With less than two weeks to election day, tension is rising for many Arlington candidates, and the Central Library was the boiling point for campaign controversies last week, as three sets of candidates showed up for a debate.
The Oct. 17 debate, organized by the League of Women Voters and five other civic organizations, served as a showdown for candidates in the 8th Congressional District, county and school board races.
Tempers flared during the Congressional and County Board debates, and sometimes erupted in candidates trading insults and in one instance, a near scuffle. But audience members said they had come looking for information, not for professional wrestling.
The debate format allowed each candidate to give opening and closing statements, but primarily centered on questions from audience members, questions that ranged from local to international issues, including traffic, taxes and a possible war with Iraq.
But during the Congressional debate, James Moran, the six-term Democratic incumbent, and Republican challenger Scott Tate increasingly addressed each other rather than the questioners from the audience. Immediately following their debate, the conflict spilled out of the auditorium, as a shoving match ensued between campaign managers for the two candidates.
In opening statements, Tate criticized Moran’s position on homeland security, and said he would be more involved with the issue than Moran has been. Ron Crickenberger, the Libertarian party candidate for the Congressional seat, used his opening statement to express his views on handling traffic and terrorism. "In the last year, we’ve arrested 750,000 pot smokers, three terrorists, and no serial snipers," he said. That statistic, he said, reveals a gross misuse of law enforcement resources.
In his opening statement, Moran touched on policy issues, but said he mostly looked forward to responding to whatever concerns the audience would raise.
<b>ALL THREE FOUND</b> common ground on one subject, though, when they rejected the possibility of adding a third lane to I-66 inside the beltway.
"There has to be a much broader approach," said Tate. Crickenberger objected to the proposal on the basis that 100 percent of Northern Virginia residents would be taxed to finance the construction of the extra lanes, while only about 20 percent would use the road.
Moran said the real transportation issue is the need for better mass transit. "There are far too many single-occupant vehicles in Northern Virginia," he said.
In closing statements, Crickenberger summarized his political ideology by calling for a return to "individual liberty and personal responsibility." Moran and Tate concluded by criticizing each other’s campaign tactics, each claiming that the opposition had misrepresented his positions and records.
<b>CANDIDATES IGNORED ISSUES,</b> according to some voters in attendance. As the debate progressed, Moran and Tate spent more time addressing each other and less time answering audience questions.
"I’d like to see positive campaigning," said Merwin Liss, an Arlington resident who attended the debate. He had hoped the candidates would stick to the issues and leave the bickering aside. He accused Moran and Tate of "remaining silent about their positions and raising questions about the opponents’ position and motivation and behavior."
Noelle Stettner, a volunteer with the Crickenberger campaign, agreed that Moran and Tate were too focused on criticizing each other, and avoided the issues, unlike the Libertarian. "He’s the only one that actually answered the questions," she said.
Crickenberger’s answers were indeed direct. Asked if he would support the so-called "quiet communities act," a measure which would use government intervention to curb noise from automobiles and airplanes near residential areas, Crickenberger responded that he would support it "no more than I’d support a measure to treat people for hangnails."
Moran fired back that Crickenberger’s answers presented "simplistic solutions to complicated problems."
<b>THAT FIERY TONE</b> continued into the second debate, when Republican challenger Mike Clancy criticized the record of County Board Chair Chris Zimmerman, the two-term Democratic incumbent.
"A parking crisis – that’s his legacy," said Clancy. He went on to criticize taxation policies and a proposed ordinance that would allow the Arlington government to restrict homeowners’ right to cut down certain trees on their property.
"It sounds like my opponent wants to landscape your back yard," he said. Zimmerman defended himself by saying that the actions of one property owner affect the rights of other property owners. For that reason, according to Zimmerman, the county has a right to make certain restrictions.
Clancy’s criticism extended to all members of the board, who he called "the five clones."
The all-Democratic board represents the same type of unchecked power that leads to irresponsibility and scandals in the business world, Clancy said.
Clancy, who has been endorsed by the municipal employees’ union, criticized the county retirement system. Zimmerman called Clancy’s description "grossly inaccurate."
<b>CONTROVERSY CONTINUED</b> in the school board debate. As in their last several forums, two-term incumbent Mary Hynes and Beth Wolffe argued over minority achievement.
"It’s true that we didn’t meet our goals last year" for increasing minority achievement on standardized tests, Hynes admitted. But that doesn’t mean there has been no improvement, she said. Keys for meeting the minority achievement goals next year, according to Hynes, are recruiting top-quality teachers, providing "enriched curriculum," and individualizing instruction.
But Wolffe said Hynes’ plan is just more of the same unsuccessful strategy. "What we need to do is change the minority achievement program," she said. Second-language learners, those students who enter Arlington schools with limited English ability, need to be told that they can succeed, she said, and they need to be put into mainstream classes more quickly.