Tax bills that increased over 62 percent in four years. Admission of county blunders in Cherrydale. Baseball. Controversial issues abounded in the race for County Board.
Two seats were up — a board chair who served as a punching bag on both sides, and a newcomer yet to serve a full term. Add in low voter turnout and a former Democrat running as an independent who threatened to split the Democrat vote, and all factors were in place to lead to a Republican upset.
“This is the year that Republicans should beat us, if they’re going to beat us,” said Dan Steen, Arlington County Democratic Committee chair.
But it didn’t happen. In fact, Democratic dominance of Arlington elections increased. “It’s very gratifying to have a vote of confidence from Arlington residents,” said Board chair Paul Ferguson (D).
Compared with 1999, the last time two Board seats were up for grabs in the same election, Democratic candidates improved 6 percent. In ’99, Ferguson and his running mate, the late Charles Monroe (D), combined for 58.3 percent of the total votes cast. This year, Ferguson and board member Walter Tejada (D) took a combined 64.3 percent.
For the winning camp, it was a surprise. For the other side, it was frustrating. “I can’t think of anything I would have done differently,” said defeated challenger Rich Kelsey (R). “I can’t think of anything we could have done that would have changed their ability to get out the votes.”
<b>KELSEY FOCUSED</b> on taxes and responsible government as the main elements of his platform. Ideology wasn’t the problem, he said. “By every calculable measure, we won all 18 consecutive debates. But our job is to get our message out and make sure people receive it, and we obviously didn’t do a good enough job of that.”
Sarah Summerville (I) finished the race with 9,947 votes, for 16.3 percent of the total. As founder of No Arlington Stadium, Summerville led the fight to keep a proposed major league ballpark out of the county. Those efforts helped her get name recognition and even win two precincts — Glebe and Aurora Hills. But the notoriety may have proved a double-edged sword, with voters seeing her as nothing more than an anti-stadium crusader.
She had thoughts this week on what went wrong. “A lot of people saw me as a single-issue candidate, even though I was talking about a lot of things,” she said.
Baseball backers were quick to declare her campaign a sign that a majority of Arlingtonians may support the stadium proposal. But Kelsey supported baseball and didn’t get the voter response he needed.
“One thing was clear—baseball didn’t play the role we had hoped,” said Kelsey, who thought that his pro-stadium stance resulted in a zero-sum game. He probably picked up votes from single-issue, moderate Democrats who were willing to cross party lines to support baseball, he said, but may have lost an equal number of anti-stadium Republican voters.
<b>EVEN DISSATISFACTION</b> in certain parts of the county couldn’t manage to lure significant support away from the incumbents.
Cherrydale residents have been battling with the county for 13 years to get a new fire station, and Ferguson has admitted the county let the neighborhood down. Yet Ferguson still won the Cherrydale precinct with 444 votes, compared with 434 for Tejada, 317 for Kelsey and 245 for Summerville.
Speculation about why Democrats continued to dominate could be an exercise in overthinking — at the basic level, it comes down to the sheer party demographics in Arlington. “In the end, they have seven out of every 10 voters, so if they turn them out, they’re going to win,” said Kelsey.
<b>BOTH SIDES AGREED</b> it was a spirited race. “I didn’t win the election, but it was successful in a lot of ways,” said Summerville. She raised the least amount of money and had the endorsement of neither party.
With those odds stacked against her, pulling in almost 10,000 votes shows she can become a political force, she said. “I think that is a big group of swing voters, and I think we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with in the future, and we’re certainly going to hold candidates accountable in the future.”
Democrat success wasn’t just measured in votes, Steen said. Even in an election year with low voter turnout, 2003 races brought new volunteers to work on the campaigns. “I was very happy with the amount of energy we had in our campaigns,” he said.
Kelsey couldn’t agree more. He entered the race as an unknown; he takes pride in rising to the level where the Democrats viewed him as a threat worthy of working against.
For Kelsey, the battle was important. “The biggest winners of the day weren’t just the winners,” he said. “It was all those people who took on races that they knew were going to be hard to win, and fought them anyway.”