Democratic-endorsed candidate Sally Baird rode a wave of Democratic support to an easy victory in the School Board race on Tuesday.
Baird captured 61 percent of the vote, while Independent Cecelia Espenoza, who ran last year, received 39 percent. Baird made history by becoming the first open lesbian elected to office in the commonwealth of Virginia.
Baird will replace School Board Chair Mary Hynes, who is retiring after 11 years of service. School board member is officially a non-partisan position but political parties usually endorse candidates, though Republicans chose not to do so this year.
Speaking at the Arlington Democrats’ election party at Cecelia’s Restaurant on Columbia Pike, Baird said she was honored to have received such a large margin of the vote.
"I believe we have great schools in Arlington, and I look forward to being a part of that," said Baird, who serves on the Early Childhood Education Advisory Committee and was vice president of the Drew Model Elementary School Association.
Baird, a political newcomer in Arlington, surprised many in the county this past spring when her grassroots campaign upset Sharon Davis, a long-time Democratic activist and former party chair. Baird billed herself as someone who would bring a much-needed new perspective to the board, and carried that theme through the general election.
"Even though I was running with the Democratic endorsement, people saw me as a new face and I think that was very helpful," said Baird who has 6-year-old and 3-year-old sons.
HER OPPONENT, Cecelia Espenoza, ran a spirited, independent campaign that drew support from two School Board members and many school activists.
"I am proud of the fact that I ran a high-level campaign," said Espenoza, a lawyer with the Justice Department and former president of the Claremont PTA. "I brought together a diverse coalition of individuals that had never been done before.
Espenoza admitted that in a year of high Democratic turnout in Arlington, when three-quarters of county voters came to the polls to vote for Jim Webb (D) and against the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, it would be very difficult to defeat a School Board candidate listed on the Democratic sample ballot.
Since the School Board race is not of interest to many voters — only 15 percent of Arlingtonians have children in the school system — thousands of people voted for Baird solely because she was backed by the Democrats, Espenoza said.
"I do not believe the sample ballot can be beaten," she added.
BAIRD MADE THE NEED to increase early childhood educational opportunities the centerpiece of her campaign. No current School Board member has young children, and adding someone with that focus appealed to voters, said Karla Hagan, Baird's campaign manager.
Ensuring that all children — especially minorities — attend pre-school is crucial to the health of Arlington because it serves as a foundation for future learning, Baird said.
"It should not just be a school priority, but a community commitment," she added.
Baird believes she was able to tap into the community's "frustration" over the way the School Board crafts its construction plan. On the campaign trail she called for greater scrutiny of the process.
"People want more transparency and accountability in the system," Baird said.
Throughout the campaign Baird used her professional experience as the vice president of a tax publishing to cast herself as a "manager." Voters reacted well to her desire to "bring people together to form a community vision," Baird said.
If Espenoza had won she would have been the first Hispanic to sit on the Arlington School Board. In debates and forums, Espenoza emphasized that Hispanics currently do not feel that they have a true voice in the school system, and that officials need to do more to engage the population.
Espenoza fears that because she lost, school administrators will not push forward with a more aggressive outreach program to Hispanic families.
The election result also cast doubt on whether a true independent can win a School Board race, which is nominally non-partisan. Dave Foster runs as an independent, but is supported by the county's Republican Party and listed on their sample ballot.
Peter Rousselot said that is too difficult for an independent for School Board to reach enough voters to sway them to their side.
"If you want to be on the School Board, you have to get the party's endorsements," said Peter Rousselot, chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.
The power of the sample ballot in the School Board race was evident at every polling station. Susan Clay, a Democrat voting in Lyon Park, said she knew nothing about Baird but voted for her because of the blue sample ballot a poll worker gave her.
"I just deferred to the sample ballot," she said. "I trust my local party on this."