Last week marked some of the heaviest campaigning of the season, with at least one debate every day of the week. Wednesday and Thursday saw candidates hustling from location to location for day-night doubleheaders.
Last year, the League of Women Voters annual candidate debate was the site of some of the most intense campaigning of the season, as tension nearly erupted into a fistfight during an intermission.
This year’s LWV debate, held Thursday, Oct. 16 at the Central Library, proved less contentious. But candidates for state and county races sparred over issues like taxes, transportation, gun control and English-language-only government.
The debate brought together all four candidates for County Board, two school board candidates, and Democrats and Republicans running for the 47th and 48th district delegate seats, the 31st district state Senate race amd Arlington's commissioner of revenue. Questions for candidates in all races were submitted by audience members, and selected by a panel from the League of Women Voters.
At least one candidate, Republican County Board nominee Rich Kelsey, has speculated that the grueling debate schedule may put challengers at a disadvantage.
Incumbents enjoy strong name recognition, but for their opponents, one of the most important campaign practices can be knocking on doors and introducing themselves to constituents. Debates provide a valuable chance to discuss the issues but cut into time for direct interaction with voters, Kelsey said.
<sh>County Board Race
<bt>All four candidates in the county board race agreed on one thing — voters should look at the incumbents’ record before casting a ballot.
Whether discussing taxes, affordable housing, development or small business, challengers Sarah Summerville (I) and Kelsey hammered away at Democratic incumbent Paul Ferguson and Walter Tejada.
“I entered this race because, like many Arlingtonians, I have a house that’s too small, a mortgage that’s too big and a tax bill that’s simply unacceptable,” said Kelsey.
Real estate tax bills threaten to push all but the wealthy out of Arlington, said Summerville. “We have a county board that refuses to recognize this problem,” she said.
Ferguson and Tejada engaged their challengers as little as possible, instead relying on their experience to persuade voters.
Answering a question about how to promote small businesses, Ferguson pointed to the Shop Arlington initiative he voted for this year. The program features a Web site that allows residents to recognize their favorite locally-owned stores. If reelected, Ferguson said he will continue efforts to limit big-block development, which benefits national chains at the expense of small mom-and-pop retailers.
Tejada emphasized citizen involvement rather than board action when it comes to small business. Throughout the campaign, Tejada has said bringing people together for a common cause is one of his strengths as a board member.
But incumbents haven’t done enough to guard local businesses against “the McDonaldization of Arlington,” said Kelsey. Summerville said she would push to begin a procurement process to give small businesses an advantage bidding on contracts with the county.
Incumbents defended the practice of giving developers bonus density in exchange for cash contributions, instead of on-site affordable housing. “One should not be ruled out from the other,” said Tejada.
But Kelsey criticized the idea.“We sell bonus density in Arlington County like Starbuck’s sells coffee,” he said. Summerville stopped short of opposing the practice but said the board needs to formalize a policy.
Ferguson cautioned against making sweeping policy decisions on all development questions. Parking requirements, for instance, must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, he said.
<bt>Partisanship issues bookended the debate between incumbent school board member Dave Foster and challenger Larry Fishtahler. By state law, school board members in the state of Virginia are elected without running as the nominee of a specific party, but political parties are allowed to endorse specific candidates.
At various times, Fishtahler, endorsed by the Arlington County Democratic Committee, has questioned Foster’s claims of being an independent. Thursday, he decided to be more blunt. “My opponent is a Republican,” said Fishtahler in his opening statement.
Foster responded in his closing statement, emphasizing that he has not and will not seek endorsement from any party. Partisan politics have not influenced decisions about student welfare, he said, nor should politics play a part in the decision of who should serve on the school board.
Plans to renovate Washington-Lee High School proved a hot issue in Thursday’s debate. Foster said the board had imposed too short a time frame for deciding whether to renovate the existing school building, or to construct a new building on what is now Quincy Park.
“I do not see a need to take the parkland,” said Fishtahler. “I do not like the idea of putting this high school right next to this library.”
The candidates also discussed how the board can reach out to residents who don’t have children in public schools. Foster succeeded in creating a budget advisory committee that gives any county resident a chance for input on how their tax dollars are spent.
Fishtahler touted a five-part plan to involve parents and community members alike, through parent forums, mentoring programs and web-based communication.
<sh>48th District Delegate Race
<bt>Incumbent Del. Bob Brink (D-48) and Republican challenger Steve Sass agreed on priorities for an Arlington delegate in the Assembly. Despite a subdued tone, Thursday’s debate showed subtle differences between the two candidates.
When asked to list their top three priorities, Brink and Sass agreed on the importance of education and transportation. Brink also advocated aid for Virginia’s “crisis” in health care. Public safety rounded out the trio of top issues for Sass.
Despite agreeing on the top two issues, Brink and Sass differed on specifics. Brink took a broader view of Virginia public education than any other candidate Thursday. While Sass and others focused on elementary and secondary education, Brink promised to work for Virginia students through the highest level. The incumbent warned voters that the Commonwealth’s highly-ranked college and university system could be in danger if the Assembly doesn’t act now to improve funding.
Both candidates promised to fight to bring more transportation dollars to Northern Virginia. But Sass emphasized road improvements like turn lanes on Lee Highway and repairs to the Washington Boulevard bridge, while Brink emphasized pumping money into mass transit.
Sass and Brink found agreement on the question of whether to repeal Virginia’s sodomy laws regarding consenting adults. Brink has pushed to have the laws repealed since he was first elected. “Now we know [the law] is not just unfair, it’s unconstitutional,” he said.
Sass, who is endorsed by the Log Cabin Republicans, said the Assembly has more important priorities than policing citizens’ bedrooms, and agreed the law should be repealed.
<sh>47th District Delegate Race
<bt>In the race to succeed Democratic incumbent Jim Almand, who announced last spring that he would not seek a ninth term, Al Eisenberg and Christian Hoff took little time in distinguishing themselves from each other. In opening statements, each painted a different picture of Virginia’s financial health.
Eisenberg pointed to a state budget crisis that leaves essential services “starved for funds.”
“We have the resources we need to support essential services,” said Hoff, who advocated a 5-percent cap on property tax increases.
The candidates found agreement on the issue of widening I-66. Eisenberg said the answer to traffic congestion is investment in mass transit, including better bus systems and rail to Dulles airport. Hoff called proposals to expand the footprint of I-66 “a broken promise.”
However, Hoff shied away from what GOP supporters have made the central issue in the 47th district race. Eisenberg announced in September that if elected, he would not step down from his job as vice president for government relations with the Greater Washington Board of Trade. Republicans have repeatedly claimed the position would create conflicts of interests for Eisenberg in Richmond.
The topic came up in the second question from the audience. Conflict of interest laws only apply, Eisenberg said, to situations where Assembly action would result in direct financial gain for himself or the Board of Trade.
Rather than attack the Democrat, Hoff simply said he hopes to win in November so Eisenberg won’t have to worry about possible conflicts of interest.
<bt>31st District State Senate
<sh>During the debate between candidates for Arlington's state senator, Kamal Nawash was a bit more reserved last week than he was at the Civic Federation candidate’s night in early September. In that debate, the first of the campaign season, the young immigration attorney came out swinging, arguing that Democratic incumbent Mary Margaret Whipple had been completely unsuccessful in representing Arlington’s agenda.
Last week, Whipple didn’t resist a chance to fire back. The first question posed to Nawash asked about campaign signs continually left in public rights-of-way, violating a local sign ordinance.
Nawash downplayed the alleged violation, saying that campaign volunteers may have accidentally missed some signs. “Fortunately my volunteers are as law-abiding as I am,” Whipple countered.
Nawash again found himself on the defensive when a questioner suggested he was supported by the National Rifle Association. “I’m a strong supporter of reasonable gun control,” said Nawash, adding that he has never owned a gun and never will. “It is a Second Amendment right, even though I don’t like guns.”
Whipple took the more controversial position on a question related to income tax deductions for senior citizens. The incumbent has said budget and tax reform will be the major issues in the next Assembly session, and there will be tough choices to make. While she would not support cutting tax relief for anyone currently receiving it, Whipple said it may be time to raise the age requirement and shift to a graduated scale that provides smaller relief for those with higher incomes.
Nawash refused to support any reduction of benefits to the elderly. “Our seniors are going through enough difficulties as it is,” he said.
<sh>Revenue Commissioner Race
<bt>In his opening statement, Republican nominee Tim Russo promised a spirited debate. He and Democratic opponent Ingrid Morroy delivered just that, sparring over controversial issues like bilingual communication.
Russo has spoken out against printing forms in Spanish, which he said is an unnecessary expense. Forms at the Commissioner’s office are simple enough that even non-native English speakers should not need translations, he said. “This is not rocket science,” said Russo. “This is not something that we have to invest a lot of money translating forms.”
“The Commissioner’s responsibility is not to teach English,” said Morroy, who promised to provide materials in English, Spanish and any other language necessary.
Morroy and Russo fielded some of the most blunt questions of the night. One audience member mentioned recently standing in line at the Commissioner’s office for two-and-a-half hours. The question was simple — “What are you going to do about it?”
Russo expounded on his proposal to extend office hours, arguing that he could create a rotating shift schedule that would improve efficiency without costing taxpayers more money in paying overtime.
Both candidates said they would integrate the Commissioner’s office and the Division of Motor Vehicles to create a DMV satellite office.