The Statewide Implications of the Vihstadt Election

Vihstadt interacts with supporters. Photo credit: ARL Now
Vihstadt interacts with supporters. Photo credit: ARL Now

by James A. Bacon

The election of John Vihstadt to the Arlington County Board in the general election last week, which has gotten very little play downstate, is rocking the Democratic political establishment in Virginia’s most liberal jurisdiction. Electorally speaking, Arlington is bluer than the sky on a clear October day — Obama won 69% of the vote in 2012, Romney 29% — yet citizens have had it up to their eyeballs with gold-plated spending schemes.

Arlington has done a superb job in managing transportation and land use, with the result that it enjoys the best of both worlds: a relatively low tax rate and a bountiful flow of tax dollars into the treasury. The county’s liberal Democratic majority deserve credit for having stuck consistently to their Smart Growth development strategy for decades and for doing an excellent job on execution.

But liberal Democrats do love to spend money, and a series of controversies over $1 million bus stops, an $80 million aquatics center, a $1.6 million dog park and a $350 million streetcar project has a lot of citizens up in arms.

Vihstadt, a Republican-turned-independent, won a special election in April, campaigning against the streetcar project as his signature issue. He won re-election last week with nearly 56% of the vote, making him the first non-Democrat to win a general election since 1983. It’s not as if the Dems didn’t turn out for the election — Arlington voters backed Senator Mark Warner with more than 70% of the vote.

County Board member Libby Garvey, a Democrat, has joined Vihstadt in opposing the controversial project in the five-person board. Now some observers are saying that the three pro-streetcar board members, two of whom stand for re-election next year, are on the hot spot.

The punditocracy has devoted considerable ink to the divining the extent to which the 2014 elections were a genuine Republican “wave” or a reflection of the fact that core Democratic constituencies don’t turn out in off-year elections. Vihstadt’s victory is indicative that something deeper than voter turnout or a new-found love of Republicans lies at the root of the election results. Democratic turnout was not an issue in Arlington’s local election — almost everyone’s a Democrat to begin with. But it seems clear that even some Democrats are uneasy with what is perceived to be runaway spending.

Not everyone sees it the way I do. Robert Parry, a former investigative reporter for the Associated Press and Newsweek, sees the vote as a triumph of the liberals’ all-purpose bogeyman — racism! As Parry observes in a recent column, white Arlingtonians don’t think of themselves as racist. But how else does one explain voter rejection of a streetcar that would provide transportation services to the county’s black community, which has been victimized by slavery… Jim Crow… residential discrimination… income disparities, etc., etc.

“Tea Party-style politicians have learned that — whatever the reality — they can exploit the Old Confederacy’s subterranean racial divisions for political gain,” writes Parry. “As we’ve seen in Arlington County, the strategy works not only in the rural Deep South but in relatively sophisticated communities in Northern Virginia.”

Talk about denial — Arlingtonians may be the most affluent, educated and liberal electorate in Virginia but they are closet racists who were duped by the Tea Party!

Sometimes opposition to big spending is simply… opposition to big spending. Republicans and independents may be greed-heads who selfishly want to spend their own money themselves rather than handing it over to politicians to spend it for them. But even some idealistic Democrats realize that if the United States is to preserve the welfare state, the country, the state and the county can’t afford to run out of money because they frittered it away on wasteful projects.

Other politicians with big spending plans should pay heed. Republican Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms — are you paying attention? Democratic Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones — how about you?

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14 responses to “The Statewide Implications of the Vihstadt Election”

  1. ” Vihstadt also won the support of the neoconservative Washington Post.”

    You KNOW you got a bogus narrative when FAUX and Limbaugh/Hannity call the WaPo the “lame stream media” and someone else calls them neoconservative!

    I think both Jim and Mr. Parry are tone deaf when it comes to racial issues.

    and Jim tickles me when he talks about “blue” urban – and spending money on infrastructure that contributes to the liveability and affordability of an area – than in turn attracts investment and tax revenues to make it a place that people of all races and income groups can live.

    So Jim wants Conservatives to take over these urban areas and essentially screw the pooch.. with their niggardly back-asswards approach to dealing with spending and races.

    tsk tsk

    Homework Assignment for Jim – find the most Conservative urban area in the US.

  2. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    Just because I’M curious: are you actually asserting that affluence, education and liberalism are markers that a person/collection of persons aren’t racist?

    1. Let’s just say that the demographic in questions certainly prides itself upon not being racist.

      1. you confuse race and class Jimbo… but that’s par for the course for Conservatives these days.

  3. Cville Resident Avatar
    Cville Resident

    Hmmm….most liberal jurisdiction? I think Charlottesville and Petersburg would have something to say about that.

    I’ve always viewed Arlington (and NoVa) as a very conservative place.

    1. Well as Jim pointed out – Arlington typically votes pretty blue in National and State elections as do most urbanized areas but that does not mean they are immune to local tax and spending issues but Jim seems to think that liberal-thinking folks are not fiscal conservatives… because he thinks they are – until this article not social conservatives or GULP – racists.

      I am amazed as the convoluted thinking though …People who think that way – in my view – fundamentally misunderstand the dimensions of NOT being Conservative – ESPECIALLY these days when the right harbors many bad examples of “humanity” ranging from science deniers to folks who fear and/or are circumspect about brown people no matter the flavor or culture- black, hispanic, muslim, etc.

      So we end up with these comic-book perspectives from white guys who just cannot fathom a world where there are lots of brown folks…so all manner of boogeymen get tossed into the political stew.

  4. This comment started life as a letter to the editor of the Arlington Sun Gazette in response to the SunGaz article “Arlington Democrats start to regroup after County Board election debacle”, but he didn’t have room for it and I think it has relevance here. You’re suggesting that Arlington’s election of Vihstadt is a response to overspending by our County Board. I think that’s only part of what’s going on. SunGaz also said “Apparently, they did not see it coming, and Arlington Democratic leaders’ public and private reactions to the party’s drubbing in the County Board election ranged from nonplussed to borderline apocalyptic.” and also: “.. voter discontent at County Board decision-making was palpable.” The first huge clue for me that change was in the air was two years ago when I was discussing the Garvey-Bondi primary with a friend who had always seemed to me a Dem loyalist, and he said, “Don’t vote for Bondi, she’ll just be Zimmie’s poodle”. Lots of Dems made the same choice, and Garvey is on the County Board today. Then Vihstadt won a special when Zimmerman resigned to take a swell NGO job, and then Vihstadt won AGAIN, and BIG, in the recent general election, which put paid to the idea the Demmies had been trying to peddle that this was a specific special election phenomenon.

    The Clinton-era political operative James Carville got a lot of his national reputation from his colorful sayings, mostly sort of zoological: “That dog won’t hunt”, the parable of the frogs in gradually heated water, “If you can’t run with the big dogs, stay on the porch”, “Why do dogs lick their…” um, let’s not go any further with that last one, we’ll go back to the frogs. The frogs story said they will boiled alive in water which is very gradually brought to a boil, because they don’t notice things getting worse until it is too late. A nice story, which has passed from use in the last few years both because these things have a shelf life and because it is scientifically Not True, gradually heated frogs in fact notice that things are getting bad and try to escape.

    The application of this story in Arlington, I think, is that the Dem-dominated Board amassed a huge store of good will during the Bozman-Whipple-Eisenberg-Milliken-Brunner era. The Board made a lot of good decisions, listened carefully to citizens and tried to go forward in ways which they would support. During what I’ll call the Zimmerman Steamroller era there was a shift from that public servant model to what you might call a ‘leader’ model – Zimmerman himself was remarkably candid about it as he left office, was quoted in the Arlington Now blog on Feb 11th: “In the end, each Board member has to make a judgment about what is best for the community…Leadership is the unflinching exercise of that judgment without regard to momentary swings in popularity. I believe that the great success Arlington has had is the result of the combination of leaders who actively engage the people; listen closely to what they’re saying; and then chart a path that they, in their best judgment, believe is most likely to result in the ultimate happiness of the community; and the willingness of the people in this community to let them do so.”

    We’ve just seen the limits of that ‘willingness’… It’s partly about the staggering cost of some of the Board members’ fave projects, but only partly. Some are calling the current majority the Trolley Troika. As I said, it’s only partly about the money: if you look at Ben Tribbett’s map (it’s up at Blue Virginia) of where in Arlington Vihstadt did well, a lot of it is in the neighborhoods of prized parks which the Board has been thinking about converting to affordable housing or school sites. Hynes’ Hackney Carriage? The Tejada Trimotor? Fisette’s Fiacre?

    The sterile legalisms with which the majority has attempted to cow citizens away from opposition to the trolley, the temporary classrooms on the athletic fields, the thriftlessness of demolishing Old Wakefield as the need for a new middle school came into view, use of proffers as a slush fund for Board hobby horses, the threat to divert scarce parks to other public purposes – all of these things combine to breed skepticism about Board statements. The water’s gotten hot, and the frogs have noticed.

    1. Does this mean that Arlington is on the forefront of urban areas turning Red or that Dems in blue urban areas are just as racist as racists or both?


      1. Larryg – I think neither. I think it’s that Arlington’s Board has been uniquely tone deaf on the extent to which they have angered their voters by riding their hobby horses instead of taking care of nuts-and-bolts government. It’s partly their thriftlessness, but also they have threatened beloved neighborhood parks with conversion to housing/schools etc.

        As to having a message for governments in the rest of the state, I think it’s ‘tend to your knitting!’ rather than any global revulsion against spending.

        1. then it’s not about race and it’s not about Red politics… right?

          Arlington is an affluent conclave. But even affluent conclaves rely on service workers. Where do you plan to house them or are you expecting the interstate to bring them – and then where do they park?

          A truly vibrant urban area – has affordable housing for it’s service workers.

          what’s the plan?

          1. It’s the Trolley Troika who are calling for demolition of huge swaths of what affordable housing is left in Arlington, in the notion that they will be able to extort enough affordable units from the developers of the granite-counter units which replace them to keep number of such units relatively stable. This requires a belief that trollified Columbia Pike will be so attractive, relative to Tysons, the RB Corridor, the Red Line in nearby Maryland, and Aitch Street, that it can get that kind of top-up from developers in exchange for bonus density.

            I mean – I started out trying to respond to Bacon’s question about why the Arlington Board is in huge trouble with its voters, and now we are sliding into ‘is Zimmie’s Twee Little Trolley desirable?’. I think it isn’t, and that it spends staggering amounts of money on a sort of Hail Mary hope for big development riches which seem to me not all that likely to materialize. But I think what I am trying to do in these comments is to suggest that it’s only partly about the money and the Arlington Board has squandered public backing in ways that other VA governments aren’t particularly likely to have duplicated.

            Service worker housing is a big deal. Probably the worst situation in the country is Santa Barbara, where McD’s has to pay huge wages because there is no place within 60 miles where somebody can live on their usual wages. I agree that it’s undesirable to make every burger flipper drive in 20 miles from Woodbridge, though it’s a lot more workable here than in Santa Barbara. You say ‘what’s the plan?’ and I got no plan, but I think the plan ought not be razing much of the affordable housing that now exists in the hope that Vornado and Clark will replace it.

          2. there are two components to change:

            1. – people don’t like what we’re doing now

            2. – someone has a better approach

            we’re now electing folks on 1. only.

            right? we’re gone from leadership to opposition only.

  5. Andi Epps Avatar

    I admit I am not nearly as versed in all things Arlington but what I noticed, was the “Republican turned Independent”. I noticed it because I am a REAL Independent, and it makes me mad as hell when someone walks away from their “party” to run as an “I”…just because they would loose as a “R”???
    And smart growth or not, if they are wasting money as suggested, maybe they need to do a bit of internal reflection.

    1. we’re in a destructive phase these days. We don’t like how things are now but we really don’t know what we want to do instead – but we’re willing to tear down and see what happens next.

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