Press Club
Political signs on N. Kirkwood Road in Virginia Square (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

On the eve of Election Day, some of Arlington’s candidates are hopeful that this election cycle will bring a refresh to local politics, even while history suggests otherwise.

This year, four candidates are vying for one seat on the County Board — including three independents — and two candidates are competing for a seat on the School Board.

On the County Board side, Democrat incumbent Takis Karantonis is competing to keep his seat against Mike Cantwell, Audrey Clement and Adam Theo, while for the School Board, Mary Kadera and Major Mike Webb are running for the seat of outgoing member Monique O’Grady.

Independent candidates for the County Board in particular say the loaded independent slate could be a good thing for local discourse. Karantonis was not available to respond to a request for comment.

“The independent candidates brought new ideas and fresh perspectives this year’s election,” Cantwell said. “Arlington voters want change. They know instinctively that one party rule is bad for democracy and bad for Arlington. They want to vote for someone who is free from partisan ties and conflicts of interest.”

Adam Theo also praised the ratio of four candidates to one County Board seat.

“I hope to see every race in the future be this competitive and hopefully even more diverse,” he said. “I’m well aware that despite the competitiveness, unfortunately all four candidates are middle class white people. Although there are some good policy differences among us… we could have even more differences in policy solutions with greater gender, racial, ethnic, and religious diversity in our candidates.”

But perennial candidate Audrey Clement was more pessimistic.

“While I am impressed with the professionalism of Arlington’s election operations, I am profoundly disappointed that the vast majority of voters are fixated on one thing — the blue ballot,” Clement said. “That voters will not consider an alternative to the current Democratic Party machine guarantees corrupt government and ever escalating taxes for the foreseeable future.”

Independent and Republican candidates typically are resoundingly beaten out in Arlington elections, which favors establishment Democrats. Last year, 80.7% of voters voted for Joe Biden and 71.6% voted for incumbent Democrat Libby Garvey. Karantonis himself won his 2020 special election in a landslide, and likewise won the Democratic primary in June with a two-thirds majority.

Despite Arlington’s deep blue streak, Clement praised “the robust turnout for the six virtual candidate debates” she attended.

Clement also responded to the recent controversy over misrepresenting her age in a Washington Post candidate questionnaire, comparing age discrimination to racial discrimination 50 years ago.

“I maintain that all those over age 40 are in a federally designated ‘protected class’ that bars discrimination against them on the basis of age,” she said. “That means that they cannot be compelled to divulge their age except for an overriding government purpose.”

Overall, the independents say they’re happy with the campaign they led.

“I always spoke the truth and treated everyone with respect,” Cantwell said. “Because I am a true independent, I listened to all voters, not just the voters on Team Blue or Team Red.”

Theo says he didn’t set hard exceptions for himself this year, since he was focused on warming up to debates and introducing himself to voters. He says this year prepared him for future races, when he hopes to repeat the 2014 upset that landed John Vihstadt a spot on the County Board.

“I’ve now set up everything I’ll need for a future run in 2023 or 2022,” he said. “I go into a future race better positioned and prepared than any other independent candidate since John Vihstadt in 2014, I believe.”

Meanwhile, education is an increasingly hot-button political topic in Arlington and across Virginia. Division has seeped deeper into local Arlington school politics, says Democrat-endorsed School Board candidate Mary Kadera.

“To some extent public education has always been political, but this year more so than others,” she said. Her opponent, Mike Webb, was not available for comment.

This year, school choice, school curriculum and COVID-19 safety measures such as mask requirements have made education a hot-button issue in Virginia elections, she says.

“Local school board races are by Virginia law nonpartisan, but that doesn’t mean local school districts aren’t affected by education policies and investments made at the state and federal levels,” she said. “I am hoping all voters will examine the candidates’ education platforms carefully because it’s such a significant time for our students and staff, who need our full support as schools have reopened and we’re doing the important work of recovery.”

Meanwhile, voters will also be able to cast ballots in favor or against about $86 million in local government bonds.

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This election season, incumbent Arlington County Board candidates will be facing not one, but two independent challengers.

Perennial candidate Audrey Clement is joined in the race for County Board by first-timer Arron O’Dell, a payroll associate with the American Correctional Association who threw his hat into the ring on a platform of affordable housing, more efficient transportation, and representing marginalized communities. The two candidates will face off against incumbent Board Chair Christian Dorsey and Board member Katie Cristol.

Clement is returning to the ring running a campaign centered on greater support for county services like schools, libraries, and affordable housing, as well as promoting green energy and preserving open space.

O’Dell is a D.C. native who’s also lived in Alexandria and Falls Church before moving abroad to Costa Rica and Thailand to teach English. In Thailand, he had a daughter who is now eight years old and lives with him, he said.

“She was born in Thailand and is the single biggest motivator for moving back to Arlington,” he said. “I wanted her to receive a high quality education and live in a place where women are treated more equally.”

Affordable Housing and Transportation

Both candidates are zeroing in on the county’s persistent affordable housing shortage.

“I know many in Arlington consider density a dirty word but we need a solid smart growth plan to add density at all price levels to meet the needs of the future,” said O’Dell, who noted he does not own his home. “I would love to see a plan where longer term residents that could not afford to buy in the current market were given an opportunity to build equity in the places they call home.”

Clement, meanwhile, is proposing the county reorganize all housing programs under a central housing agency in order to help, “negotiate construction costs down, providing taxpayers with more bang for their buck.”

She referred to county data indicating that the cost of building the new Queens Court affordable housing apartments was $430,000 per unit, a price she said was too high.

O’Dell is also campaigning on increased public transit options for the county, citing how much easier it is for him to commute by car to his job in Alexandria currently because of infrequent buses and Metro’s current summer shutdown.

“An effective transportation system needs to be high frequency, high volume and a good value,” he said. “As Arlington evolves we should be looking at walkability and transportation and designing around that.”

Representation 

O’Dell believes his time living abroad, and his experience as a single parent, make him uniquely qualified to represent some underserved communities in Arlington. He told ARLnow he has “deep empathy for the migrant communities in Arlington County, because of my experiences abroad I empathize with people living in a foreign land and trying to get by.”

“I understand just how daunting a new language and culture can be,” he added. “My desire is to be a voice for these lower-income, politicly quieter residents of the county.”

One of Clement’s campaign promises is to “provide a voice on County Board for all taxpayers” but she’s also positioned herself as a watchdog of the County Board through a decade of campaigning and speaking at Board meetings.

In an email to ARLnow she criticized the Board’s recent raise as “excessive,” echoing comments from her website where she accused members of paying themselves more regardless of “whether their actual workload justifies the salary increase.”

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Arlington School Board candidate Brandon Clark (left) and the Clark family (right) (courtesy of Brandon Clark)

A candidate for the Arlington School Board has withdrawn his name from the Democratic endorsement process.

Brandon Clark, a teacher at Gunston Middle School, said he decided to remove himself from consideration this week so he could run independent of party affiliation. He realized the partisan process did not align with his beliefs, he said.

“The more I thought about it, the more I was like, wait, this shouldn’t be part of the process,” he told ARLnow. “Education shouldn’t be a partisan issue.”

The caucus “represents a small microcosm of Arlington County,” Clark said. ‘It’s not up to the Arlington Democrats to decide who the School Board member’s going to be.”

The Arlington County Democratic Committee will now vote in June on whether to endorse Bethany Sutton, the only remaining candidate seeking the party’s endorsement, ACDC Chair Steve Baker said.

Clark had been steered in the direction of going through the Democratic Committee’s voting process when he decided to run in the otherwise nonpartisan election, he said.

“Because as a family, both of us being teachers, we don’t have a lot of disposable income to spend on a campaign, so I was told this is the only way you’re going to win,” he said. “It shouldn’t have this air of like, ‘this is the process where you win the race.’ No, the people need to decide and that happens on Election Day.”

Clark thanked the volunteers who began to lay the groundwork for the four-day caucus that will no longer take place.

James Vell Rives IV is also running without a party affiliation. Rives and Clark are the only two candidates who have qualified to be on the ballot so far, according to the Arlington elections office.

The Democratic endorsement process has been scrutinized for its overrepresentation of white, affluent Arlington residents, and discouraging participation in the general election while potentially making nonpartisan officials beholden to a political party, among other concerns. Calls for reform were ultimately defeated.

Clark said he hadn’t realized there were groups criticizing the caucus until he started going through the process.

“But I’m seeing now why these organizations have the grievances that they do,” he said. “In my opinion, it seems like a very insider kind of process.

This past weekend, before he pulled his name from endorsement consideration, he criticized local Democrats for selling a “Russian named vodka” at their Blue Victory Dinner, saying it “speaks to being out of touch on what our community might regard as tasteless and, although seemingly insignificant to others, [and] represents tacit support for Russia.”

He said as a teacher, he encourages his students to look at all sides of an issue to make well-informed decisions, so he didn’t think it was appropriate to align himself with a political party.

“In the future, I hope this process is more inclusive and more open and that there is a support for individuals who are trying to run,” Clark said.

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The Arlington School Board during its April 7, 2022 meeting (via Arlington Public Schools)

(Updated at 11:35 a.m.) Arlington’s School Board race is starting to take shape.

With School Board Chair Barbara Kanninen’s seat up for grabs, a few hats have been tossed in the ring so far.

Wednesday marked the end of the filing date for the Arlington County Democratic Committee’s endorsement process, which has a few changes this year in light of calls for a broader reform that were ultimately defeated.

Two candidates are seeking the Democratic endorsement in the otherwise non-partisan November school board election. A four-day voting process to determine the endorsee will be held in June.

Bethany Sutton is hoping to get the endorsement over Brandon Clark, the first person to qualify to run for school board through the Voter Registration and Elections Office. And James Vell Rives IV has also qualified for the November ballot.

Sutton is a certified leadership coach, executive search consultant and a former PTA president. She has lived in Arlington for more than 20 years and has a background in governance, strategic planning, staff and leadership development, and nonprofit management, according to her profile in the ACDC announcement of candidates.

Sutton served on Randolph Elementary School’s PTA board for seven years, three of which she was president of the board. Since spring 2020, she has led the Randolph Food Pantry, a community-based volunteer effort to support families affected by the pandemic.

Bethany Sutton, who is running for School Board (via Arlington Democrats)

For her work at Randolph Elementary, she was awarded the APS Honored Citizen Award in 2021 and the Distinguished County Service Award in 2020 from Volunteer Arlington and the Leadership Center for Excellence.

She also serves on the Arlington County Food Security Task Force and is chair of the APS Advisory Council on Teaching and Learning, which she has been on since 2018.

“She has a passion for excellence in student learning and a deep commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” according to the ACDC writeup.

Sutton grew up in the Philadelphia area, attended college at the University of Mary Washington and graduate school at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She also completed a graduate program in leadership coaching at Georgetown University.

Arlington School Board candidate Brandon Clark (left) and the Clark family (right) (courtesy of Brandon Clark)

Clark, a Gunston Middle School teacher, says he wants to bring a needed employee perspective to the school board, while pushing to improve the school system’s communication and engagement efforts.

While Clark is seeking the Democratic endorsement, he expressed displeasure with the party over the weekend. He told ARLnow via email that he left ACDC’s Blue Victory Dinner, held at a Ballston hotel Saturday night, miffed at the choice of vodka offered given the ongoing war in Ukraine.

“I briefly attended an event hosted by Arlington Democrats as a school board candidate… I left early and before the event started, when I saw that Russian named vodka, originally started in Moscow, was being offered for purchase,” he wrote. “I am confused and appalled by this and would like to say that this is an oversight and greater symptom of a larger problem in Arlington politics.”

A day after the initial publication of this article, Clark clarified that the vodka issue was not the only reason he left the event early, while adding that it “speaks to being out of touch on what our community might regard as tasteless and, although seemingly insignificant to others, [and] represents tacit support for Russia.”

Rives, meanwhile, is not seeking the Democratic endorsement, and is running as an independent. He is a psychiatrist and serves as co-chair of Arlington Public Schools’ School Health Advisory Board.

Rives has lived in Fairlington with his wife Carmen since 2003, and their children attend Wakefield High School and Claremont Elementary.

As a physician with a background in mental health, he said he can bring a unique perspective to the board. He particularly wants to help as schools recover from the effects of the pandemic, keeping schools open so students can catch up on lost skills and ensuring the school system retains its teachers.

“Restarting has been bumpy,” he said. “I want to help get back on track.”

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A screenshot from the County Board candidate forum hosted by the NAACP on Monday (via Youtube)

Local candidates offered differing takes on police oversight and demographic disparities in public schools during a candidate forum last night.

The Arlington branch of the NAACP hosted Monday’s forum, featuring the four Arlington County Board candidates — incumbent and Democrat Takis Karantonis and independents Mike Cantwell, Audrey Clement and Adam Theo — as well as School Board candidates Mary Kadera and former Congressional candidate Major Mike Webb.

More than 100 people were in virtual attendance.

The forum addressed two dozen issues facing the county and its communities of color. County Board topics ranged from support for minority-owned businesses to accountability for developers that neighbors say violate construction terms. Schools topics spanned the unequal distribution of Parent-Teacher Association resources to improving outcomes for students of color.

But the sharpest distinctions among County Board candidates came out during a discussion of the powers endowed to the new police oversight board.

This summer, the Arlington County Board established a Community Oversight Board (COB) with subpoena power and authorized the hiring of an Independent Policing Auditor able to investigate community complaints about police officers. The decision, came amid sharp disagreements over whether board had too much, or too little, authority.

“The overall perception from many of the members, [and] people I know who are not NAACP members… is that the board is aligned with interests that are not the ones that the community is telling you we want,” said moderator Wilma Jones Kilgo.

When asked if the COB aligns with their visions, only Karantonis said it did.

“It aligned mostly with [my] vision,” Karantonis said. “We now have to nominate the board, make it work, fund it and staff it.”

Cantwell said the board shouldn’t have subpoena power or investigatory power.

“Elections are where you should hold people accountable,” he said. “You should hold the current County Board, who appoints the County Manager and the police chief, accountable, and vote them out.”

But Theo and Clement said the Community Oversight Board isn’t independent enough.

“I’m glad we got the subpoena power, but it fails utterly with not being able to properly investigate and not being able to follow through with discipline,” Theo said. “It needs to be independent. Right now, it’s still under the County Manager, that isn’t enough.”

Clement, who supports giving the board subpoena power, nonetheless called it “a toothless tiger.”

“In situations where the oversight board exercises concurrent jurisdiction with the police department in a personnel matter, I believe COB should have binding authority, as the likelihood of the police chief honoring a recommendation of the COB that goes against his own decision is nil,” she said.

She also expressed concern that the County Manager, who hires the police chief, also hires the independent auditor.

Later, Karantonis said the County Board has put some pressure on the state to change the law that gives Arlington the power to hire a police auditor.

“It is a flaw that the County Manager formally chooses this person,” he said. “We have asked the General Assembly to change that and fix other flaws in this [provision].”

Meanwhile, Jones pressed Clement and Theo on other issues they raised related to policing and the criminal justice system.

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Adam Theo, independent candidate for the Arlington County Board (courtesy photo)

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.

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A screenshot of the four candidates for the County Board (via Arlington Committee of 100/Facebook)

Ranked-choice voting is supported by all four candidates for County Board, according to their comments at an Arlington Committee of 100 candidate forum held last night (Wednesday).

The event was the first candidate forum of the fall general election season.

Support is strong among the three independent candidatesAudrey Clement, Mike Cantwell and Adam Theo — who want to unseat Democrat incumbent Takis Karantonis. He won a special election in 2020 and his seat is now up for a full four-year term. Theo, a Libertarian, is the most recent addition to the ballot after officially launching his campaign this week.

While all four support ranked choice voting, the reform would not be ready for the upcoming Nov. 2 election, as the county is still hammering out the logistics of the system. Dismayed at the pace of implementation, the independents said the reform would reveal public support for candidates like them and add political diversity to the County Board.

“I’ve spent a lot of my free time promoting ranked choice voting in Virginia,” said Cantwell, who became the vice president of Fair Vote Virginia, which advocates for ranked choice voting in Virginia, in 2019. “I went to Richmond in February 2020 and lobbied to bring it to Virginia. At that time, to the surprise of many, the legislature passed bills 506 and 1103, which allowed it in [Arlington] and the rest of Virginia. Since that time, [the county has] taken very little action to implement that new law.”

Theo also criticized the lack of movement on implementing the new voting system and educating voters about it.

“It would’ve been awesome to have the logo-picking determined by ranked choice voting,” he said. “That would’ve been a great way to educate the public. Here we are, waiting for the county to proceed and provide results. I have a lot of skepticism for the County Board’s real willingness to push forward real reform. It puts their own positions, jobs, in jeopardy.”

Karantonis said he is on the record supporting ranked-choice voting and voted to fund an initiative to test it out.

“I put money where my mouth is,” he said. “I think this is a great improvement in democracy.”

During the forum the four candidates articulated their positions housing and on Arlington County’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Both Karantonis and Theo said “affordable housing” is the biggest issue facing Arlington.

“I’ve been a housing advocate from day one,” Karantonis said. “The first thing my wife and I experienced [when moving here] was not being able to find housing, not having choices… Arlington is a community that looks back to a solid record of planning carefully for housing, of matching development with assets like transportation, schools and natural resources. We need to bundle these to support the creation of new housing choices because displacement is a real thing.”

Theo agreed.

“[Housing affordability] poses the problem of pricing out the elderly, low-income, immigrant and disabled people who are clinging on as it is already,” he said. “The number of housing units built in this county is horrifyingly low.”

But he took a jab at the County Board for talking about affordable housing and posing for photos at new developments, while not doing more to prioritize affordability. He spoke favorably of the Missing Middle Housing Study, a county-led effort to see if single-family home areas should be rezoned for more types of moderate-density homes, as a means to increase housing options for the middle-class.

Cantwell said he worries about affordability both in terms of housing and taxes.

“I think the biggest problem facing Arlington is runaway spending and taxes and lack of accountability in county government, [which] stems from lack of political competition,” Cantwell said. “I’m for affordable housing, but I question the outcomes of $300 million spent on a government-run affordable housing program… I think most Arlingtonians are interested in finding a market rate affordable housing place to live in, but not that many are interested in being part of government run program, where they have to submit tax returns, W-2s [and other] bureaucracy.”

Clement said the Missing Middle Study will create more housing, but nothing truly affordable, predicting people will continue to get priced out of their neighborhoods. She added that it won’t promote racial equity, citing a study from New York University that found between 2000-2007, upzoning in New York City “produced an influx of whites in gentrified areas, even as white population plummeted.”

“A far better solution is to repurpose unrented luxury units in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor to moderate income housing,” she said.

(Another NYU study found little link between neighborhood gentrification and displacement of low-income residents, at least in New York City.)

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Mike Cantwell is seeking an Arlington County Board seat.

Arlington’s elections office confirmed Wednesday morning that Cantwell indicated by email his intention to run but hadn’t yet filed paperwork.

Cantwell told ARLnow.com that he’s running as an independent.

A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he’s held positions with the federal government and currently works for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency as a branch chief. He has two graduate degrees, including one from the U.S. Naval War College.

Cantwell said he wants to “end one-party rule” in Arlington, focus on core services, curb rapid urbanization, support small businesses by lowering taxes, and better fund the county auditor’s office.

He will face the Democratic nominee, either County Board incumbent Takis Karantonis or challenger Chanda Choun, as well as independent Audrey Clement, a frequent candidate for local office.

Democrats will choose their nominee through a June 8 primary. Arlington Republicans have until June 13 to nominate a candidate for the general election.

Cantwell and his wife have three children, ages 21, 19 and 16.

Among his numerous activities within the community, he’s the president of the Yorktown Civic Association and former board member of the Lee Highway Alliance that’s sought to revitalize the corridor to benefit businesses and neighborhoods.

Cantwell has been active with the nonprofit Arlington County Civic Federation, but resigned from his position on the federation’s board last month to pursue a run for County Board. He is also the vice president of FairVote Virginia, an organization seeking election reform, particularly with ranked-choice voting.

The five-person County Board, whose members serve four-year terms, currently consists entirely of Democrats. The last time an independent candidate won a seat there was John Vihstadt in 2014.

Karantonis secured a partial term to the seat in a July 2020 special election, following the death of former Board member Erik Gutshall.

Cantwell and the other three candidates are set to appear together via Zoom for the Arlington Chamber of Commerce’s annual County Board Candidate Forum this coming Tuesday, May 25.

Photo courtesy Mike Cantwell

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(Updated at 9:15 p.m.) Arlington Democrats have forced out a precinct captain for supporting a School Board candidate who had to withdraw from seeking the party’s endorsement because she’s a federal employee.

Heather Keppler said in an email obtained by ARLnow that she was pressured to step down as the Arlington County Democratic Committee’s captain for the Lexington precinct because of her support of Symone Walker, a “lifelong Democrat.”

Though School Board races in Virginia are technically nonpartisan, with no party designation next to candidate names on the ballot, Arlington Democrats endorse candidates each year through a party caucus. Walker, a federal employee, initially sought the endorsement, but withdrew after another candidate filed complaints about her candidacy being a Hatch Act violation due to her federal employment.

Walker is now facing the two Democratic endorsees, Cristina Diaz-Torres and David Priddy, in November’s general election.

Keppler, according to a statement from the campaign, is Walker’s campaign manager. The statement called the situation “disturbing” and characterized the party’s actions as “shamefully undemocratic.”

“The ACDC caucus process disenfranchises Black and other minority voters and effectively blocks federal workers from serving in their local government when the Hatch Act provides a pathway to do so,” Walker’s campaign said. “We will not be intimidated and will continue to keep our students, teachers, staff, and families the priority of our campaign, unlike ACDC whose only priority is their own power.”

Jill Caiazzo, Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee, said it’s against party rules to support the opponents of Democratic candidates and endorsees.

“The Arlington Dems bylaws require party officials, such as Precinct Captains, to support all Democratic nominees and endorsees in general and special elections,” Caiazzo said. “If a party official cannot do so for whatever reason, they are asked to take a step back from their party leadership role until the next election cycle, when they are welcomed back to party leadership.”

A similar situation played out with current Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey, who faced a temporary expulsion from the local party after supporting independent County Board candidate John Vihstadt over Democrat Alan Howze in 2014.

Julius Spain, Sr., a community activist and supporter of Walker, said the move to oust her campaign manager from the local party’s ranks — even temporarily — is unnecessarily divisive.

“As a Democrat, I am highly disappointed by the recent decision of ACDC to remove Ms. Walker’s Campaign Manager, Heather Keppler, from her role as a local Democratic party precinct captain,” Spain said. “Ms. Keppler was yet another dedicated Democrat who has done so much over the years to advance inclusivity within our party. This decision did more to divide rather than unite us.”

(Spain is also the head of the Arlington branch of the NAACP, which does not endorse candidates.)

Keppler’s full email is below.

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The candidates for School Board this November are weighing on how they might approach the prospect of additional cuts to the Arlington Public Schools budget next year.

The pandemic forced Arlington Public Schools to slash millions from its budget this year, and additional budget pressures may be ahead. The candidates — independent candidate Symone Walker, and Cristina Diaz-Torres and David Priddy, who received the Democratic endorsement — were asked about that during an online forum this past Tuesday (Sept. 8), hosted by the Arlington County Civic Federation.

Walker said she thinks “we need to ask for more money from the county.”

“What we absolutely cannot do is cut funding for curriculum and instruction,” said Walker. “That cannot be sacrificed on any circumstances or any programs that require equity. We have to look at how we’re wasting funds and how we streamline and save on funds. One way we could have done that is to replace iPads with cheaper Chromebooks.”

Diaz-Torres said the community should have more of a say on best choice of action.

“I think this is a really important place where collaboration is absolutely critical: work best with the community to identify where we can make cuts,” Diaz-Torres said. “But also, collaborating at different levels of government. The reality is that the only way that we’re going to get out of that 20-25% budget deficit is with a significant investment from the federal government.”

Priddy said budget cuts will not be easy and will require a deft hand.

“Your budget is comprised of: 80% is your operations and salaries, 10% is debt service, and that leaves your middle 10% where that’s what we have to look at and historically,” he said. “Arlington has looked at how do you cut programs instead of cutting personnel and I think we’re going to have it the same way.”

“This is where my professional background comes in,” Priddy continued. “I’ve had many decisions on what to cut and what’s in the best interest of the business and this way it’ll be the community and being from Arlington and knowing the policies of Arlington, I know that I’m the right person to make those decisions.”

Another topic of conversation was whether APS should try to use parkland to build new schools. The candidates largely said it was an option that should be considered, but stopped short of saying it should actually be pursued.

The candidates, who also spoke before an online meeting of the Arlington Committee of 100 this week, discussed why they were running for what’s usually a fairly thankless job. There are two open seats on the School Board this fall, after incumbents Nancy Van Dorn and Tannia Talento decided not to seek new terms.

Diaz-Torres emphasized that she’s a “former teacher and education policy specialist” who wants to “create an education system where all students have the ability to succeed no matter their race, income, or socioeconomic status.”

Priddy introduced himself as a “parent of two sons in Arlington Public Schools, business leader, and lifelong Arlingtonian, running for one of two open seats on the Arlington County school board because I know that with proper planning, we can build back in more equitable and transparent APS.”

Walker said she is an “APS parent and education activist, serving in the school community for the past decade, and as recently as co-chair of the NAACP.”

Walker added that she’s “running for School Board to be an instrument of change because a lot needs to change.”

“The opportunity gap has not closed in decades, the reading curriculum is leaving students farther behind, struggling students are graduating semi-literate, our Black and Latino students are performing far below their white and Asian counterparts,” she said.

The election will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 3.

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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.” Read More

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