Democratic-endorsed candidate Ed Fendley won a seat on the Arlington School Board in last Tuesday’s election, concluding a spirited and amicable three-way race.
Fendley captured 54.5 percent of the vote, while Bill Barker, who was endorsed by the Arlington County Republican Committee, finished second with 24.5 percent. Independent Cecelia Espenoza defied the predictions of many experts by running a close third, with 20.55 percent of the vote, and came in second in almost half of Arlington’s 49 precincts.
Fendley will replace Elaine Furlow, who did not stand for re-election after eight years on the board. The position of school board member is officially non-partisan but the Republican and Democratic parties usually endorse candidates.
Speaking at the Arlington Democrats’ election party at Cecelia’s Restaurant on Columbia Pike, Fendley said he was “honored” that so many county residents voted for him and was “extremely proud” that he finished first in all 49 precincts.
“My positive message — that our schools are strong and we can make them even better — really resonated with the voters,” said Fendley, 40, minutes after being declared the official winner.
Throughout the campaign Fendley insisted the school system needed to do a better job of involving the wider community and increasing residents’ sense of ownership of the schools. Since 85 percent of the county’s population does not have children currently enrolled in Arlington’s public schools, it was a message that many voters could relate to, he said.
Fendley also attributed his victory to parents’ interest in his desire to expand elementary school options for language courses, including Arabic and Chinese, and to promote student health and safety.
His extensive management experience and leadership in the federal government, including assignments in the White House, three overseas embassies and a role as a State Department’s negotiator, will make him a valuable asset to the board, said School Board Chairman David Foster.
“I look forward to working with Ed,” Foster said. “We share a lot of the same interests and he adds a good perspective to the board.”
Fendley has served as president of the Drew Model School Association and is a past president of the Bluemont Civic Association. He has four children currently enrolled in Arlington Public Schools: a daughter at Washington-Lee High School, a son at Swanson Middle School and a daughter and a son at Drew.
THOUGH VIGOROUSLY CONTESTED, the school board race was marked by congenial debates and an aura of civility that seems to have disappeared from the political spectrum in recent years.
“I congratulate Bill and Cecelia on running good, issue-oriented campaigns,” Fendley said. “It was a service to the residents and people appreciated it.”
Barker said he was pleased that all three candidates focused their messages on ways to improve Arlington’s schools rather than on personal attacks.
“No matter who wins or losses, Arlington benefits from having the candidates bring up these important issues and demand accountability from the school board,” said Barker, who improved on his showing in last year’s school board election, when he garnered only 19.5 percent of the vote.
Bill Lockhart, chairman of the Arlington County Republican Committee, said it was an uphill battle for any Republican to run in solidly-blue Arlington, where Democratic gubernatorial candidate Timothy Kaine won 74 percent of the vote, but was impressed with the way Bill was able to reach out beyond his Republican base.
“It didn’t turn out as well as we would have liked,” Lockhart said. “But Bill ran an honest, strong campaign and stuck to the issues.”
Fendley was greatly helped by the fact he was listed on the Democratic sample ballot, which enabled him to capture a large share of staunch Democrats who vote reliably for candidates their party endorses even if they have not followed the race, analysts said.
“I thought I had the best grasp of the issues but people in Arlington tend to vote along party lines,” said Barker, 53.
YET ESPENOZA PROVED that this political axiom no longer holds true in Arlington. Despite not having the weight of either political party behind her, nor being listed on any sample ballot residents received as they entered polling stations, she won more than 20 percent of the vote. Espenoza bested Barker in the absentee ballots and 20 of the 49 precincts, though never came close to taking a precinct from Fendley.
“I’m very pleased with the result,” she said. “A lot of people didn’t expect I would get out of single digits.”
Espenoza said she is dismayed that the two political parties are allowed to endorse candidates, effectively turning what is supposed to be a non-partisan race into a partisan contest.
While the county’s Democratic and Republican machines could hand out flyers at every polling station, Espenoza was unable to reach most voters on election day. Espenoza believes she would have finished second if she had volunteers at each precinct.
“I wasn’t prepared for the herd mentality,” she said. “I was surprised how many voters were using the sample ballot as a crutch rather than doing research” on the candidates.
Nancy Swift, the last voter of election night at the Ashton Heights precinct, said she is usually a stalwart Democrat but voted for Espenoza instead of Fendley because she wanted a Hispanic voice on the board.
“We have such a large Spanish-speaking community in Arlington and I would like to see them represented on the school board.”
Though the contest was not overly close, Espenoza’s surprise showing has many Arlington residents believing she is a viable candidate in future school-board races.
“Cecelia’s off to a great start,” Foster said. “She ran a good campaign and impressed a lot of people with her experience and speaking abilities.”
Espenoza said she has no idea if she will run in the future but guaranteed she will remain active in Arlington politics.
“I have an obligation to stay involved in the process,” she said. “I’m going to ensure my voice is heard in the system and will try to represent the one-fifth of the county who voted for me.”