Arlington Republicans have officially nominated Mike McMenamin as their candidate for this November’s County Board race and are gearing up to unseat 10-year board veteran Chris Zimmerman.
The contest will pit political novice McMenamin, who will be trying to break the Democrats’ monopoly of the board, against one of the most influential elected officials the county has seen in recent decades.
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.
“There’s a lot more opportunity for a Republican this year to challenge the status quo because of the disillusionment,” said Arlington County Republican Committee Chair Jeff Miller. “A lot of the civic activists are frustrated with the way county government is going.”
Democratic leaders are preparing for a contentious race, and concede that there are some “grumblings”— in the words of local party chair Peter Rousselot — in the community over issues like rising tax bills and lot coverage.
Yet they are confident that voters will judge Zimmerman by his extensive record in office and his accomplishments in the realms of transportation and affordable housing.
“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,” Rousselot said.
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.
For example, the board passed a restrictive lot coverage ordinance last fall, ignoring the advice of the Civic Federation and other influential neighborhood leaders, McMenamin said.
Board members “need to listen to the community and not just give it window dressing,” said McMenamin, sitting in the kitchen of his Maywood home, where he lives with his wife Kristam and sons Patrick and Riley.
McMenamin plans on making the issue of fiscal responsibility one of the central pieces of his platform. He questions how the board could increase expenditures by 9 percent for the upcoming fiscal year, when the members originally instructed the County Manager to compile an austere budget that stuck close to 6 percent growth.
“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.
Arlington residents are struggling to pay their real estate tax bills, which have more than doubled over the past five years, and need greater relief, McMenamin said. He would have voted for a 10-cent reduction in the real estate tax rate, compared with the 6-cent cut the board approved this spring.
There also needs to be greater oversight of the county’s capital projects, McMenamin argued. The “mismanagement” of the Pentagon City fire station, plus the lack of timely progress on Westover library and the Cherrydale fire station, prove that greater accountability is needed in the government, he added.
ZIMMERMAN readily acknowledges that the election will be a referendum on his leadership and years of service on the board. He was first elected in 1996, after serving as a civic association president and planning commissioner, and won 61.3 percent of the vote in the 2002 race.
Much of Zimmerman’s recent tenure on the board has been spent searching for a solution to the county’s affordable housing crisis.
The county lost 47 percent of its total affordable units between 2000 and 2004, and Zimmerman said he has worked relentlessly to establish new resources to preserve and create affordable units.
This past fall he helped facilitate a compromise with developers and community activists that will ensure a certain percentage of affordable units exist in new development in the Metro corridor.
“We’re looking for ways to use the existing tools and find new ones to meet this challenge,” said Zimmerman, who lives with his wife Mary Beth in the Douglas Park neighborhood of South Arlington, and has three children.
Zimmerman serves as one of the two Virginia members on the board of directors of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and linking transportation and land use has been one of his pet issues.
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.
“We also have the ability to leverage transit as a tool to encourage the right kind of development that we are looking for,” Zimmerman added.
While Zimmerman is “sensitive” to the fact that all residents, including himself, have to face rising tax bills, he defended the recent budget as one that was in line with the values of the community.
“We couldn’t cut the rate more without greatly reducing the resources we have,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a trade-off between cutting [tax rates] and county services.”
On the campaign trail Zimmerman said he will highlight his work to reduce the tax burden on older residents, the disabled and low-income homeowners. Much of the budget increase, he added, was due to a large-scale pay raise for the county’s public safety officers.
MCMENAMIN knows that no matter how effectively he campaigns, he still has to overcome the hurdle of being a Republican candidate in a bastion of Democratic support; nearly three-quarters of county voters cast their ballots for Democrat Timothy Kaine in last year’s gubernatorial race.
“We recognize it is a challenge in the truest sense of the word,” said Geoff Schwartzman, McMenamin’s campaign manager.
Their strategy will be to convince voters to focus on the candidate and his message, rather than just his party affiliation.
Schwartzman, for one, is convinced that voters want a fresh perspective on the board, and are tired of “career politicians in a part-time job” who do not act on residents’ suggestions.
“It’s about more than just listening to residents, but about following through on what they recommend,” he added.
Democrats, meanwhile, will be marshaling their supporters to come to the polls this November to defeat Sen. George Allen and the so-called “marriage amendment.”
Rousselot, the Democratic Party head, said that due to growing dismay with President George W. Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress, it is unlikely that many Independents and Democrats will throw their support behind a Republican.
“Spillover from a national wave of unpopularity will magnify troubles for the Republicans in Arlington,” he said. “Fairly or unfairly, they will be held accountable for the failures of the national government.”