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Republicans Hope to Make Inroads this November

Democrats have near-monopoly on elected offices in Arlington, but GOP thinks environment is right for upsets.

While the government on the other side of the Potomac River has been squarely in the hands of Republicans so far this century, Arlington remains a liberal bastion and one of the bluest counties in America.

Conservative community activists often derisively refer to the county as "The People's Republic of Arlington," for its left-leaning politicians and policies.

DEMOCRATS CURRENTLY CONTROL all five of the seats on the County Board, four of the five on the School Board and all six of the county's senators and delegates in Richmond.

Last November may have been a nadir for the Arlington branch of the Republicans. The party did not field a candidate to challenge County Board member Jay Fisette or the three Arlington Democratic delegates up for re-election.

Republican Bill Barker received only 24.5 percent of the vote in the School Board race, and gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore fared even worse in the county.

In fact, Timothy Kaine won more than 74 percent of Arlington's vote, besting the previous performances of Gov. Mark Warner and presidential candidate John Kerry in the county.

"Arlington is a challenging environment for Republicans," said Jeff Miller, chairman of the Arlington County Republican Committee. "It discourages some people who would otherwise be interested in public service."

Regardless of how knowledgeable or attractive a Republican candidate is, they will struggle to win a majority of votes in Arlington because of the bitter partisan divide that grips the county, said John Antonelli, a former president of the Columbia Heights Civic Association in an interview last year.

"Republican is a four-letter word in Arlington," Antonelli said. "Most people are focused on what goes on across the river and vote accordingly without any clue what they are voting for."

The lack of a history of winning has hampered the Republicans' past recruitment efforts, party activists said. 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.

THIS CAMPAIGN SEASON, the Republicans seem to have learned a lesson from last year and settled on a contender in May for the County Board race. Mike McMenamin, a political novice, will take on County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman.

Republicans admit that McMenamin starts the campaign season as the underdog. But they believe that there is a growing discontent among Arlington voters over recent actions by the County Board, and that the election represents the best opportunity in years for the GOP to steal a seat in this Democratic stronghold.

The rising cost of property taxes, combined with irritation over the County Board's decision on lot coverage may spur independents to vote for Republican candidates this fall, party leaders said.

"There’s a lot more opportunity for a Republican this year to challenge the status quo because of the disillusionment," said Miller, the Republican Party Chair. "A lot of the civic activists are frustrated with the way county government is going."

McMenamin, president of the Maywood Civic Association and a member of the county’s Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee, said he was spurred to run because the current County Board is no longer as receptive to the concerns of neighborhoods as it once was.

McMenamin plans on making the issue of fiscal responsibility one of the central pieces of his platform.

"It’s going to take somebody to go up there and actually look into the budget and see what is relevant and what we can do without," he said in an interview this spring.

Zimmerman has been one of the most influential politicians the county has seen in decades.

"Chris for many years has worked extremely hard to develop a vision of what Arlington should look like — a livable, urban community — and we see all that vision is coming true," said Peter Rousselot, chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

Zimmerman has spent much of his 10 years on the board working to preserve affordable housing, and linking transportation and land use. He boasts that Arlingtonians have seen a multitude of advancements in the county’s transportation system, such as metro bus and sidewalk improvements.

"The enhancements made across the county have made it a much more walkable environment," he said.

WHILE REPUBLICANS are preparing for a contentious County Board race, they have decided not to endorse a candidate for School Board.

School Board Chair Mary Hynes is retiring after 11 years of service. In a surprise this May, Sally Baird beat Sharon Davis by a mere 69 votes to win the Democratic endorsement for School Board. Democratic voters supported the candidate with young children in the school system — who billed herself as a much-needed, new voice on the board — over the contender with more than two decades worth of experience with Arlington schools.

While political parties are prohibited from nominating candidates for School Board, the Democrats held a competitive caucus for the fourth time in the past decade.

Baird serves as co-chair of the Early Childhood Education Advisory Committee and vice president of the Drew Model Elementary School Association. If Baird wins in November she will become the first lesbian elected to a School Board in the state of Virginia.

She will face Independent Cecelia Espenoza — who garnered 20 percent of the vote in last year’s School Board race— in November. Espenoza is a life-long Democratic activist, and former PTA president of the Claremont Immersion Program. but was prohibited from seeking the Democratic endorsement because of her employment with the Justice Department.

Espenoza has spoken repeatedly on the need to reduce the minority achievement gap, and better involve Latino families in the school system.

"We need someone on the board the Hispanic community can talk to," Espenoza said. "Many parents don’t feel welcomed or think Arlington public schools appeals to their needs. I can bring them to the table and help find solutions to make our schools better."

During the Democratic endorsement campaign, Baird made increasing pre-school opportunities for Arlington children one of her central themes.

"Early childhood education is the soundest investment a school system can make," said Baird, 41, who has a 5-year-old son at Drew Model School and a 3-year-old boy. "Studies show that kids who go to pre-school do better, and it gets parents engaged early."

IN THE OTHER election this November, U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8th) is seeking a ninth term in Congress.

Moran represents Arlington, Alexandria and parts of Fairfax County. In 2004, he received 62 percent of the Arlington vote.

This year he will face Republican Tom O'Donoghue, an Iraq War veteran, and Independent Jim Hurysz, but analysts believe that Moran will have little difficulty winning again.

Mike Brown, Moran's campaign manager, said the congressman will speak throughout the campaign about the work he has done for the community as a member of the House Appropriations Committee. He has helped secure federal money for projects such as the revitalization of Four Mile Run stream, and was instrumental in saving crucial research agencies during the federal BRAC process last year, Brown said.

Brown believes that the Iraq war will dominate the campaign debates, which Moran opposed and O'Donoghue has strongly supported.

This spring O'Donoghue won the Republican primary on a platform that called for tighter border control to crack down on illegal immigration, and making President George W. Bush's tax cuts permanent.

Hursyz is running on progressive energy and environmental policies, and opposition to the expansion of I-66.

Regardless of their candidates' positions and personalities, county Republicans could also be damaged by events occurring on the other side of the Potomac River.

"If the trend keeps going the way it is now, [the Republicans] may suffer from the feeling of voters that this party is making a mess of things in Washington," Rousselot said.

Yet Bill Lockhart, the former chair of the Arlington Republican branch, believes that the political axiom that "all politics is local" will dominate this November.

"People care about the local issues," he said. "They care about paying more in property taxes, paying more for each student at schools and they care about whether they are getting their money's worth."