Arlington’s election next month, which sees three of four state delegates and the chairman of the county board running unopposed, reminds Olga Toshchakova of the controlled campaigns of her youth in the Soviet Union.
“We had one candidate and didn’t have any other choices,” said Toshchakova, who emigrated from the eastern city of Vladivostok but can not vote in this election because she is not yet a U.S. citizen. “So it was easy. Just like here in Arlington.”
Toshchakova enjoyed the rancorous debates of past election seasons and said she is baffled as to why her fellow Arlingtonians have so few options when they go to the polls on Nov. 8, calling it “undemocratic.”
It is a sentiment shared by many voters in the county. Arlington residents and politicians in both parties are wondering why Republicans have failed to field a candidate in so many local races, and whether that will reduce voter interest in the political process and further stifle discourse in the county.
While the gubernatorial race between Jerry W. Kilgore (R), Timothy M. Kaine (D) and H. Russ Potts Jr. (I) has dominated the public’s attention, 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 and therefore mounting limited campaigns. 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.
“The losers are the people of Arlington,” said Brink, who defeated Republican Steve Sass by a margin of 61 percent to 39 percent in 2003. “When people feel they have no choices, feel their voice isn’t heard and their vote doesn’t matter, then they feel no need to participate.”
With so few contested races, many candidate forums have been poorly attended and there has been a noticeable absence of campaign flyers, signs on front yards and other election paraphernalia.
Del. Eisenberg misses the fiery debates of 2003 and is dismayed that November has become more of a coronation ceremony rather than an undecided election.
“The people have been robbed of the opportunity to have a say,” said Eisenberg, who received 65 percent of the vote in 2003. “They have the right to hear a clash of ideas and for someone to tell them I’m wrong on the issues and here’s why.”
Bill Barker, who is running for the open school board seat and is endorsed by the Arlington County Republican Committee, said he is disheartened that his party has no contestants in other Arlington races, and is concerned that it will make voters complacent and Democratic officials less likely to respond to the needs of their constituents.
“Win or lose, at least in a contested race you raise your issues for the community and hold officials accountable,” said Barker, who faces Ed Fendley, endorsed by the Democrats,and Cecelia Espenoza in the school board election.
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. “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.’”
Arlington County Republican Committee Chairman Bill 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.”
One Arlington resident interviewed last week at the Clarendon Farmer’s Market agreed with Lockhart that few people would stay home on election day because of the lack of contested local races, noting the importance of the elections for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and school board.
“Arlington is pretty involved in politics and civic debate so I don’t think it will have an impact,” said 23-year-old Megan Pearson.
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.
“People were gun-shy after 2004, when our county board candidate got 25 percent of the vote,” Lockhart said. “These are winnable seats but we have to find the right candidate and we didn’t have that this year.”
One must invest a tremendous amount of time and money to have a chance at winning an election, and many aspiring young Republicans are too disillusioned with past results in Arlington to make the sacrifice, Barker said. When you lack a “history of winning” it is very difficult to recruit qualified individuals, he added.
The Arlington branch of the Republican Party is focusing on grooming candidates for the 2006 county board election and the 2007 state Senate and House of Delegates races, Lockhart said.
“I have gotten a lot of guys who have a heck of a chance of winning, but not this year,” Lockhart added. “We’re getting them involved in civic association and county programs and as they become more involved in the community they will get name recognition.”
Regardless of how knowledgeable or attractive a Republican candidate is, they will struggle to win a majority of votes in Arlington , said John Antonelli, president of the Columbia Heights Civic Association.
“Republican is a four-letter word in Arlington,” said Antonelli, who believes the county is slowly becoming more Republican-friendly. “Most people are focused on what goes on across the river and vote accordingly without any clue what they are voting for.”
But by not presenting any candidates to the public, the Republicans are missing an opportunity to court Arlington Democrats like Shrive Beck, who would like to see a Republican on the county board to provide balance and greater accountability.
“We should have one person from the party not in power,” said Beck, referring to the make-up of the county board. “We need to get the other view and they can bring it to the public’s attention if the others are doing something wrong.”