The increasingly acrimonious race for State Senate between Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) and her Republican challenger Dave Hunt is not the only race generating heat in Reston these days.
While it may lack the record-setting budgets, glossy direct mail advertisements and seemingly endless stream of roadway signs that has come to characterize the Howell-Hunt contest, the normally staid Reston Community Center (RCC) preference poll has emerged as a hot-button battle over the future of the center, complete with backdoor politicking, name-calling and more debates about a Reston skate park.
With its nine remaining candidates — Karen Loehr, dropped out last week — the 2003 preference poll will fill three open slots — a third of its adult seats — on the RCC's embattled board of governors.
The RCC has endured a year of high-profile debates and public spats, most notably with the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce and the West Market neighborhood, on the proposed skate park, the board's governance structure, budget overruns and a subsequent county-initiated audit of RCC's fiscal policies and practices.
At this time last year, the preference poll had three candidates for three seats. The lack of drama from the mostly pro-forma election showed at the ballot box. Barely 300 eligible voters cast their ballots, a low number even for a system which has historically struggled to generate a strong voter turnout.
Thanks to the ongoing simmering debates, this year may be different, observers predict.
Denny Kern, the RCC executive director, says he is excited about the long list of candidates. Kern said he suspected that RCC's "fairly high profile year" helped contribute to the increased interest. "We think it's great that the community has a high interest in this election," Kern said. "Increased community involvement is a good thing. We welcome it."
Ruth Overton, the RCC president, said this year's campaign is as competitive as she has ever seen. "It's just as competitive, if not more, than when we were trying to get the Lake Anne center back."
FROM INTERVIEWS with the candidates, their own written statements and a Comcast-sponsored forum Monday night, a clear division has emerged, similar to the one seen in the skate park and governance debates with one group of candidates extolling the virtues of RCC and another calling for increased "fiscal responsibility" and better accounting of Small District #5 tax dollars.
Along with incumbents Jan Bradshaw and Dino Salin, Bill Bouie, Tara Coonin and Kathleen Driscoll McKee are endorsed by the Alliance for Better Communities (ABC), a loose coalition of old-guard Reston residents, many of whom are long-time Restonians, that is looking to "help good people get elected," said one of its members, Joe Stowers.
Despite having three seats up for grabs, ABC went ahead and endorsed five candidates. In a meeting at Stower's house last week, ABC members expressed concern that having so many candidates could result in a five-way split, opening the door for the other side, Stowers said. "Sure, of course, that concerns all of us," he added.
Fallout from that meeting helped convince Loehr to drop out, Stowers said. "Some of us were hoping that two or three more would follow suit. That didn't happen," he said. "It is clear that the remaining five are all really committed. I don't even know how I will vote."
Saying it was entirely her decision, Loehr confirmed she dropped out because she "did not want to split the vote." A strong proponent of the skate park and a small business owner in Reston, Loehr said she was "concerned" about candidates James DeAngelo, Carl Levine, Joseph Lombardo and Larry Williams and said their opposition to a skate park and the tax district drove their respective candidacies. "I am very scared about them," she said. "They have a basic lack of understanding about the role of RCC and the amount we actually pay in taxes."
Stowers agreed. "Two of them come from West Market," he said, referring to DeAngelo and Lombardo. "Essentially, this is just a spin-off from their skate park opposition and it has gone on to be anti-community center and anti-tax district."
After leaving the race, Loehr endorsed Bouie, Bradshaw and Driscoll McKee. The former candidate singled out Bouie and Driscoll McKee's long-standing community involvement and incumbent Bradshaw's experience on the board in her endorsements.
FURTHERMORE, three of the ABC candidates — Bouie, Coonin and Driscoll McKee — have formed a slate, endorsed by current RCC board member John Lovaas and Reston founder Robert E. Simon among others. They have been campaigning as a team, passing out fliers touting their credentials. The two ABC candidates left off the slate are the only two incumbents up for re-election this year.
Coonin said Lovaas had brought the three candidates together and they then met with Simon. "It's a good opportunity to get some new people with a fresh perspective on the board," said Coonin, who missed Monday's candidate forum.
Incumbent Marion Bonhomme-Knox declined to run again this cycle, but she did endorse her fellow board members Bradshaw and Salin in their own reelection bids.
Bradshaw, said she would have liked to have been included in the slate, but she said she was happy to have received an endorsement from Overton, the RCC president, and ABC. Bradshaw said vote-splitting is a concern, but added she never seriously considered stepping aside. "I have invested too much time and energy in this effort already," she said. "I am not the kind of person who can start something and not see it all the way through."
After Monday's candidate forum, Beverly Cosham, a current board member, said the introduction of the Lovaas-led slate "complicates matters a little." Cosham said she was inclined to support her colleagues Bradshaw, Salin, and "probably Bill Bouie."
Simon, who has helped pass out fliers for the three-person slate, admitted the whole process is "very confusing." "In the beginning, you want a whole bunch of good people to run," he said. "But then you realize it's just terrible to have six 'good guys' running. And you remember what happened when Ralph Nader ran alongside Al Gore and drained votes away from Gore."
Simon said it would be "perfect" if two more candidates dropped out of the race. Simon said six of the candidates were considered for the slate he and Lovaas are backing. "That wouldn't have been my pick exactly, but you make deals."
Overton echoed Simon's concerns. "It would be a little bit nicer if there were only three," she said, adding that no matter the outcome she believed RCC would not suffer any "great changes."
AN OPPOSING SLATE has emerged among three of the four other candidates, not endorsed by ABC. Like the Bouie-Coonin-Driscoll McKee triumvirate, candidates Lombardo, Levine and Williams are also running as a team on a platform of fiscal responsibility and RCC accountability. They have been endorsed by the newly revitalized Reston Homeowners Coalition (RHC), according to RHC member and former RCC board member Vera Hannigan. "The Homeowners Coalition doesn't not have its own slate," Hannigan said. "We reviewed all the bios and we decided that [the Levine-Lombardo-Williams team] their positions most closely aligned with us."
Like DeAngelo, Lombardo is also a resident of West Market and a skate park opponent, but DeAngelo, who is not running on a slate with the other three, maintains he is one of the few "independent voices" and "voices of reason" running in the preference poll. "I want to be a conduit between new Reston and old Reston," said DeAngelo, who did not take part in Monday's televised candidate forum.
In Monday's forum, Williams said his slate hoped to minimize friction and fractures in the community. "There is only one Reston," he said.
DeAngelo, a financial analyst, said he preferred being on his own as opposed to the "party-like" structure of the two slates. DeAngelo pointed to fellow West Market resident Robert Goudie, a spokesman against the skate park and a member of the special RCC governance panel, as one of the leaders of the Levine-Lombardo-Williams slate. "I guess I didn't balance their ticket, but it's better for me this way. I can't be scripted," he said. "Robert is a smart guy. His hand is heavy in this, but he's not a bad guy."
For his part, Goudie, who attended Monday's forum, said he was still "studying" the candidates before voting.
West Market's own October newsletter implores residents to vote in the ongoing election and details the community's skate park opposition. "There are candidates running who have a strong Town Center platform, and those candidates will be reaching out to those of in West Market in the coming days," it read. "It is important for our community."
BOUIE, A PAST PRESIDENT of Reston Youth Baseball, said it was clear to him why candidates Levine, Lombardo and Williams were in the race: the skate park. "This is a community center we are talking about whereas they see something associated only with government and taxes," Bouie said before Monday's forum. "Plain and simple, they are there to kill the skate park."
Bouie went on to say there are "many people north of the Toll Road who just don't get what the community center is all about."
"Most of these people don't even know where the community center is," he said. "They have never set foot in the building."
Driscoll McKee continued the theme during the debate. "It's the Reston Community Center, not the Reston Business Center," she said.
Later in the debate, Williams, a division manager for a $6 billion technology company, admitted he had never used any RCC programs in his five years in Reston. "I really haven't taken advantage of any of RCC's programs," Williams said, before adding he and his wife have enjoyed concerts, co-sponsored by RCC, at Reston Town Center.
Everyone else in the forum, on both sides, recited a laundry list of favorite RCC activities. Salin called it her "second home." Driscoll McKee said she had "probably taken every cooking class ever offered." And Levine said the CenterStage productions and the pool were personal favorites.
LEVINE, A RESTON RESIDENT since 1996, has served on the Reston Citizens Association (RCA) and Reston Town Center Association (RTCA). He said he was drafted to run, but declined to say who recruited him. Levine, who said he would be a voice for seniors on the RCC board, objected to arguments that his slate is running only in opposition to the proposed skate park. "We're not against the idea of a skate park," Levine said. "This is a Fairfax County matter, not a special tax district issue."
Like Levine, DeAngelo stressed his skate park opposition was not fueling his candidacy. "NIMBY [Not in My Backyard] arguments are not always bad," DeAngelo said. "It's just that they want to build the Taj Majal of skate park just yards from people's backyards."
Support for Levine, Lombardo and Williams extends beyond the town homes of West Market. In a letter to the editor this week, Karl Ingebritsen, the first chamber president and director of LINK, cited RCC's troubling "recent track record," in his endorsement of the Levine-Lombardo-Williams ticket and said it would help get the RCC "back on track" and restore "sound fiscal management" to the organization.
Bonhomme-Knox, the current chair of the RCC finance committee, said she was "pleasantly surprised" to see so many pro-business candidates on the ballot this year. While she doesn't agree with their platform, Bonhomme-Knox was quick to salute their initiative. "I would never want to deny anyone's voice. We urged the chamber to participate in the open election process and they have," she said. "I see that as a good thing and I wish them nothing but luck."
Though on the opposing slate, Coonin said she, too, welcomed the competition from what she called the "Republican Slate." "I welcome diversity— the more the merrier," said the lifelong Reston resident and first-time candidate. "It's great that people from West Market are getting involved. Do I have differences with them on the future of RCC? You bet I do."
Tracey White, the chamber president, said neither she nor the chamber had any formal role in the recruitment of candidates, adding that she was still reading up on all nine declared candidates. "I think it is a great sign that so many people are running. Any time you can get more people involved in your community, it is a good thing," she said. "I am hopeful our interests will be served."