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Arlington’s Top Prosecutor Draws Primary Challenger, Kicking Off Battle Over Criminal Justice Reforms

(Updated at 4:05 p.m.) Now that Arlington’s top prosecutor has drawn a primary challenger, the stage is set for a battle next year over many of the criminal justice issues that have electrified traditionally sleepy races across the country.

Parisa Dehghani-Tafti announced Monday (Dec. 10) that she plans to challenge Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos (D) in 2019, arguing that she’d rely on her background as a defense attorney to bring a series of reforms to the office. Stamos was first elected in 2011 and has served as a prosecutor in the county since 1987, experience that Dehghani-Tafti claims has blinded Stamos to the criminal justice system’s flaws.

“Perhaps nothing exemplifies the current [commonwealth’s attorney’s] unsuitability to lead meaningful reform than the fact that she has publicly denied that mass incarceration even exists and has argued that the system is working perfectly,” Dehghani-Tafti wrote in a Facebook post announcing her candidacy. “I want to dismantle the mass incarceration machine and replace it with policies that pursue justice, increase accountability, prevent crime, prioritize serious crimes and protect civil rights.”

Dehghani-Tafti’s arguments are similar to those advanced by a variety of other defense attorneys who have begun challenging incumbent prosecutors across the country. Former public defenders and civil rights attorneys like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia have been swept into office by promising substantial reforms to the system, claiming that prosecutors have the discretion to cut back on the number of people sent to prison for low-level offenses.

“We can no longer hope for reform from the very same lifelong prosecutors who’ve spent their careers building this flawed machine,” Dehghani-Tafti wrote.

But Stamos argues that Dehghani-Tafti’s critiques of her record are mistaken, accusing her of discussing issues applicable to “Baltimore, Chicago, Baton Rouge, or Los Angeles,” not Arlington. Though she has yet to formally announce her bid for re-election, she seems ready to vigorously defend her seven years in office.

“Not only do I not support mass incarceration, I know no prosecutor who does,” Stamos wrote in a statement to ARLnow. “Every person who is prosecuted by my office is an individual with a name, a family and a story to tell and a crime they have committed for which they are held accountable. I have never once lost sight of the humanity of any defendant prosecuted by my office. Is the criminal justice system perfect? Absolutely not, and I’ve worked for years and spoken out in support of many reforms.”

In fact, Stamos claims she’s been a “statewide leader” in criminal justice reform efforts in Virginia. She points to her support for a bill to raise the felony larceny threshold as one example — before the General Assembly passed reforms this year, anyone accused of stealing an item worth $200 or more could be charged with a felony — and her work to lessen penalties for people convicted of their first marijuana-related offenses as another.

Yet Dehghani-Tafti, who currently serves as the legal director for Georgetown Law’s Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and has worked in D.C.’s public defender’s office, believes that Stamos’ attempts at reform haven’t gone far enough. Namely, she points to Stamos’ opposition to former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s push to restore voting rights to felons who completed their prison sentences as one troubling stance, and argues that Stamos has “opposed real bail reform.”

Stamos has taken some heat on the latter issue in the past, after she refused calls from a coalition of state lawmakers to stop requesting cash bail for criminal defendants. She subsequently agreed to end cash bail for people accused of most low-level misdemeanors, but even that step drew criticism from local public defenders for being “so limited as to be meaningless.”

“It’s not reform if it doesn’t change anything, and it doesn’t seem to me that she’s actually changing much of anything,” Dehghani-Tafti told ARLnow. “And getting rid of cash bail and coming up with alternatives will take a lot of work, and no one size fits all, but it’s not something that gets done in a press release.”

In general, Stamos has grounded her resistance to more comprehensive bail reforms in her concern that, without a cash bond in place, defendants won’t appear for court dates, therefore wasting the time of victims and witnesses alike. Stamos highlighted her “vigorous protection of victims’ rights” as a key part of her response to Dehghani-Tafti’s announcement, arguing that her newfound challenger fundamentally misunderstands the prosecutor’s role.

“It’s interesting that she describes herself as an “innocence protection attorney,” as that is what I’ve been engaged in for more than 30 years — protecting innocent victims from the hell of intimate partner violence, giving voice to the innocent victims whose loved one has been brutally murdered, or providing protection to the innocent elderly couple whose life savings became easy prey for the greedy and the unscrupulous,” Stamos wrote. “It’s striking that the word ‘victim’ is not mentioned once in Ms. Tafti’s announcement.”

But Dehghani-Tafti accused Stamos of creating a “false choice between protecting defendants’ rights and protecting victims” with such a focus.

“It’s a classic fear tactic, that’s, frankly, straight out of Trump’s playbook,” Dehghani-Tafti  said. “I think we can have a justice system that honors victims of crime and provides just outcomes for the whole community. They’re not mutually exclusive.”

Notably, Dehghani-Tafti’s post also did not touch on Stamos’ support for County Board member John Vihstadt in all three of his independent bids for office — Stamos is one of just three Democratic officeholders in the county to support his candidacy over the years, ruffling a few feathers among party leaders. Dehghani-Tafti, by contrast, has served as the county Democratic Committee’s lead spokeswoman as its press and public relations chair.

However, she said Stamos’ support for Vihstadt had “zero influence on my decision to run.”

“If she had a record that I believed in, I wouldn’t be running,” Dehghani-Tafti said. “I’d be supporting her wholeheartedly.”

A June 11 primary will decide the Democratic nomination in the race, and quite likely its ultimate winner as well — Stamos has run unopposed in both of her general election contests, thus far.

Photo of Dehghani-Tafti, left, via Facebook

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Democrats Hail De Ferranti’s Win Over Vihstadt As ‘Astounding Recovery’ From 2014 Defeats

John Vihstadt’s pair of decisive County Board victories four years ago were some of the lowest moments for Arlington Democrats since the county turned decisively blue decades ago — for many, that makes Matt de Ferranti‘s win all the sweeter.

De Ferranti’s seven-point win over the independent incumbent stands in stark contrast to Vihstadt’s double-digit dominations of Alan Howze in both a special election and a general election back in 2014. Those wins were widely seen as a rebuke to the Board’s Democratic majority, particularly with projects like the Columbia Pike streetcar and the Long Bridge Park aquatics center the targets of frequent community complaints.

Accordingly, county Democrats now see such a stark turnaround just a few years later as proof that they learned the lessons of 2014, and have responded to that dissatisfaction from voters.

“This is one of the biggest wins for Democrats in Arlington that I can remember,” Paul Ferguson, Arlington’s clerk of circuit court and a Democratic officeholder in the county dating back to 1996, told ARLnow.

Democrats surely benefitted from an energized electorate as well, owing to a midterm election that sent plenty of voters to the polls looking to send a message to President Donald Trump — nearly 101,000 people cast ballots in the race, about 37,300 more than in Vihstadt’s general election win back in 2014. De Ferranti himself acknowledged that “the broader national mood didn’t hurt” in powering his win.

But county Democrats also argued that de Ferranti’s victory, by a commanding margin, proved that the local party and its officeholders spent the last few years making meaningful changes to their way of doing business.

“That was an astounding recovery from 2014,” said School Board member Barbara Kanninen, who also won a convincing re-election over independent Audrey Clement Tuesday. “John is a very well-liked, very well-respected person. For Matt to put together a campaign to overcome all of those obstacles, the 2014 deficit he was starting with, that is absolutely a demonstration of the blue wave.”

Vihstadt did indeed have plenty of strengths, enough that many political observers around the county believed he could survive such a Democratic wave. He had the backing of a variety of current and former Democratic elected officials, a hefty campaign war chest and plenty of name recognition after years of civic activism in the county.

But all those factors were not enough for him to hold on to his seat, ensuring that Democrats will have unified control of the Board once more — Vihstadt himself declined an interview Tuesday night, and did not respond to subsequent requests for comment.

“People genuinely saw that we heard the message of 2014,” de Ferranti said. “Time doesn’t stand still. We’re evolving as a community and responsiveness is important. Fiscal responsibility is important, but also we have to make investments in our future.”

County Board member Erik Gutshall (D) agreed with that line of thinking, arguing that voters themselves have evolved over the last four years as well.

Vihstadt triumphed in 2014 by winning over many disaffected Democrats, to say nothing of independents and Republicans, largely by insisting on a more fiscally conservative approach to governing and emphasizing the close scrutiny of county projects. De Ferranti criticized that style as one that didn’t lay out a positive vision for the county, and Gutshall expects that voters were sympathetic to that message.

“Arlington has had the chance to reflect about where we are and make a choice about what direction we want to go,” Gutshall said. “Do we want to go toward a bold vision or do we want to stay focused on trying to maintain the status quo? With the benefit of four years, they had a chance to reflect on that and move forward.”

However, Gutshall would stress that such a comment is not “an indictment of John’s service.” While county Democrats have long yearned to unseat Vihstadt, the first non-Democrat to sit on the Board since 1999, none were willing to spike the football too vigorously over his defeat.

“Today, a decent person lost, and a decent person also won — the fact that both statements can still be true in Arlington should give us all hope for the future of our democracy,” county Democratic Committee Chair Jill Caiazzo wrote in a statement.

Board Chair Katie Cristol (D) was even willing to credit Vihstadt for helping the Board learn from his “clear-eyed approach on fiscal issues, in particular.”

“We’ve definitely seen a shift on the Board in how to be more inclusive in our decision-making… and that’s a real legacy for him,” Cristol said.

But Cristol also noted that de Ferranti’s win also completes the near-total transformation of the Board from just five years ago. Only Libby Garvey, a Vihstadt backer and former School Board member, remains from the Board that Vihstadt joined when he won in 2014.

Cristol and Vice Chair Christian Dorsey both joined the Board in 2015, and both were newcomers to the political scene at the time of their victories. When combined with the 45-year-old de Ferranti — a first-time candidate himself, who Ferguson dubbed “the best young candidate I’ve seen in my career” — Gutshall fully expects that the newly reconstituted Board will think, and act, a bit differently.

“It’s a completely different Board, and a Board that’s going to be focused on: ‘How do we meet our challenges and how do we take bold action?'” Gutshall said. “People want to be bold. They want to see progressive values put into action.”

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Arlington Democrats Confident of ‘Blue Wave’ in November

Arlington Democrats are promising a “blue wave” in a new round of yard signs distributed over the last few weeks.

The signs promote the full slate of Democratic candidates on the ticket in the county this fall — U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Rep. Don Beyer (D-8th District), County Board nominee Matt de Ferranti and School Board member Barbara Kanninen — alongside images of a blue tidal wave Democrats are hoping sweep them back into power nationally.

County Democratic Committee Chair Jill Caiazzo told ARLnow that the party’s joint campaign committee designed the new signs, and Democrats have been distributing them for roughly a month now. She expects that they’ve given out a “few hundred” so far, and fully plans to distribute more as Nov. 6 nears.

While signs boosting the whole ticket might be a fixture of yards and medians every election season, Caiazzo hopes this specific design taps into the “broader movement” organizing around frustration with President Trump nationwide.

“We hope they convey a need for sweeping change in our politics, and that’s coming in November,” Caiazzo said.

Despite pushback and talk of a “red wave” by President Trump, a succession of polls has supported the notion that Democrats have a distinct enthusiasm advantage headed into the midterms, which figures to help out local candidates down the ballot as well. If a blue wave is on the way for Democrats looking to take back Congress, even local candidates like de Ferranti and Kanninen stand to benefit.

Kaine’s contest with Corey Stewart, the Republican chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, isn’t projected to be a close race, yet it may drive Democrats to the polls all the same. Stewart’s embrace of Confederate monuments and past associations with white supremacist figures has made him especially controversial, even if polls regularly show him facing a double-digit deficit. Caiazzo expects Kaine to be “highly present” in Arlington leading up to the election, as driving up margins in the county is “important to their statewide strategy.”

Kanninen looks to be well positioned against independent Audrey Clement, a perennial candidate for county offices, but the “wave” Caiazzo hopes for might be especially meaningful for de Ferranti. He’s facing off against independent John Vihstadt, a well-funded incumbent who managed to win a pair of elections to the Board back in 2014 by wide margins and has earned endorsements from a variety of Democratic officeholders.

“We’ll take help from all corners and we’re certainly hopeful that the situation from national candidates will help us overall in Arlington,” Caiazzo said. “But we know it’s also important to campaign on local issues and we embrace that challenge.”

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Morning Notes

Parking Changes Among Child Care Proposals — Changing onerous parking requirements for child care centers is going to be “on the list of proposed ordinance changes we’re introducing” at a community meeting next Monday, according to a tweet from Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol. [Twitter]

Smoke the Dog Dies — “Smoke, the Arlington, Virginia, dog with a bucket list, died this week, the Animal Welfare League of Arlington announced Friday. In July, Smoke captured a lot of hearts in the area when the Arlington shelter announced that he had terminal cancer and that they’d created a bucket list for him.” [WTOP]

Letter: Arlington Lacks Airbnb Enforcement — A letter to the editor argues that Arlington County has been ineffective in enforcement of a short-term rental ordinance passed in 2016. Per the letter: “Short-term rental industry websites showed more than 1,000 units advertised for short-term rent in Arlington as of early July, but only 72 residents had obtained permits, down from 86 in January.” [Washington Post]

Dems Make Money Via Mail — The top fundraising activity for the Arlington County Democratic Committee: sending hand-addressed and hand-stamped letters. [InsideNova]

Tree Falls on Chain Bridge Road — Chain Bridge Road was closed Sunday after a tree fell and took down utility lines, for at least the second time this year. The stretch of Chain Bridge Road in Arlington that was closed is home to the most expensive house in the D.C. area. [Twitter]

Photo courtesy Jeremy Galliani

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Arlington Democrats Back Striking National Guard Workers

Arlington Democrats are throwing their support behind a group of workers with disabilities who have spent the last few months on strike, demanding the chance to unionize.

The county’s Democratic Committee voted Wednesday (Aug. 1) to urge Didlake, a Manassas nonprofit who employees the workers, to “respect the rights of its workers” at the Army National Guard Readiness Center on S. George Mason Drive and recognize that they’ve repeatedly voted to form a union.

“We feel the Democratic Party should support labor, and this was happening right here in Arlington, so we wanted to take a stand,” committee chair Jill Caiazzo told ARLnow. “It was not a tough call… and hopefully this will focus more attention on it and keep the drumbeat up. This issue is not going away.”

Roughly a dozen Didlake employees, who provide maintenance and custodial services at the center, walked off the job in late May, arguing that they have the right to unionize and negotiate with the company to somehow bring down soaring healthcare costs. But Didlake claims that, because the company only employs the workers through a federal program designed to help disabled people find jobs, they don’t have the same ability to unionize as other workers.

The dispute has made it to the National Labor Relations Board, where officials have twice ruled that the company should recognize the group’s union, organized with the help of a branch of the Laborers’ International Union of North America. Yet Didlake has repeatedly appealed the NLRB’s rulings, and its executives say they’re waiting on a final decision from the body before weighing their next steps on the matter.

“What we’re most concerned about is not being able to help our people with disabilities if the union comes between us and them,” Didlake CEO Donna Hollis said in a video statement released July 11. “We’ve been silent on this issue for too long… We care tremendously about our employees and want to make sure they’re not losing access to government funded programs and services.”

The company expects a final NLRB ruling before the end of the year. In the meantime, company spokeswoman Erika Spalding told ARLnow that Didlake has “had to hire temporary employees to fill the gaps” left by the striking workers.

“We agree that the wages and costs of healthcare can be improved for our employees,” Hollis said. “But we need more funding to serve more people”

Regardless of the company’s financial situation, workers argue that they’ve long been underpaid and had to cope with rising healthcare costs on low salaries. Some say they earn less than $13 an hour, and none of the striking workers make as much as $15 an hour, factors noted by the ACDC in its resolution supporting the workers.

They believe a union could help at least get the two sides talking to hash out these issues. But, for now, it seems the company and its workers will stay at an impasse.

“We are very constrained by the legal requirements around this so we are unable to communicate with our own employees around this issue,” Spalding said. “It would be construed as interfering with the employees’ rights to organize.”

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Morning Notes

Metro Workers’ Union Threatens Strike — The rail service’s largest union could launch a three-day strike, as it continues to tangle with GM Paul Wiedefeld. The union provided no timeline for when the strike might occur, but workers have launched two previous actions in recent weeks. [Washington Post]

School Board Candidate Levels Racism Accusations — Independent Audrey Clement, a frequent candidate for Arlington offices, accused the School Board of using the debate over the renaming of Washington-Lee High School to “dredge up Civil War history to divert attention” from the school system’s other problems. She’s squaring off against incumbent Democrat Barbara Kanninen this fall. [InsideNova]

Arlington Democrats Honor Longtime Activist — The county’s Democratic committee plans to name Herschel Kanter as the “senior Democrat of the year” on Sept. 30. His fellow Democrats say the move was a “no-brainer.” [InsideNova]

Nearby: Alexandria High-Rise Fire Hospitalizes Three — A blaze broke out at a high-rise along the 5000 block of Holmes Run Parkway around 2 a.m. this morning. [WTOP]

Photo via @thelastfc

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Morning Notes

Police Searching for I-66 Wrong-Way Driver — Police are still looking for the driver who crashed into another vehicle while driving the wrong way on I-66 near Rosslyn early Sunday morning, after being chased by a uniformed Secret Service officer who spotted the car driving the wrong way in D.C. [Fox 5, WTOP, Twitter]

Vehicle Crashes into House in Barcroft — A vehicle that was driven into the side of a house in the Barcroft neighborhood Sunday morning caused only minor damage to the building, according to the fire department. [Twitter]

Truck Brings Down Power Lines in Long Branch Creek — “Downed power lines caused around 1,000 customers to lose power in Arlington County on Saturday. Dominion Power said a truck ‘snagged’ the lines and broke two of the power poles around 8:15 a.m. It also damaged some vehicles in the area.” [WJLA]

Runner Struck By Car Hopes to Run Marathon — A local runner who was struck by a car while running recently hopes to run the Marine Corps Marathon in the fall despite suffering two broken bones in her foot. [Twitter]

Projects to Transform Crystal City — Six major transportation projects “will play a significant role in transforming the Crystal City area in the coming years.” [Bisnow]

Arlington Teens Arrested in Ocean City — Three teens from Arlington were arrested in Ocean City, Maryland after they pulled over to ask police officers about parking in the area and the officers “immediately recognized the strong odor of marijuana emanating from the vehicle.” They searched the car and found “roughly a half a pound of marijuana along with prescription drugs, methamphetamine, brass knuckles, an assisted opening knife and several items of drug paraphernalia,” plus “a full face mask in the vehicle [and] a .25 caliber handgun.” [The Dispatch]

Dems Still Distributing Print Newsletter — Print may be waning as a medium, but the Arlington County Democratic Committee is still going all-in on its printed campaign newsletter, “The Messenger.” The party is recruiting more than 400 volunteers to distribute the newsletter to homes throughout the county. [InsideNova]

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With a Low-Turnout Primary Win Under His Belt, de Ferranti Looks to November

Matt de Ferranti scored a decisive, 20-point win in his bid to become the Democratic nominee for the Arlington County Board — but with that success comes the daunting task of figuring out how to beat an incumbent who twice put up double-digit margins of victory four years ago.

De Ferranti, an advocate for Native American education, didn’t have much trouble overcoming cybersecurity professional Chanda Choun in yesterday’s primary. He earned more than 7,000 of the roughly 11,500 votes cast, and lost just two precincts to Choun, even though both were first-time candidates.

Yet the real challenge for de Ferranti will be translating his primary victory into a win this fall against independent John Vihstadt, who won both a special election and general election in 2014 after assembling a unique coalition of disaffected Democrats, Republicans and even local Green Party supporters.

“I’m looking forward to building the strongest grassroots campaign the county’s ever seen, because that’s what it will take to win,” de Ferranti told ARLnow. “But there’s time yet to get to the general. For now, I’m just very grateful for the team we built and the support we were able to build across the county.”

Many of the county’s top Democrats seem to think de Ferranti has what it takes — he earned the endorsement of three state legislators, two School Board members and a whole host of former elected officials during the primary. The county’s Democratic Committee also praised de Ferranti as a “terrific addition” to the party’s ticket in a statement Tuesday night, praising his focus on “maintaining our excellent schools, addressing housing affordability, improving our transportation system and stimulating a strong economy for all.”

Other observers, however, are less optimistic. While de Ferranti did win handily, he also ceded roughly 40 percent of the vote to a candidate in Choun who was broadly unknown in political circles before suddenly jumping into the race in February. Even with predictions of a “blue wave” election in November, it might not be enough to get de Ferranti over the top.

“It just really shows that his support is very thin, and there’s not much of it,” said Ben Tribbett, a veteran Democratic strategist. “John Vihstadt has got to be ecstatic… In my mind, it will be very difficult to lose as a Democrat in Arlington in this kind of environment, but it’s possible he’ll do just that.”

In particular, Tribbett points to the anemic turnout in the primary as reason for de Ferranti to be concerned. Though he never expected voters to flood to the polls for a local primary, he noted that Alexandria’s mayoral primary attracted roughly 10,000 more voters to the polls than the County Board race did.

Considering that Arlington has roughly 70,000 more residents than Alexandria, Tribbett finds that result “very telling.”

“A primary electorate of 11,500 shows it was essentially the people who always show up and vote, it doesn’t indicate real levels of support,” Tribbett said. “He’s trying to run as an establishment politician, when he’s not a politician and nobody knows him.”

The primary turnout represented just 7.7 percent of the county’s registered voters, according to the Arlington elections office, and did pale a bit in comparison to even past Board primaries. For instance, more than 15,200 people cast ballots when Erik Gutshall challenged Libby Garvey in 2016, and nearly 20,000 participated in 2015’s six-way race.

De Ferranti, however, said he was generally “pleased” with the turnout in the primary, especially considering that there wasn’t any other race at the top of the ballot to attract Democratic voters — neither U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) nor Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) drew primary challengers.

“We had a great contest with a couple of really strong candidates,” said County Board Chair Katie Cristol, a Democrat. “Credit goes to both of them for running inspiring campaigns that drew a lot of people to the polls.”

Yet Tribbett wonders just how inspiring de Ferranti will prove to be for Democrats who backed Vihstadt last time around, and even some who are considering doing so again this year. Garvey has already announced her intentions to support the independent once more, as have Democrats in two countywide offices: Treasurer Carla de la Pava and Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos.

“Look at who endorsed [de Ferranti] and who stayed out of it: why would any of them endorse him now?” Tribbett said. “What is his reason for why people are replacing John Vihstadt?… He’s not invulnerable, but you can’t beat somebody with nothing.”

None of the other three Democrats on the Board have lent the newly minted nominee their support as of yet — Cristol, for her part, said she’s “not ready” to discuss who she’ll be supporting — but de Ferranti believes he’ll have no trouble outlining his case against Vihstadt for skeptical Democrats.

“I’ll be acknowledging, ‘this is a decent person,’ but also making it clear that the values that I’ll bring to the position are different,” de Ferranti said. “I’m focused on returning Arlington to a fiscally reasonable approach, but one that’s open to visionary decisions like building the Orange Line, which required some investment.”

Photo via Facebook

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De Ferranti Captures Democratic Nod for County Board

Matt de Ferranti has won the Democratic primary for Arlington County Board and will face incumbent John Vihstadt in the November general election.

De Ferranti captured about 61 percent of the vote, to 39 percent for Chanda Choun, a relative newcomer to civic life in Arlington.

A lawyer and advocate for Native American education, de Ferranti has sat on a variety of commissions and volunteered for local Democrats since moving to Arlington five years ago.

Between the Democratic County Board primary and the three-way Republican U.S. Senate primary, in which Corey Stewart emerged victorious, overall voter turnout in Arlington was light — just over 10 percent.

https://twitter.com/ArlingtonVotes/status/1006690893963956224

The Arlington County Democratic Committee congratulated de Ferranti, calling him a “terrific addition to this solutions-oriented ticket.” More from an ACDC press release:

Arlington Democrats congratulate the Democratic Nominees across Virginia, and in particular, Matt de Ferranti for becoming the Democratic Nominee for Arlington County Board. Arlington Democrats came out to vote today because we clearly recognize that the best way to maintain the momentum of progressive change and blunt the Trump administration chaos is to keep voting!

Now that the voters have chosen the Democratic nominee for the County Board seat, Arlington Democrats are ready to work hard to elect the entire Democratic ticket, which also includes Tim Kaine for U.S. Senate, Don Beyer for the U.S. House of Representatives, and Barbara Kanninen for the Arlington School Board. These progressive leaders have delivered for Arlington, and they deserve reelection. Matt de Ferranti is a terrific addition to this solutions-oriented ticket.

Jill Caiazzo, Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee, expressed, “We thank both Matt de Ferranti and Chanda Choun for conducting a positive, issue-oriented and energetic primary. We are excited to have Matt on the ballot because he will move Arlington forward by maintaining our excellent schools, addressing housing affordability, improving our transportation system, and stimulating a strong economy for all.”

Caiazzo further noted: “Flipping Virginia Blue this year begins in our own backyard with this important County Board seat.” Since 15 elected seats were flipped blue in Virginia last year, Democrats have succeeded in expanding Medicare for 400,000 Virginians, even without a majority in either the House of Delegates or the Senate. Flipping the County Board seat blue will help Arlington make even more progress on issues that make a difference for all residents.

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Candidate Essay: Chanda Choun

Last week, we asked the two candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for Arlington County Board to write a sub-750 word essay on why our readers should vote for them in tomorrow’s primary. 

Here is the unedited response from Chanda Choun:

Hello!  I am Mr. Chanda Choun (pronounced CHAHN-duh CHOON), a resident of central Arlington. I work as a senior business manager and engineering leader for a cybersecurity tech company. I am also a part-time Army Reserve soldier assigned to the United States Cyber Command. My community involvement stretches across the County from civic associations to faith ministries to business groups to service organizations.

I came to America as a little child from war-torn Southeast Asia and grew up poor in a small Connecticut town. Regardless of challenging circumstances, duty compelled me do whatever needed to be done to succeed and serve my family, faith, and country.  Now, I want to serve you on the Arlington County Board.

So what am I going to do for Arlington? My governing platform can be summed up in three missions: Economic Development, Social Advancement, and Political Leadership.

Economic Development is #1. We need more money. Due to our 20% commercial office vacancy rate, there was a $20 million shortfall in our county government budget this year. Next year, taxes and fees may be further raised on businesses and residents. More cuts may be made to programs and services such as parks, roads, and schools. My goals are to attract new businesses, retain and grow existing businesses, and thus ultimately provide more job options and pay for all Arlington workers while lowering tax burdens on residents.

Big businesses fill our tall buildings and provide thousands of jobs along our transit corridors. I have worked with and in corporations managing multimillion dollar projects and will coordinate between civic and economic organizations to win large tenants.

The downsizing of federal agency and military buildings the last decade resulted in Arlington losing millions of square footage of occupied office space. But now the US Defense budget has been increased by $100 billion.  I will leverage my military/business experience and understanding of government procurement to guide these dollars back into Arlington.

We cannot forget small businesses. I started my career as a roadside diner dish boy and coffee shop coffee boy. Let’s keep local government processes from overwhelming business owners and managers with paperwork and paranoia. For example, Arlington did not allow online payment of building permits until this year! Small shops also keep neighborhoods distinct and memorable; some even call funky. As a civic leader, I will push for Arlingtonians, especially young people, to turn their gaze away from DC and patronize great places and people right in their backyard.

Social advancement is the second mission of my campaign. I want everybody to have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

Education is foundational to creating a better self and society. My goals are to find the material and monetary resources needed to accommodate our rapidly growing student population, recruit and retain high quality educators, and create better outcomes in life for all children.

Housing is next. Our opportunities are limited when the cost of living takes too much of a person’s paycheck. My approach to making housing more affordable is by increasing supply and lowering demand. There are parts of Arlington right now where denser, lower cost housing cannot be built due to outdated zoning regulations. Let’s explore zoning modifications and exceptions in our county’s General Land Use Plan. To lower housing demand, encouraging employers to allow telecommuting (work from home) and expanding Metro deeper into Virginia will alleviate population pressures that are concentrating so many people in our part of the Commonwealth.

Civic identity is key to pride in person and place. Symbolizing Arlington as the North Star of Virginia will give people an easy to remember visual to recognize and communicate to others. As more people proudly identify themselves as Arlingtonians, we can grow an engaged community that brings crowds to civic groups and local service organizations.

Political leadership is the third mission of my campaign. Arlington and its leaders need to elevate our profile, our model, and our values to the rest of America. As your County Board Member, I will be an ever present and highly known servant leader to Arlington’s quarter million people. I will present Arlington to the rest of Virginia as a visionary, well-planned urban county to be emulated when it comes to smart growth and high quality of life. I will present our County Board to the Nation as a model of caring, intelligent leadership shining across the Potomac River against the corruption and negativity in Washington DC. Arlington can be the North Star of Virginia… and America.

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Candidate Essay: Matt de Ferranti

Last week, we asked the two candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for Arlington County Board to write a sub-750 word essay on why our readers should vote for them in tomorrow’s primary. 

Here is the unedited response from Matt de Ferranti: 

I am running for County Board to tackle Arlington’s biggest challenges. I know and love this community and have the values, relevant experience, and vision to expand opportunity for everyone in Arlington over the next four years.

Our three biggest challenges: building the schools to educate all of our students, housing affordability for families and individuals at different stages of life and income levels, and a local economy that needs to be strengthened and expanded for our future and neighbors in need. We also need leadership to improve our transportation system and address climate change.

Our Schools

I am committed to educational opportunity and making sure Arlington Public Schools has the resources to provide every student with an excellent education. This commitment is reflected in my professional life.  I began my career as a teacher and now work as an advocate for Native American students at the National Indian Education Association.

I serve as the Chair of the Budget Advisory Council to the School Board. One of the main reasons I am running is to address our school capacity challenges. We must build additional seats in a cost effective manner so that we can educate every child as if they were our own.

Housing Affordability

I have worked for Habitat for Humanity and Rebuilding Together and believe deeply that housing must be affordable for middle class Arlingtonians and those working to get into the middle class. Teachers, firefighters, police officers, and everyone who works or lives in our community should be able to afford to live here. Residents should also be able to age in place.

I serve on the Housing Commission, which works to expand affordability so that everyone in our community can have a place to call home. I know that meeting the goals for affordable housing in our Affordable Housing Master Plan will not be easy. I will not be able to do it alone or overnight, but I will work on this issue with courage, creativity, and relentless commitment if I have the honor of serving you.

An Economy that Works for Everyone

I have worked as an attorney for local governments, so I understand land use law and the need for a vision and plan to address our commercial vacancy rates and encourage economic growth across the County.

I serve on the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission, which was created to improve coordination between the County Board and the School Board. As a graduate of Leadership Arlington and Arlington Neighborhood College, I know that we must pursue a vision for our community that brings jobs here that build upon our educated workforce and targets clean-tech, green-tech, and the knowledge-based industries that will help us thrive in the years to come. We must also value small businesses as critical community stakeholders and base all of our economic decisions on the best interests of all of our residents, now and in the future.

Economic Opportunity

Our economy must serve all Arlingtonians and provide opportunity for those in need.  We are the fifth wealthiest county in the nation, but we still have families who go hungry here. There are 2,200 households served by the Arlington Food Assistance Center every month. I will lead the effort to eliminate child hunger in Arlington.

The Choice We Face on Tuesday

So, on education, housing affordability, and our economy, I bring Arlington values and relevant experience.

I would bring these same core values to the other key issues we face. On transportation, I am committed to funding Metro, making good on our promises along Columbia Pike, and seeking revisions to the recent funding cuts to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. On our environment, I believe in our Community Energy Plan and will help lead our efforts to combat climate change. I will stand steadfast for an inclusive, compassionate community on immigration and LGBTQ rights. And I will speak out and work for common sense gun safety measures because all of us have a moral responsibility to act on this issue.

I have earned the endorsements of Greater Greater Washington, Blue Virginia and the Sun Gazette News. I also have the support of Delegate Rip Sullivan, Delegate Alfonso Lopez, State Senator Adam Ebbin, Clerk of the Court Paul Ferguson, Vice-Chair of the School Board Reid Goldstein and School Board Member Tannia Talento. To see a list of supporters or learn more please, go to www.mattforarlington.com.

I would be honored to earn your vote tomorrow and to serve you on the Arlington County Board.

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De Ferranti Touts Experience, Choun Promises a ‘Different Voice’ Ahead of County Board Primary

For about a month, it seemed as if Matt de Ferranti would be the only Democrat to throw his hat in the ring and run for County Board this fall.

With the Board’s lone non-Democrat, independent John Vihstadt, up for re-election, local party activists have been eyeing 2018 for years now. Yet, when de Ferranti announced his bid in January, he didn’t have much in the way of competition from his fellow Democrats, a stark departure from the surge in Democratic candidates in other races across the state.

De Ferranti, a lawyer and advocate for Native American education, has spent plenty of time in civic life since moving to the county five years ago — he’s sat on a variety of commissions and volunteered for local Democrats. But he’s also a first-time candidate and far from a sure bet to knock off Vihstadt.

Nevertheless, for weeks, he remained the only Democrat in the race, even as Jill Caiazzo made a pledge to run an open primary for the nomination a key part of her successful run to become chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

Chanda Choun, a cybersecurity staffer for software company Securonix, changed all that when he announced his own run in February, setting up Tuesday’s primary contest.

Choun freely admits that his decision to enter the race caught some in the party by surprise, noting that he only moved to the county in 2015 and became active politically immediately following President Donald Trump’s election. But he also believes his background as a Cambodian immigrant and Army reservist will help him overcome his lack of experience, even though a cadre of Arlington officials and civic leaders have lent de Ferranti their support.

“I understand why there might be confusion or questions about why I was running or who I am,” Choun told ARLnow. “But I believe I’ve answered those over the past four or five months… It’s about providing that different voice, and I think that’s struck a chord with people.”

De Ferranti, however, argues that his “relevant experience” working with elected leaders in county government shouldn’t be overlooked. He may not be quite as young as Choun — de Ferranti is 44, Choun is 30 — but he believes he’d also provide fresh perspective on the Board, informed by his years of experience.

“People want to know if you really have a plan and want to do the job, not just run for the job,” de Ferranti said. “I’m not running to get my name out there. I’m running to win.”

On policy matters, there isn’t much separation between the two. Both believe the Board needs to keep investing in county schools, transportation projects and affordable housing, even as financial pressures squeeze the county government — they’re also both willing to support a potential tax increase next year either, a distinct possibility as commercial tax revenues keep plummeting.

Neither candidate is a big fan of Vihstadt either, though both do acknowledge that the independent hasn’t radically disrupted the Board’s dynamic.

“There is some credit due to scrutinizing and looking carefully at our decisions,” de Ferranti said. “But once that is done, it’s about having the courage in making forward-looking decisions and understanding change is inevitable. It’s working with it, managing it and using change to shape our community in good ways.”

To that end, both Democrats want to see the county lure more businesses to Arlington and reverse the skyrocketing commercial vacancy rates in Rosslyn and Crystal City. The pair differs on how they’d approach that vexing question, however.

De Ferranti prefers to “look toward the next economy” by marketing the county to “clean tech and green tech” companies — he’s also open to further exploring the possibility of using vacant space in Crystal City to house students, a proposal often bandied about as the school system runs out of available land.

Choun wants to step up the county’s marketing efforts to lure in new businesses, but also lean on his experience in the military and in government contracting to bring federal government agencies back to Arlington, after many have fled.

“Let’s get those dollars back in Arlington,” Choun said. “That was our historic economic base. Obviously, we still want to diversify away from it, but let’s grow the pie as a whole.”

Another key separation: their feelings on the oft-discussed, but seemingly sidelined, Rosslyn-Georgetown gondola. Choun is open to studying the project in more detail, but de Ferranti is a bit more ready to write it off.

“I know there was some study, and I respect those who wanted to look into it more deeply,” de Ferranti said. “But almost everyone I talked to, and my own analysis and common sense, says it’s not the right thing for us.”

But with relatively few policy disagreements separating the pair, Choun expects that his background, as both an immigrant and a tech-savvy millennial, will help separate him from de Ferranti.

“It’s about building a coalition: millennials, veterans, military, people of faith, tech professionals, minorities,” Choun said. “It’s not necessarily about platform, but messaging, vision and character.”

De Ferranti, meanwhile, is counting on his more traditional approach of winning local office to carry the day. Beyond just the endorsements of the county’s Democratic establishment, he’s also pulled in plenty of cash from its traditional donors — he’s raised more than $54,000 over the course of the campaign from more than 175 different people, according to state records. By comparison, Choun has managed to pull in nearly $30,000, with $25,000 coming in the form of a loan from Choun himself.

“I’ve got relevant experience on the key issues to make a difference on the biggest challenges that we face,” de Ferranti said. “I believe more and more people are hearing that, and it’s why I have the support of so many.”

File photo

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Activist Carrie Johnson Dies at 77, Remembered as “Part of the Glue” Holding Arlington Together

Carrie Johnson, a fixture of Arlington County civic life and a longtime Democratic activist, died at the age of 77 this past Saturday (May 5).

Johnson served for years as the keeper of voter lists at the Arlington County Democratic Committee, earning the moniker of “list lady,” and she spent nearly 20 years on the county’s Planning Commission. She passed away at the Virginia Hospital Center due to complications from lung cancer, according to her nephew, Gavin Cahill.

Friends and family members remember Johnson as an intelligent and devoted member of the Arlington community, with a quick wit and quiet confidence. She lived in Ashton Heights, where she worked as a freelance writer after a career as a legislative aide and journalist in D.C.

“Carrie was beloved and respected by several generations of Arlingtonians,” Jay Fisette, who served on the County Board for 20 years, told ARLnow. “She walked softly, yet was as large an influence on Arlington’s civic culture and success as anyone actually elected to public office.”

Cahill says Johnson was born in Milwaukee, and moved to D.C. after college to start a career in politics. She spent eight years working as a staffer for a few Republicans in Congress before joining the editorial board of The Washington Post, where she wrote articles and speeches for then-publisher Katharine Graham.

Johnson moved to Arlington in 1979, Cahill said, and quickly got involved in the county’s political scene.

“She always used to say that she became a Democrat when she moved to Arlington,” Cahill said. “And she never looked back.”

Miriam Balutis remembers meeting Johnson at some sort of Democratic function back then — she says even three decades ago, Johnson was in charge of maintaining the committee’s lists of likely voters, a responsibility she’d hold for years to come.

“She put an extraordinary amount of time and effort into compiling those voter lists, sorting them, knowing what was up to date,” Balutis said. “And we put them to good use. We used to go to the polls on Election Day and track people as they were voting. So by the end of day, we would know who we needed to call, who hasn’t come to vote yet.”

Jill Caiazzo, the chair of the county’s Democratic committee, says Johnson’s efforts went far beyond lists — she credits Johnson’s data analysis work as a driving factor behind many of the committee’s outreach efforts.

“She was never showy in any way, but she was a force behind the scenes,” Caiazzo said.

Cahill says Johnson also joined the Arlington Planning Commission in 1986, and served on it through 2005. Fisette believes she was among the longest tenured members of the commission in Arlington’s history, and he says she mentored a whole host of commissioners to follow in her footsteps.

Johnson counted her prime achievement as the creation of Long Bridge Park, which sits across from the Pentagon, transforming a handful of industrial properties into a popular community space. Cahill said she also did lots of work on planning and zoning issues in Fort Myer Heights, Virginia Square and the Four Mile Run Valley.

“She modeled, through her behavior, the civility, competence and commitment to building this community you need to be in public service,” Fisette said. “She was part of the glue here.”

Cahill says Johnson also worked as both a freelance writer and historian, with a particular soft spot for Butte, Montana. She had no formal link to the town, but fell in love with the area’s history and even bought a house in Butte so she could research its history more closely.

In all, he feels that connection to a town thousands of miles away from Arlington is indicative of his aunt’s devotion to communities of all shapes and sizes, and the people who live in them.

“She just had a habit of really falling in love with communities,” Cahill said. “It became a big part of her life’s mission.”

Johnson’s writing talents briefly extended to ARLnow. She penned the inaugural article of the Progressive Voice column in 2014.

On his blog Tuesday morning, Sun Gazette editor Scott McCaffrey recalled a recent interaction with Johnson, who remained active in Arlington affairs despite her health problems.

Last month, Johnson spoke at the public-comment period of the Arlington County Board meeting, concerned about Virginia Department of Transportation-mandated limitations being put on turning left from Arlington Boulevard onto Irving Street.

(She came armed with suggestions to improve the situation, not the counterproductive my-way-or-the-highway approach that less seasoned civic activists sometimes adopt.)

Not being aware that there was any thing amiss with her health, I followed up with her by email to tell her I’d put something together on the issue. I got a note of thanks and was playfully chided that my missive to her had used “Route 50” rather than “Arlington Boulevard.” As Carrie correctly noted, Route 50 runs from Maryland to California, but Arlington Boulevard has a much more specific connotation. Use the latter, she suggested. (I did.)

In addition to Cahill, Johnson is survived by her brother, sister-in-law, and a niece. Cahill says the family is planning a June memorial service for Johnson that will be open to the public, but has yet to nail down details.

In lieu of flowers, Cahill asked that donations be sent in Johnson’s memory to the Arlington Parks and Recreation Fund of the Arlington Community Foundation at 818 N. Quincy Street, Suite 103.

Johnson is the second major Arlington civic feature to pass away this month. Lucy Denney died on May 1, at the age of 87, after a battle with cancer.

File photo

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Democratic County Board Hopefuls Clash Over Gondola Funding, How to Beat John Vihstadt

The two contenders for the Democratic nomination for Arlington County Board spent most of their May 2 debate in agreement on a wide range of issues — with one gondola-sized exception.

Chanda Choun and Matthew de Ferranti took turns emphasizing the need for more affordable housing and economic development in the county during the forum, which was held in Ballston and hosted by the Arlington County Democratic Committee. Both Democratic hopefuls had plenty of criticisms of the record of the man they’re hoping to knock off this November: County Board member John Vihstadt, an independent.

The rare policy divergence between the two came on a question about whether they’d support using county funds to help build the oft-discussed Rosslyn-Georgetown gondola.

De Ferranti, a lawyer and Democratic activist who’s racked up endorsements from a whole host of elected leaders, adopted the more cautious stance of other county officials and suggested that he’s “fairly wary of moving forward” with the project.

By contrast, Choun — a cybersecurity professional and U.S. Army reservist — borrowed a phrase from the ARLnow comment section to declare: “Gondola now!”

“I know it sounds silly, but I don’t think we should just write it off,” Choun said. “I don’t think there’s any harm to continue exploring this proposal.”

Choun pointed to previous studies of the project suggesting that it could ease the connection between Rosslyn and Georgetown by helping people bypass the Key Bridge, adding that the gondola could also increase access to the Rosslyn Metro station for Georgetown residents.

Yet de Ferranti said he’d much rather support Metro more directly via continued county’s financial support of the troubled transit system. He also noted that many local officials fear that Virginia’s recent deal to provide dedicated annual funding to Metro could pull badly needed money away from regional road projects.

“We have to preserve our existing bus routes and the transportation we have now,” de Ferranti said. “I just don’t think now is the right moment for us to get the gondola.”

But neither Choun nor de Ferranti will get a chance to weigh in on the issue at the board level if they fail to best Vihstadt, who became the first non-Democrat to win a seat on the County Board in 15 years back in 2014, and both candidates argued forcefully that they can topple the incumbent.

Choun attacked Vihstadt for, allegedly, being reflexively against growth and development in the county. De Ferranti said Vihstadt is so concerned with the idea of “fiscal restraint” that he’s opposed needed investments across the county.

Choun and de Ferranti differed on how they’d go about beating Vihstadt, who won with an unusual political coalition stretching from the county’s GOP to its Green Party.

“We need to acknowledge: this is a decent person,” de Ferranti said. “We have to relate and then persuade.”

De Ferranti leaned on his experience in county politics to suggest that he has the background to persuade Vihstadt’s backers, frequently pointing to his work on a variety of county advisory committees and with other Arlington leaders to demonstrate his community credentials.

“I’ll be detailed and I’ll be relentless,” de Ferranti said. “We need to return to our roots here.”

Choun, however, suggested he could bring more of an outsider’s perspective to the race. He conceded that he doesn’t have any endorsements and that his decision to jump into the primary “might have rubbed people the wrong way,” but he expects his unique perspective as a first-generation Cambodian immigrant will help him draw a stark contrast in the general election.

“We’re a diverse county now, so we need someone who can relate to the most people,” Choun said. “People want to see someone who is offering and calling for a change.”

Voters will pick the Democratic nominee on June 12. Arlington Republicans will decide whether they’ll run a candidate by May 23; Heitham Ghariani, an IT worker at the federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, has also filed to run as an independent.

Photo by Alex Koma

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Democratic County Board Contenders Debate Tonight

The two Democrats vying for the chance to run for a seat on the Arlington County Board this fall will square off in another debate tonight.

The Arlington County Democratic Committee will host the debate between Chanda Choun and Matthew de Ferranti at 7 p.m. at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association building in Ballston. Karen Nightengale, president of Arlington’s chapter of the NAACP, will moderate the event.

Voters will pick a Democratic nominee in the June 12 primary. The winner of the two-way race is set to run against incumbent County Board member John Vihstadt, an independent who is vying for his second term on the board after winning in 2014.

Arlington Republicans endorsed Vihstadt in that race, though the committee has put out a call for candidates that’s set to close next Tuesday, May 9. The GOP will hold a mass meeting on May 23 to pick a nominee if multiple candidates express interest in running, though committee spokesman Matthew Hurtt says it’s possible that no Republican steps forward for the race. Heitham Ghariani, an IT worker at the federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, has filed to run as an independent.

Democrats hope that a surge of enthusiasm associated with the national midterm elections helps the party restore its total control of the five-member County Board; Vihstadt was the first non-Democrat to win a seat on the board in 15 years.

De Ferranti, who currently works as legislative director of the National Indian Education Association and sits on several county advisory committees, has so far earned the support of local elected Democrats in his primary bid. Former County Board Chairman Jay Fisette announced his endorsement of de Ferranti on April 30, joining several other state legislators and local officials.

Choun works for a cybersecurity company and as a part-time U.S. Army reservist. He’s also the vice president of the Buckingham Community Civic Association and serves as a delegate to the Arlington County Civic Federation.

Photo by Anna Merod

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