In the final analysis, there was probably nothing John Vihstadt could have done to retain his seat on the Arlington County Board.
Vihstadt, who rode to victory in 2014 on a wave of voter discontent on local issues, was ousted Tuesday by voters unhappy – some to the point of outrage – about the situation on the national front.
Matt de Ferranti, who until the start of campaign season was largely unknown to most outside the local Democratic establishment, unseated Vihstadt by the sheer volume of voters who turned out to send a message – not to the incumbent board member, but to Donald Trump.
Vihstadt, in essence, became collateral damage, unable to offset the Arlington County Democratic Committee’s massive get-out-the-vote effort.
“Voters view the County Board and Arlington differently than in 2014, because the issues we face are different and our leaders are different,” de Ferranti told the Sun Gazette as he waited for voters to render a verdict.
Frank O’Leary, Arlington’s retired county treasurer who has spent decades studying voting trends in Arlington, suggested that Vihstadt was doomed if more than 79,000 people voted in the County Board race. His prediction was based on the expectation that, after calculating the expected base voter turnout for each candidate (about 35,000 for Vihstadt and 27,500 for de Ferranti), the Democrat would win about 75 percent of all remaining votes cast.
In fact, just over 100,000 Arlington voters cast ballots in the County Board race, with 53,330 (53 percent) going to de Ferranti, 46,164 to Vihstadt, plus 591 write-ins.
Vihstadt simply couldn’t overcome the “absence of incendiary issues” that helped propel him to victory in 2014, O’Leary said.
Vihstadt, who has lived in Arlington for 35 years and long has been a civic leader, rode a wave of local discontent over issues ranging from capital spending to the perceived arrogance of the all-Democratic Arlington County Board by winning, in rapid succession, a special election in the spring of 2014 and the general election that November.
Democrats reacted to those embarrassing drubbings by taking action: killing off the planned Columbia Pike streetcar, shuttering the Artisphere arts center, downscaling the Long Bridge Park aquatics center; and paying more attention to operating and capital spending.
Since 2014, three new Democrats – Katie Cristol, Christian Dorsey and Erik Gutshall – have joined the five-member body, replacing Walter Tejada, Mary Hynes and Jay Fisette, each of whom resigned after long tenures in elected office.
The result seems to have been a calming of the local political waters, and the local electorate by 2016 had coalesced behind Democrats once again. Donald Trump’s presidential bid garnered just 17 percent of the vote in Arlington, far lower than that of previous Republican candidates.
The change in mood among the electorate was visible in Vihstadt’s 2018 re-election strategy. While four years ago, he ran as an independent but accepted formal backing from the Arlington County Republican Committee, this year he steered clear of any affiliation with Republicans.
For de Ferranti, an attorney (like Vihstadt) and member of the county government’s Housing Commission, the election was a referendum on putting the past to rest and heading into the future.
“Voters are ready to move forward to our next challenges: concerns with our continued high office-vacancy rates and action to address crowded schools,” he said. “I think voters are looking for problem-solvers.”
Dorsey, who is likely to serve as County Board chairman in 2019, supported de Ferranti – albeit kept him waiting until two weeks before the election to do so.
In his endorsement, Dorsey said de Ferranti offered “bold, creative leadership.”
“He has a progressive, proactive platform that will infuse the board with innovative ideas Arlington residents deserve,” Dorsey said.
Clerk of the Circuit Court Paul Ferguson, a Democrat who had a long career on the County Board and spent most of Election Day talking to voters, said the electorate was informed on the local race.
“Voters that discussed issues with me were interested in Arlington making the needed investments in schools, public safety, environmental initiatives and general infrastructure,” said Ferguson, who provided behind-the-scenes guidance to de Ferranti.
Ferguson said that a Vihstadt campaign workers were touting that Vihstadt adds balance to the board, but “three different voters told me they thought ‘balance’ was a code word for ‘conservative’,” he said.
De Ferranti, who had not previously sought elected office, in the spring defeated Chanda Choun in the Democratic primary to move on to the general election. A resident of Arlington for the past five years, he grew up in nearby McLean.
In the 2014 general election, Vihstadt had defeated Democrat Alan Howze, 56 percent to 44 percent. De Ferranti was able to outperform Howze’s totals in nearly all parts of the county, including a number of areas where Vihstadt needed to run up the tally:
• In Madison precinct, Vihstadt had defeated Howze 1,203 to 474, but his margin against de Ferranti was 1,228 to 644.
• In Westover precinct, Vihstadt had defeated Howze 797 to 511, but his margin of victory was cut to 826 to 762 against de Ferranti.
De Ferranti, meanwhile, rolled up majorities in precincts that are strongly Democratic, although Vihstadt (aided by the support of Garvey) won Fairlington. The two candidates effectively split Lyon Village.
The last County Board incumbent to be defeated for re-election was Mike Lane, a Republican who in the spring of 1999 won a special election for the seat of Al Eisenberg (who took a post in the Clinton administration) but later that year was defeated by Democrat Charles Monroe. The last board incumbent defeated after serving at least a full term was Republican-leaning independent Walter Frankland Jr., who was ousted in 1983.
With the 2018 election in the history books, eyes now turn to 2019. The seats of Cristol and Dorsey will be on the ballot, and while nothing is cast in stone, each is assumed to be mulling a re-election bid.
Prognosticator O’Leary says the off-off-year election of 2019 presents an opportunity for a non-Democrat, since general-election turnout could be as low as 35,000 to 40,000 voters, which would blunt the power of the Democratic turn-out-the-vote apparatus.
An independent “would be contesting with two Democratic incumbents, making for some interesting dynamics,” O’Leary said.
But unless Vihstadt decides to make another run, the potential field of non-Democrats looks rather sparse.
De Ferranti, meanwhile, will be sworn in next month and will formally take office in early January.
In the School Board race, which was a rematch of 2014, Democrat Barbara Kanninen easily won a new term in a race against perennial candidate Audrey Clement, who tried to tap into voter discontent with the School Board but garnered just 31 percent of the vote – about the same amount she received when last battling Kanninen in 2014.