In heavily-blue Arlington County, independent candidate Adam Theo faces an uphill battle to pry local voters away from the incumbent Democrats in favor of his libertarian platform.
Theo said his multi-year campaign strategy has a pretty simple tactic at its heart: showing local progressives they have more in common with him than with the current County Board members.
Theo is a freelance communications consultant and media producer who is running for the County Board right as he finishes his nine-year contract with the Department of Homeland Security. He is on the general election ballot this fall with incumbent Takis Karantonis and independent candidates Audrey Clement and Mike Cantwell, but Theo said his real plan is to use this year to set up the groundwork for a full run in 2022 or 2023.
“It is really getting off to a start here,” said Theo. “I’m using 2021 as an opportunity to launch my organization website and start meetings. In 2022 or 2023 I’ll be running for a seat on the County Board. Even if that’s next year: i’ll be ready with a good campaign and solid foundation.”
Independent and Republican candidates typically get trounced in Arlington elections, where 80.7% of voters last year voted for Joe Biden and 71.6% voted for incumbent Democrat Libby Garvey. Theo said he’s taking inspiration from one of the few times in recent memory an independent successfully wrested a local seat from the Democrats in Arlington: when John Vihstadt won a special election in early 2014.
(Vihstadt went on to hand local Democrats a defeat that fall in the general election before ultimately losing his reelection bid in 2018.)
“[John] Vihstadt really set the precedent in winning two elections,” Theo said. “I think there is an appetite for the right kind of candidate.”
Arlington in 2021 is a different political landscape in many ways than 2014, though, and Theo and Vihstadt himself both said there are several factors that will make it more difficult for an independent to repeat that 2014 victory. In 2014, the proposed half-billion-dollar streetcar project for Columbia Pike became a rallying cry for locals concerned about the County Board’s spending habits.
Theo admitted he doesn’t have as convenient a campaign centerpiece.
“Right now in the county there are a bunch of issues people are concerned about and angry over,” Theo said. “First and foremost is response and recovery from COVID. In many ways, Arlington is doing well with vaccination rates, but barely so. We need to be doing a hell of a lot better with getting people vaccinated, getting people back into schools. Small businesses have suffered and affordable housing is not doing well. It’s not one issue like it was with the streetcar, it’s many issues. The challenge that I have is to build a coalition, to build a campaign around.”
Vihstadt said another challenge independent candidates face in 2021 is the looming specter of Donald Trump.
“It was certainly kind of an unusual alignment of the stars for me in 2014 when I won the special election, and then a full four year term that November,” the former County Board member told ARLnow. “I had issues on the overspending and projects that were nice to have but not essential, like the streetcar and the Artisphere, and people were concerned about insular group thinking. The chemistry today is a little different. Part of the problem today is that Donald Trump, who I never supported and spoke out against in 2016, has so polarized the electorate.”
Vihstadt said he’s hopeful that as the memory of Trump fades and the state works on bipartisan redistricting, independents could be back in vogue.
Theo said, for his part, distancing libertarians from the GOP is part of that.
“There’s an ideological preference for Democrats in the county,” Theo said. “That’s why the GOP continues to dwindle and do poorly election cycle after election cycle. It’s largely with ideology. The good thing with libertarians is we have a lot of overlaps with democrats, liberals and progressives. We fight for civil liberties and civil rights, and affordable housing. The whole zoning battle and the missing middle, is where the libertarians have a lot of overlap with progressive warriors in the county. I don’t think it’s an impossible task. I’m not going to pretend it will be easy, it’s the fight of a lifetime.”
Theo’s vision for affordable housing reform, though, looks somewhat different from the vision expressed by incumbent Democrats.
“What Arlington should be doing to preserve existing affordable housing stock, instead of allowing it to be demolished and rebuilt, is to shift its focus in how it deals with affordable housing,” Theo said. “Arlington is making the mistake of tackling it as an issue of subsidies and partnering with nonprofit corporations to run affordable rental units. It doesn’t fix the problem, tackles surface level symptom. To fix affordable housing we have to work on affordable ownership.”
Theo’s solution is in community land trusts, a program that separates the cost of the land from the cost of the housing built on it by having a non-profit purchase the land while the buildings are cooperatively owned or leased by residents.
“The residents come together to own property and nonprofits own land beneath the building,” Theo said. “That reduces cost for owners and allows generational wealth to be built up rather than being at the whim of a developer.”
Theo said the focus of the Affordable Housing Investment Fund should be shifted to community land trusts, though Theo said enough should be set aside to continue support for residents currently in rental units.
It’s one change that Theo says Arlington should have started to prepare for Amazon’s arrival and another missed opportunity.
“That is something we can have an immediate impact on, and it should have been something that started years ago,” Theo said. “I’m a supporter of Amazon being in the community, but leadership hasn’t done anything to prepare for the negative consequences.”
The planning around Amazon, Theo said, was the tipping point for his decision to run for County Board. Theo said his original plan was to get experience in the community for years on commissions and community organizations before running. Theo was recently elected as Secretary for the Ballston-Virginia Square Civic Association and is a voting delegate to the Arlington County Civic Federation, but has no other background on local commissions or governing bodies.
Vihstadt, by contrast, had an extensive history of community involvement before his County Board run.
“Being on the County Board was something I thought of as doing in the distant future, along the lines of John Vihstadt, and I thought I’d be in a similar position ten years from now,” Theo said. “What sped that up was Amazon with HQ2. I was quite frankly pissed off at how County handled that.”
“I’m happy with Amazon coming in and it should be business friendly, but the county did not need to be dangling and offering the incentives that it did for Amazon that it’s not providing for small local businesses — especially since the county has still not fully prepared, with schools overcrowding and with housing stock and transportation,” he continued. “There are so many issues where the county is still playing catch-up that Amazon’s move into the county is making worse. Really started the process of thinking I should move sooner rather than later.”
Other factors over the last year have changed things up for local candidates. In some ways, the pandemic has made it harder for an independent candidate to get their message across to more Arlingtonians. While some campaigns are more adept at making the move to being online-focused, Theo still thinks of himself more as an “old-school” kind of challenger.
“A successful campaign still relies on retail politics,” Theo said. “That still involves going door to door, attending farmers markets. The new model has some merits, and there’s still a role for a campaign to be involved in digital and social campaigning, but [can’t replace] that.”
Theo said this year, given the pandemic, he’s not going door to door but is instead working on becoming more familiar with digital campaigning. Theo said he’s hopeful, though, that in-person campaigning could make a comeback next year.
Vihstadt agreed, saying the current style of campaigning favors the large, well-organized Arlington County Democratic Committee and its campaign prowess.
“COVID has probably made it a little harder,” Vihstadt said. “It’s tougher for somebody to break through, to get out there and connect with people in a more virtual environment. It’s tougher to approach people in a park or a farmer’s market or grocery store. That kind of retail politics, which is so important at the local level, it’s tougher during a pandemic to connect that way.”
On the other hand, Theo said the opening up of some regulations on local businesses may have given some a taste of what more libertarian-oriented policies can offer.
“With Covid, the county clumsily implementing shutdowns and lockdowns of business hurt our local economy,” Theo said. “National chains like CVS, Starbucks, Target, don’t have anything to worry about, but our local businesses, too many of them, were destroyed outright by county response.”
Theo said local leaders should do more to push for easing alcohol laws to allow for more businesses to sell alcohol to-go on a permanent basis and having open container zones.
“We have to streamline regulations that the county holds over small businesses, like temporary seating arrangements and temporary property tax,” Theo said. “It comes down to taxes and regulation for small businesses. County leadership done next to nothing to make sure small businesses can get back up and running. Being a Dillon Rule state hinders us, but should apply pressure on state legislature to make some of those changes permanent.”
Theo said he’s hopeful, as he talks to voters this year and next, that some will find enough common ground to pull them away from the incumbents.
“[When I talk to voters,] I talk about the common ground where Democrats and libertarians agree on,” Theo said, “like police reform and affordable housing, [those are] issues that Democrats and libertarians share. I know libertarians have a reputation for being Republicans or conservatives, but that’s not the case. I myself am not conservative, I’ve long thought of myself as progressive, and I’m more in line with Arlington politics than where I grew up in Florida and Georgia. This is an opportunity to show we have those things in common.”
Tuesday, Nov. 2 is Election Day, with polls in Virginia open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Local candidates will face off tomorrow (Tuesday) in a forum hosted by the Arlington County Civic Federation.
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