Civic leader plans grass-roots run for Arlington board

Michael Cantwell works to collect signatures in preparation for a bid for the Arlington County Board. (Campaign photo)

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It’ll be an uphill battle, but Michael Cantwell is devising a strategy to outflank the institutional advantages of the Democratic Party in Arlington and win a County Board seat.

That plan? To “really focus on neighborhoods, rather than special interests,” Cantwell told the Sun Gazette on June 9, a day after filing closed for the County Board race.

“We have one-party rule, and that’s not a good thing. We need more voices and more choices,” Cantwell said. “The current County Board is out of touch with the majority of Arlington residents.”

Currently president of the Yorktown Civic Association, Cantwell will be one of three independents – along with Audrey Clement and Adam Theo – taking a run at incumbent Democrat Takis Karantonis, who on June 8 easily withstood a challenge from Chanda Choun in the Democratic primary.

Among the three challengers, Clement has been running (for County Board or School Board) seemingly forever, while Theo is a little-known first-time candidate. Cantwell, a 28-year resident of the county, said he understands Arlington well and aims to get to know it even better.

“My plan is to visit every Arlington neighborhood before Labor Day. It’s my summer-of-2021 tour. I would like everyone’s vote.”

Among the issues he’s planning on campaigning on: a focus on core services, curbing rapid urbanization and fully funding the office of independent auditor. Cantwell also wants to ensure the county government is primed to withstand ransomware attacks.

A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and current federal employee, Cantwell and his wife have three children. Like many in the community, he has lingering concerns about the School Board’s failure to adequately address school-reopening issues.

Even though the County Board is not directly responsible for schools, “it would have been courageous” for County Board members to stand up and push for a faster pace of reopening, Cantwell said.

The last non-Democrat to serve on the County Board was John Vihstadt, who road a wave of discontent over a Democratic oligarchy perceived as arrogant and out of touch to victory in 2014. But the election of Donald Trump in 2016 seemed to change the Arlington political dynamic all the way down to local offices; Vihstadt was ousted in 2018 by Democrat Matt de Ferranti.

To make an impact on Nov. 2, the independent candidates will need to come up with the cash to get their messages across. Theo’s abilities in that regard have yet to be tested; Clement’s previous runs have shown her to often be good on the stump, but seldom putting in the effort to raise campaign dollars.

(Karantonis has not been a prolific campaign fund-raiser, either, but he has the Democratic get-out-the-vote juggernaut behind him, so he probably doesn’t have to be.)

Cantwell said he will be able to get the funds he needs to run a competitive race.

“I’m going to tap into my broad and wide network,” he said. Had things worked out differently, the 2021 County Board race might have been the first where candidates competed in an instant-runoff (ranked-choice) environment. But while County Board members in 2020 were given authority by the General Assembly to implement that innovation, they have yet to exercise it.

As a result, the winner of the race will be the one who manages a plurality of votes, even if he or she does not surpass the 50-percent threshold.

While candidates will be out and about over summer, the campaign won’t kick into high gear until the Arlington County Civic Federation’s annual candidate forum, held shortly after Labor Day and serving as the traditional, if unofficial, kickoff to the election sprint.