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Richmond Matters

Politicians hope lack of contested local races does not deter residents

In the final debate of the campaign season, the three candidates for school board delivered their three-minute opening statement to the members of the Rock Springs Civic Association last week and then waited to take questions from the audience.

The 16 people sprinkled throughout the capacious auditorium at Williamsburg Middle School responded with silence, and at least two individuals seemed fast asleep. For a minute no one spoke up. The “debate” lasted less than 15 minutes.

“It was pretty dead here tonight,” Mark Luncher said after the civic association meeting. “There’s no controversy in the local elections so a lot of people in the neighborhood don’t care.”

While the gubernatorial race between Timothy M. Kaine (D), Jerry W. Kilgore (R) and H. Russ Potts, Jr. (I) has dominated Arlington’s airwaves, the local contests have received far less attention. Though voters in three south Arlington precincts will choose between David Englin (D) and Chris Gregerson (R), the only local race most Arlington residents will decide is for the school board, where Elaine Furlow is stepping down. County Board Chairman Jay Fisette, Del. Al Eisenberg (D-47), Del. Bob Brink (D-48), and Del. Adam Ebbin (D-49) are all running unopposed.

Though politicians and pundits fear the lack of contested races has reduced voter interest across the county, most said they believed turnout would be relatively strong because of the close nature of the gubernatorial race. And whether or not Democrats can bring their supporters to the polls in full force on Nov. 8 may well decide the race between Kaine and Kilgore, analysts said.

“This election will come down to who can get the base out in bigger numbers and therefore Arlington is very important to Kaine,” said Mark Rozell, political science professor at George Mason University.

A large turnout in Arlington can be the deciding factor in a Democratic victory, said Arlington Treasurer Frank O’Leary, citing the 1989 race when Arlington residents were instrumental in helping L. Douglas Wilder win the governor’s seat with 50.1 percent of the vote.

“I would feel a lot more comfortable predicting a victory for Kaine if there was a very high turnout in Arlington.” O’Leary said.

O’LEARY, WHO METICULOUSLY tracks voter turnout, is predicting between 56,000 and 58,000 county residents will take part in the election, which would be just under 50 percent of registered voters. Though this would represent the highest number of Arlingtonians voting in a gubernatorial year, it would be far below the 60 percent of the 1981 and 1989 elections. In 2001, 45 percent of registered Arlington voters cast ballots and turnout was 73 percent last year.

Rozell said he believes the closeness of this election will spur more people to vote than many pundits are predicting.

One of the main reasons turnout is expected to be below 50 percent is many residents eschew elections when federal candidates are not on the ballot.

“A lot of people don’t have interest because they think government only happens at the federal level,” said Lina Lindberg, General Registrar for Arlington. “But state and local government is really where things happen that affect people on a daily basis.”

Arlington Democratic and Republican leaders said they were concentrating on people who voted last year but might not be as attuned to Virginia politics.

“Both parties have to craft a message that what happens in Richmond impacts your daily life,” said Arlington County Democratic Committee Chairman James Turpin.

Many of the civic association candidate forums have been less attended than in past years, with only 20-30 residents coming out to see the three school board contenders, Bill Barker, Cecelia Espenoza and Ed Fendley, their unopposed delegate and County Board Chairman Fisette.

“It’s just not that much fun to watch Jay Fisette debate himself,” said Bill Lockhart, Chairman of the Arlington County Republican Committee.

IN PAST CAMPAIGN SEASONS, when there have been at least five contested elections, the influx of money and the heated nature of local debates has engendered excitement for statewide races, O’Leary said.

Since only 15 percent of Arlington residents have children currently enrolled in the school system, the importance of the school board position is not readily apparent to all voters.

“Whether or not people have kids in the schools, the school board election should still matter to them,” said Melissa Bondi, who is helping manage the Fendley campaign. “I’m amazed at the number of people who say ‘oh, is there an election in November.’”

Several Democratic politicians and strategists said the lack of challengers was a deliberate move by state Republicans, part of a “grand strategy” to suppress voter turnout in heavily-Democratic Northern Virginia to bolster Kilgore’s chances of becoming governor.

“It’s no secret that it’s a ploy,” Eisenberg said after a candidates forum in September. “If you don’t have races, you don’t get people interested and excited. [The Republican Party] told potential candidates, ‘you can run but we won’t give you any support.’”

Lockhart refuted Eisenberg’s claim and said it was nothing more than an excuse Democrats were using to explain Kaine’s “impending” defeat.

“Us having or not having candidates will not affect the turnout for Kilgore and Kaine,” said Lockhart. “It would be nice if we had that much power but we don’t.”

The real reason no Republican is running in these races is the party could not find viable and willing candidates, Lockhart said. He discussed the positions with several individuals, but all declined to run citing various personal issues and previous commitments.

The fight for every last vote will continue unabated until polls close at 7 p.m. on Nov. 8. In the last week of campaigning the three school board candidates said they will be canvassing neighborhoods, working the Metro stations and knocking on residents’ doors urging them to vote. Fisette and delegates Brink, Ebbin and Eisenberg all have an easier week ahead of them, since they are assured of winning re-election.

Though apparently not everyone has heard the news: “My mother was down here the other week, and even though I’m unopposed she’s still nervous,” Fisette said.