Half the field polished their speeches from home, while the other half took to the fundraising trail. But all four candidates for County Board closed out the holiday weekend by gearing up for the annual civic federation candidates’ debate.
The debate, held after press time on Tuesday, Sept. 2, marks the unofficial start of the campaign season and offers residents their first chance to see all the candidates go head-to-head.
Two county board seats will be up for grabs in November, as Democratic incumbents Paul Ferguson and Walter Tejada try to fend off challenges from Republican Rich Kelsey and independent Sarah Summerville.
Entering the final two-months of the campaign, the incumbents remain focused on the platforms that got them elected in the first place, while the challengers expect rising taxes, Democratic in-fighting and the controversial baseball stadium issue to create the most wide-open field in years.
“I’ll run on the issues that I’ve focused on in the past,” said Ferguson. “I think it’s important to stick to the agenda that you set out to achieve.”
Tejada, too, said his reelection bid will be about earning the opportunity to achieve promises he made to voters, when he was elected earlier this year in a special election to finish the term of late Board chair Charles Monroe.
Kelsey and Summerville expect to make an issue out of unmet promises. “Every year the candidates come out and say, ‘Yeah we hear you,’ and then every year nothing happens,” said Summerville.
Kelsey believes there are enough dissatisfied Democrats to turn the tide against the incumbents this year. “We’re counting on pocketbook independents and Democrats who are just sick of seeing their taxes raised year after year,” said Kelsey. “These guys [on the board] will not stop spending money like crazy until they lose an election.”
INCUMBENTS MUST RESPOND to those concerns, Tejada said. Facing double-digit increases in the average home assessment, board members voted to drop the real estate tax rate 1.5 cents this year. But that decrease still meant homeowners saw a sharp rise in their total tax bills.
The tax issue will affect the board race, Tejada said. “Localities need a different tax structure. We are too constrained right now,” he said. “Like many homeowners, I feel the pinch.”
While on the board, Ferguson has defended the current tax rate. It’s lower than most surrounding jurisdictions, he said, and ensures necessary funding for public schools, neighborhood conservation, public safety, environmental protection and pedestrian safety initiatives.
IF DEMOCRATS PROVE vulnerable in November, dissension within the party could be a major culprit. Summerville herself is a former Democrat who broke from the party and even sought Republican endorsement this year.
“I’m running as an independent so I can represent all the people,” she said. “I think politics in Arlington has become too partisan. The Republicans and Democrats have been like the Hatfields and the McCoys.”
But Kelsey said her candidacy threatens Democrats more than Republicans. “I think she ultimately helps us,” he said. “I think she drains some votes off of some Democratic constituencies.”
DEMOCRATIC DISAFFECTION isn’t just coming from within Arlington’s borders. Last week, Gov. Mark Warner (D) again criticized the County Board’s request that the county be removed from consideration for a major league baseball stadium.
A group of investors and the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, a state agency, have been trying to lure the Montreal Expos to the Commonwealth for some time. Three of five potential stadium sites are in Arlington, and the issue has been one of the most heated of the year.
Warner, the highest-ranking Democrat in the Commonwealth, has been a vocal proponent, as have other high-ranking officials from both parties.
“There’s no question that baseball is not, and there’s no possibility of it becoming, a partisan issue,” said Brian Hannigan, a spokesperson for the Stadium Authority.
But when the leader of the party criticizes a fellow Democrat two months before an election, that could spell trouble. “It’s not all shiny, happy faces in the Democratic Party, and I’m not going to shed any tears about that,” said Kelsey, who supports baseball.
In fact, he said, any baseball decision could help him. If Major League Baseball decides to move the Expos somewhere other than DC or Virginia, Ferguson could take much of the blame. “At that point, you can just start calling me Mr. Supervisor,” said Kelsey.
Summerville, on the other hand, founded the No Arlington Stadium group, and will make sure voters hear the word “baseball” plenty of times before November.
“The baseball situation has helped to show that the leadership is weak in our elected officials in Arlington,” she said. “I do not believe the baseball issue is dead. All the County Board did when they sent that letter to the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority was to step aside so the state could take the political heat. They knew it wasn’t dead.”