The Sept. 4 Arlington County Civic Federation County Board debate gave the two contenders time to introduce their campaign themes, but it will be left to upcoming political forums for them to dive into specifics – and decide whether it will be worth it to take the gloves off and come out swinging.
Independent incumbent John Vihstadt and Democratic challenger Matt de Ferranti largely kept it civil in their first mano-a-mano moment of the campaign season.
“We must live our compassionate values,” said de Ferranti, who won the party’s nomination in a springtime caucus and hopes to reclaim the seat Democrats lost to Vihstadt in 2014.
“Our prosperity is not inevitable, and our challenges are real,” de Ferranti told the large crowd at Virginia Hospital Center (and others watching via an Arlington Independent Media livestream). “I’m committed to fiscal restraint, but we cannot cut our way to prosperity.”
Vihstadt, who is the first non-Democrat to serve on the County Board since Republican Mike Lane’s brief stint in 1999, said his four years in office have made overall county-government decision-making stronger.
“Balance is better,” he said. “I need your vote to keep it there.”
The debate format was heavy on opening and closing remarks and light on audience participation (about a dozen federation delegates were still queued up to query candidates when time was called). As a result, there wasn’t much time to get into the nitty-gritty of specific issues.
Both candidates focused on economic competitiveness and reducing a stubbornly high office-vacancy rate.
“We have to step up our game, and we’re doing that,” Vihstadt said of government efforts on the economic-development front. “We have to remember to nurture our small businesses.”
De Ferranti pressed for recruiting new types of emerging businesses, since “federal tenants are unlikely to come back.”
Each candidate also supported efforts to re-imagine the Lee Highway corridor, the next main government redevelopment effort.
Though it wasn’t brought up directly at the forum, de Ferranti seemed a tad irked by suggestions he was a relatively community newcomer compared to 30-year resident Vihstadt – “I’ve been here more than a nano-second,” de Ferranti said – while Vihstadt, who is about to face the brunt of the Democratic get-out-the-vote effort, perhaps not surprisingly said he believes local politics should be non-partisan.
“I admit it: I have a Republican background,” Vihstadt said, but pointed to an “epiphany” in 2014 that led him to run as an independent.
“I’m trying to bring people together,” Vihstadt said, saying he offered “checks and balances, a diversity of perspectives.” He also pointed to current and former Arlington Democratic elected officials who are supporting his candidacy.
(De Ferranti, who acknowledged he once voted for a Republican – albeit while living in Texas – said there was no personal animosity in this race. “John’s a good guy,” he said. But de Ferranti said voters needed to remember “there’s a link between local and national” when it comes to politics.)
Lois Koontz, who moderated the Civic Federation debate, noted that the turnout was healthier than in some past years.
“It is very gratifying to see the level of interest,” she said.
For political junkies, the Civic Federation is akin to an appetizer – the main course in political season will be served up in a series of debates in coming weeks.
“I hope we can all view this as a beginning of the conversation, not an end,” Koontz said.
Among the larger candidate forums are those hosted by the Arlington Chamber of Commerce (Sept. 12), Yorktown Civic Association (Oct. 1), Committee of 100 (Oct. 10) and League of Women Voters (Oct. 25). The election is Nov. 6.