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.”
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.
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.
Water Disinfectant Switch — With the annual pipe spring cleaning complete, the Washington Aqueduct will be switching back to chloramine as its water disinfectant after today. [ARLnow]
Auction Item Prompts Mini Controversy — Ethical concerns were raised over the weekend by an item donated by State Sen. Barbara Favola (D) to an auction at the annual Fairfax Democrats dinner. The winning bidder was promised an official introduction on the state Senate floor. Favola responded by saying she was “horrified” and that she “never approved this auction item.” [Twitter, Twitter, Blue Virginia]
Choun Profiled By VOA — Democratic Arlington County Board candidate Chanda Choun had his campaign highlighted by the Voice of America. [Voice Of America]
Nearby: Wonder Woman and J-D Highway — Two items of note in Alexandria: first, Wonder Woman 2 is set to film some scenes at the Landmark Mall. Also, Alexandria is replacing signs marking Jefferson Davis Highway (Route 1) with its new name in the city: Richmond Highway. [Washington Business Journal, WTOP]