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Poll Fuels Campaign Controversy

New political action committee enters political scene with controversial phone survey.

When the phone rang one night last week, Kate Pemberton took time out from feeding her 10-month-old child to answer it. The caller asked her to answer what she thought was a typical political survey, like the ones she gets nearly every year during campaign season.

By midway through the call, Pemberton, a Democrat and supporter of incumbent County Board chair Paul Ferguson, was having second thoughts. “It kind of raised the hairs on the back of my neck,” she said.

Similar calls went to residents from all over the county last week, and Ferguson supporters cried foul, calling the survey a “push poll,” designed to influence public opinion by misrepresenting the board chair’s record.

“It appears that many of the statements used in the poll are false,” said Ferguson, who predicted a backlash. “When you do negative stuff, especially in Arlington, generally it will backfire.”

Several Democrats pointed fingers at Ferguson’s Republican challenger, Rich Kelsey. But Kelsey said he had nothing to do with the poll, and learned of it only in the last few days. “The poll is driving people crazy. I got a lot of calls on it this last week,” he said. “I know Paul Ferguson went around telling everyone what a no-good son of a [gun] I was for putting something nasty out there.”

Kelsey said he wasn’t sure who comprised the group that commissioned the survey. “We’ll just have to see who they are and what they do. If it’s true they were talking nice about me and talking bad about [Ferguson], I’m not going to cry about that. I could use some allies.”

<b>POLLSTERS ASKED</b> a series of questions about county issues, including the possibility of locating a Major League Baseball stadium in Pentagon City and a proposal to spend omore than $2 million on public art at the water pollution control plant. Pemberton said questions focused heavily on Ferguson, who, along with board member Walter Tejada (D), is up for reelection in November.

“It was very nasty. It left me with a bad feeling,” said Pemberton. “It was definitely designed to take Paul Ferguson down a notch, or ruin him.”

<a href="http://http://www.venturedata.com">Venture Data</a>, a Utah-based polling company, conducted the survey at the behest of a political action committee called Save the Arlington Way.

<b>FOUNDER OF</b> the committee is Paul Sheridan Jr., a private practice attorney, lifelong Arlingtonian and son of retired Arlington circuit court judge Paul Sheridan.

“The committee was started in the last few weeks,” said Sheridan.

He said that the committee believes board members have circumvented the public process on a number of issues including baseball, the possibility of widening I-66 and a conference center planned for Pentagon City on land that was being eyed for a stadium. Ferguson has taken a stand against a baseball stadium and against widening I-66.

“The ultimate goal is to have the county board listen to its citizens and not rush to judgment on any issues. But particularly on issues that affect so many members of the county,” said Sheridan. The survey, he said, was a legitimate attempt to find out what Arlingtonians think about the issues.

“We intended it for exactly what it was — information gathering,” he said. “Most of us [on the committee] are not political folks. We’re private citizens, and we wanted to understand what our fellow citizens care about.”

Sheridan said his committee has no formal connection to Kelsey’s campaign, the Republican Party, the Virginia Baseball Club, Virginians for Baseball or the Arlington Baseball Coalition.

Virginia Baseball Club has no formal connection to Sheridan’s committee, said Jerry Burkot, a spokesperson for the Club. But he said that the club does share some members with Save the Arlington Way.

Sheridan declined to provide a transcript of the questions asked in the survey. “I never wanted to publicize this poll, I never asked to publicize this poll, and I won’t publicize this poll,” he said. “Paul Ferguson and his colleagues are making this a public dispute when it hasn’t been.”

Save the Arlington Way is officially registered as a PAC and must, according to state law, submit financial statements, but those statements are not available at this time. Sheridan declined to say how many people belong to or contribute to the committee, but he said numbers are growing.

<b>DEMOCRATS WHO RESPONDED</b> to the poll said several questions misrepresented Ferguson’s record. “They put forward several things as if they were true, and I happen to know that some of it was not true,” said Peg Willingham, a supporter of the local Democratic party.

Pollsters posed questions based on false records, she said, then asked, “If this were true, would you be more likely or less likely to vote for him.” If someone received the call and wasn’t familiar with local politics, they could easily be swayed, she said.

“Polls like this have the ability to reach mass numbers of people with false information,” said Pemberton.

Sheridan declined to say how many people were polled, but called it “a small number.” Ferguson supporters said as of Monday, 8-10 people had called to complain.

Nisenson also received a call to take the poll. Nisenson said one question implied Ferguson had blocked a study of widening I-66. Ferguson opposes widening, but has not taken action to block the study, which is supported by Gov. Mark Warner (D), U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11) and U.S. Rep Frank Wolf (R-10).

Representatives from Venture Data did not return calls for comment.

<b>KELSEY WELCOMED</b> Save the Arlington Way to the political scene, even though he says he is not involved in the committee, “as long as they conduct themselves professionally. If they’re going to be active in the campaign, that’s good for the process,” he said.

But some respondents said that’s exactly what the poll didn’t do. Barcroft resident Kenny Harold is a life-long Republican but supports Ferguson. Harold called the survey a “push poll” and said pollsters tried to make him believe the board chair made decisions for the county in closed-door meetings. “To me, I just don’t believe that’s the case. What the guy has done in the past, as far as I’m concerned, is on track,” said Harold. “I thought [the poll] was a little underhanded.”

Sheridan and Kelsey both said that there’s no need to misrepresent Feguson’s record, and the board chair should be prepared to defend his positions. “I would ask him and others who feel that way to review the record over the past three months,” said Sheridan. “The record itself is not very flattering.”

“I take great comfort in knowing that they’re all discombobulated over there because they’re actually going to have to defend their record this year,” said Kelsey.