A Dec. 13 tribute to departing Arlington County Board Chairman Jay Fisette was about 90 percent heartfelt thanks for his 20 years of service in elected office.
And about 10 percent celebrity roast.
“Jay is the cheapest person in the entire world, second to none. And here’s the thing: he’s so proud of that,” former County Manager Ron Carlee deadpanned at the celebration, which drew about 200 people to Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington.
But Carlee – now director of the Center for Regional Excellence at Virginia Commonwealth University – didn’t maintain the Don Rickles routine for long, turning to more weighty topics.
“We went through a lot together,” Carlee said of his work with Fisette, from matters that were controversial at the moment but not all that important in the grand scheme of things (anyone remember the fight over the county logo?) to perhaps the darkest day in Arlington history – Sept. 11, 2001 – when Fisette was serving his first stint as board chairman.
Carlee said that, whatever the situation, Fisette was a beacon of rationality, “which is really not to be taken for granted” in the current political era, he said.
At the festivities, nearly a dozen speakers took the podium to provide remarks covering Fisette’s years in office and his work in the community and across the region.
“Everyone in this room has a story to share,” said County Board Vice Chairman Katie Cristol, who emceed the 90-minute formal program that followed a reception.
Among those on the dais was Fisette’s longtime friend Bob Witeck, describing the board chairman as “the spiritual love child of Harvey Milk and Ellen Bozman” – the former being the San Francisco gay-rights activist and city council member, the latter a veteran Arlington civic leader known for civility and grace.
Fisette had been living in Arlington for a decade but was all but unknown in political circles when, in 1993, he won a Democratic “firehouse primary” to vie for a special election called when County Board member William Newman ascended to the Circuit Court. Despite being a decided underdog, Fisette cobbled together support of friends and newfound allies to back his campaign.
“We thought: ‘How are we going to be able to do this?’” said Betsey Wildhack, an attorney who has been a Fisette political ally since that first race.
Being openly gay both helped and hurt Fisette during the campaign, but with by securing the Democratic endorsement, “we were incredibly empowered,” said Wildhack, who had come out as gay around the same time and was heading up the Arlington Gay and Lesbian Alliance.
(Arlington native Wildhack’s wicked sense of humor was not lost on the crowd as she began to her remarks. “Look at the fear in Jay’s eyes,” she chuckled.)
Fisette lost the 1993 special election to Republican Ben Winslow, but rebounded four years later to win the County Board seat of the aforementioned Bozman, who was retiring after 24 years in office.
Fisette went on to win four re-election bids with little trouble before announcing at the start of 2017 that he’d be retiring. Voters in November selected Democrat Erik Gutshall to succeed him.
While 9/11 was the dominant event of Fisette’s first stint as board chair (a position that rotates among members), his subsequent chairmanships also seemed to bring major issues to the fore: 2005 saw the federal government’s “BRAC” facilities-closing effort and 2014 brought the contentious battle over the Columbia Pike streetcar. His two other years as chair (2010 and 2017) were somewhat more mellow.
Fisette also has been in leadership posts on the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and on statewide panels.
“Jay has been a great regional leader,” said D.C. City Council member Phil Mendelson. “Some of us [in elected office] can be pretty cranky, some can be pretty stubborn. Jay’s been able to work with everybody.”
“It’s nice to see an elected official who’s a workhorse,” said John Morrill, who has led the county government’s efforts to deal with one of Fisette’s personal priorities: sustainable-energy initiatives.
Like Carlee, former County Board and School Board member Mary Hynes noted Fisette’s thrifty nature, but said he always came through for funding on issues of importance to the community, and had served as a mentor to elected officials who came after him.
In 2013, Fisette made history when he became the first Virginia elected official to marry a same-sex partner. He and Dr. Bob Rosen had been together for 30 years; they were married in the District of Columbia because, at the time, Virginia still outlawed such unions.
“We can never ignore Bob’s immense talents,” Witeck said of Rosen’s important but mostly behind-the-scenes efforts in support of Fisette’s civic career.
Former Del. Bob Brink, who is wrapping up service in the administration of outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe, brought along a letter from the governor.
Brink was first elected to the legislature the same day in 1997 that Fisette won his seat on the County Board. “He gained the respect of everyone who worked with him,” Brink said.
After more than an hour of superlatives and occasional zinger being thrown his way, it was time for the man of the moment to offer his thoughts.
“You don’t know how moving it is to see 20 years, 25 years of your life [laid out] in front of you,” he said. “This is a night I will never forget.”
Fisette recalled that when he moved to Arlington in 1983, “I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t know a soul,” but the early friendships he made convinced him to stay – and, ultimately, to serve what is, and is likely to stay, the second longest tenure of any County Board member in Arlington history.
“It was wonderful,” he said of his board service. “It has been a labor of love.”
Ever methodical, something not too surprising given his previous life as a government auditor, Fisette said he hopes that Arlington residents would discern the forest for the trees, even when battling over a contentious issue-du-jour.
“Take a moment, step back,” he said, “and understand how lucky we are.”
Fisette has identified five charitable organizations where residents can donate in his name, should they so choose: the Animal Welfare League of Arlington, Arlington Arts Center, Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment, Culpepper Garden and Equality Virginia.