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The knives came out for, and verbal shots were fired against, Takis Karantonis – and, by extension, the entire all-Democratic Arlington County Board – throughout the opening kickoff of the 2021 campaign season.
But if past history predicts future performance, Karantonis needs to simply ride out the attacks and hunker down against the flak, waiting for the Democratic sample ballot to carry him through to victory on Nov. 2.
That likelihood notwithstanding, the three challengers to Karantonis (all independents) lobbed criticisms galore at the incumbent during a Sept. 8 online campaign forum sponsored by the Arlington Committee of 100.
“He talks a lot . . . but he hasn’t pushed the County Board or county leadership,” said Adam Theo, who joined fellow candidates Audrey Clement and Mike Cantwell in coming at Karantonis on the impact of increasing urbanization on Arlington’s housing, schools, tax rates and infrastructure.
“I worry about Arlington’s long-term sustainability,” said Theo, a Ballston resident who leads the Libertarian Party of Northern Virginia but is running independently of it. He called the five Democratic County Board members “cookie-cutter versions” of one another who “run up debts, raise taxes and increase fees.”
It was a theme seconded by Clement, a candidate who has run for County Board and School Board seats nearly continuously for a decade. She noted that other localities in Northern Virginia had cut tax rates in an effort to lower the impact of rising home values on residents.
“Not so Arlington,” said Clement, a Westover resident, pointing to an average 6-percent increase in real-estate tax bills for Arlington homeowners this year.
Clement also is hitting the county government’s “missing middle” housing policy, which supporters say aims to use zoning tools to increase housing options. Like other critics of the policy, the candidate warns of repercussions.
“‘Missing middle’ is a euphemism for upzoning that will not make housing more affordable,” she said.
Rather than provide a net increase intax revenue, Clement said shoehorning ever more housing into Arlington’s 26 square miles will exacerbate the need for schools, transportation and other infrastructure, and “could bankrupt the county.”
Given his shot, Cantwell – a longtime civic leader from the Yorktown neighborhood – said “runaway spending and runaway taxes” are the biggest problems facing the county.
“I will resist efforts to upzone neighborhoods . . . to curb rapid urbanization,” he said.
Pointing to a return to increasingly grandiose capital-spending projects, Cantwell said the county government needs to embrace a “culture of frugality” and listen to independent voices.
Karantonis in 2020 won a special election to fill the season of County Board member Erik Gutshall, who died in office, and is seeking a full four-year term on Nov. 2. Given the backing of the Arlington County Democratic Committee, he is likely to achieve it.
Like Arlington Democrats before him, Karantonis is likely to use the political equivalent of boxing’s rope-a-dope strategy during election season – absorb the inevitable blows, don’t get rattled and wait for the party’s sample ballot to help carry him across the finish line.
An urban planner and former executive director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, Karantonis said he was an independent voice but still worked well with his fellow Democrats for the betterment of Arlington.
“We are a successful community when we work together – a place where everyone can thrive,” said the incumbent, ticking through a laundry list of standard-issue progressive policy positions.
Karantonis agrees that housing affordability is a key problem, but (unlike Clement and Cantwell though more in sync with Theo) said the missing-middle policy would bring net benefits. He also praised the county government’s commitment to its Affordable Housing Investment Trust, which over the decades has funneled more than $300 million, largely though low-interest loans to non-profit housing providers, to augment the housing stock.
But for Theo, who already has announced he plans to run in 2022 if he loses in 2021, it was more talk than action.
“Affordability is something the County Board has failed to take seriously,” he said, pointing to policies that are “pricing out so many residents . . . who are clinging on.”
Taking her turn at bat, Clement belittled county leaders for their almost reflexive woke messaging.
“I oppose symbolic gestures,” she said, asking whether the renaming of Washington-Lee High School reduced achievement gaps in test scores (it didn’t) and whether the pending renaming of Lee Highway will lead to housing affordability and economic sustainability for residents there (unlikely, although the jury is out).
The Committee of 100’s Sept. 8 forum served as an unofficial kickoff to Arlington’s election season, since the traditional venue – the day-after-Labor-Day candidate forum of the Arlington County Civic Federation – in recent years has been pushed back to later in September.
Committee of 100 chair Hannah Dannenfelser said she hoped those who had tuned in to hear the candidates will remain engaged with the organization.
“We would love to have you keep on joining us all year round,” she said.