandemic.”

Without a party infrastructure to back her up, Cunningham said she has had to take a grassroots approach in a compressed election cycle when traditional door-to-door campaigning grassroots tactics weren’t viable. Cunningham considered throwing her hat into the ring for the Democratic primary but said she felt more comfortable running as an independent.

“I thought long and hard about whether to run as an independent because there’s only, like, one example of that working,” Cunningham said, referring to independent John Vihstadt’s victories over Democratic candidates until he was bested in 2018. “It really was a values-based decision. I’ve always through local government should be non-partisan. The issues are not the national party issues; it’s potholes and schools.”

While Cunningham said she’s fighting with what she sees as a chance to gain support and win, Cambridge isn’t as optimistic in that regard. His goal is less to win and more to try to bridge a partisan divide. Cambridge even resisted saying he’s “running” for office, preferring to call it a “jogging for office.”

“I’m resigned,” Cambridge said. “It’s been a short fuse and an opportunity to get some ideas out there. I appreciate the civic groups that have been contacting us. The ideas are getting out there and that’s what I’m doing it for… I’ve lived here since ’82, and was I going to mortgage the house to bet on winning? Hell no. I’ve seen how it’s been. The reality is, did I come in expecting to win? No. I’m getting the word out.”

Cambridge joked that running for office was a little bit of an ego trip, but really as someone who is 75 years old, “I’m getting to an age where I’m looking back and asking ‘have I made a difference?’ I’d like to.”

Transparency and Accountability 

One of the notable issues to come up during the election from civic groups, according to Cambridge, has been how cost-prohibitive FOIA requests can be.

“I’m getting a lot of people saying ‘we have these questions and we ask these boards and we have to put in FOIA requests,’ but they get expensive,” Cambridge said. “These citizen groups don’t have the resources for that, and their perspective is they’re being stonewalled. I don’t know if that’s the case, but that’s what they’re saying.”

Cambridge argued that if tax dollars are being put into studies, locals shouldn’t have to pay more to get to see the studies.

“That’s not fair,” Cambridge said. “I absolutely would be transparent. If it’s legal, I’d turn over whatever reports I had access to. As a newcomer, I don’t have a lot to protect.”

Transparency and public accountability has been a topic in Cunningham’s campaign as well, who said part of her push as an independent is breaking a single-party stranglehold on the County Board.

“I’ve had a lot of Democrats come to me and say ‘We’re Democrats through and through but sick of the local committee and how ACDC demands loyalty,'” Cunningham said. “In this case, they opted to have a small group of insiders make the decision [on the candidate] and that anoints the winner, essentially.”

Cunningham said her concerns about local Democrat leadership go back at least as far as the local Democrats ousting County Board member Libby Garvey for supporting Vihstadt in 2014.

“The whole idea of the loyalty oath, or the pledge, is icky,” Cunningham said. “It’s not necessary. We’re all neighbors and all grown-ups, we should be able to do what we think. The way the caucus was structured further emphasized the need for an independent in the race.”

Karantonis, meanwhile, said the Arlington Democrats were backed into the closed caucus by the extenuating circumstances.

“I know there are people upset about it not being representative, and it’s not, but under these conditions, it was the best that could be done,” Karantonis said. “This was imposed by Virginia law and Virginia courts. We were denied an extension… I think it still was a diverse field.”

Karantonis said he’s also concerned that low voter turnout could reflect how representative the election is, particularly with low-or-middle income voters not having experience with absentee ballots.

“People don’t feel safe to vote in person, despite the fact that it is safe,” Karantonis said. “People have been asking for absentee mail-in ballots, which is a common thing and is increasing over time, but it’s still not something that covers all constituents and not part of the political culture… It’s very arcane and complicated. People who have done it before are used to that. But the majority have not done it before. It’s a campaign to try to turn out the vote.”

Pixels and Politics

For Karantonis, Cunningham and Cambridge, the two-months of campaigning have been about learning on the fly how to get a message out with less-than-conventional methods, with each candidate expressing mixed feelings about using Zoom as a replacement to the traditional meet and greet.

“I’ve learned to use Zoom,” Cambridge said, “but you don’t have the same interface that you have in a courtroom or meeting room, where you see the response of the jury or the students and keying off that. It’s not quite like that.”

Karantonis agreed that Zoom hasn’t been an ideal replacement, but said it meant the election process was still better off than it would have been without that technology.

“We call them ‘Zoom and Greets,'” Karantonis said. “It’s a way to gather voters and do the equivalent to meet and greet in the virtual environment. It is, by far, not the same. It’s not the same quality of meeting. There’s no person-to-person communication and you have to pay attention to the video quality of how you come across. It’s a different medium. But I’m happy for that because it’s available. Imagine if it wasn’t.”

Even after the pandemic, Karantonis said virtual meetings and debates could be something that sticks around as a permanent campaigning idea.

“It’s something that will linger around, that we’ll have in the future,” Karantonis said. “It’s an additional way to have discussions and conversations in Arlington. Having a larger part of our community using this is, in general, a good thing. Now is that meaningful campaigning? I don’t know. It can’t substitute personal communication with voters.”

Vihstadt, who endorsed Cunningham, said opposition to Trump hurt his 2018 campaign and could hurt Cunningham this year.

“Unfortunately, Donald Trump has so polarized the electorate that it is harder than it was for an independent message to break through.” Vihstadt said, “It’s going to be tough for Susan this year, no doubt about it. But voters want debate, they don’t want pre-ordained outcomes.”

Vihstadt said Cunningham also faces the uphill battle of lacking the funding or organization that Arlington Democrats have.

“It’s going to be tough, but I think she’s really starting to gain traction,” Vihstadt said. “People find her message attractive.”

Cunningham said some of her chances depend on whether Cambridge will take away more of the non-Democrat votes.

“I think it really could go either way,” Cunningham said. “It depends a little on how the more conservative folks in the county find Cambridge to be viable or not. And it hinges a lot on the frustrated Democrats annoyed by the way the process was done here and annoyed with the power structure.”

Vihstadt noted that voter turnout will likely be lower as a result of the virus, but who that helps is unclear.

“I’m sure voter turnout will be diminished more than it would be without the virus,” Vihstadt said. “How that goes into the political calculation I’m not sure, it might be tempting to say a lower turnout would help Susan and Cambridge. On the other hand, there are committed voters across the political spectrum. It’s harder to say.”

Karantonis noted that whoever is elected will face a reelection after just one year in office — the term expires at the end of December 2021.

“Arlingtonians for this seat will get to dip twice in the election process, and that’s a good thing,” Karantonis said. “I think this will trigger a long dialogue about where we are. This couldn’t be a better sequence of events because we are having a significant crisis with COVID-19, a significant discussion with Black Lives Matter, and the discussion about equity in Arlington. I believe this is a good thing for Arlington voters to have two opportunities to weigh in on that.”

The special election will be held on Tuesday, July 7. Polling locations will be open from 6 a.m.-7 p.m.

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