The two independent candidates for Arlington County Board used the first debate of the general-election season to hammer away with concerns about county-government responsiveness and the community’s Democratic oligarchy. On the same dais, the Democratic nominee defended his party, but said there was plenty the government could do better.
“I happen to be very comfortable” as a Democrat, Erik Gutshall said at the Arlington County Civic Federation’s Sept. 5 forum, which drew about 200 people to Virginia Hospital Center.
The party, which usually brings home about 70 percent of the vote in local races, “is a natural home for me,” Gutshall said.
At the same time, Gutshall said, “there’s plenty of room for new ideas,” while acknowledging that, in recent years, “we’ve had an erosion of trust in our County Board, our county government, our county-manager’s office.”
Gutshall is sharing the ballot with independents Audrey Clement and Charles McCullough, all vying to succeed County Board Chairman Jay Fisette, who is retiring in December after having served 20 years. If past is prologue, the Democrats’ powerhouse get-out-the-vote apparatus will carry Gutshall (currently chairman of the Planning Commission) to an easy victory, but Clement and McCullough managed to hold their own in the joint appearance.
Both Clement and McCullough criticized the current County Board – comprised of four Democrats and an independent – for being either unable or unwilling to address issues ranging from affordable housing to accountability.
“It’s status quo,” said McCullough, an attorney making his first bid for office, who several times ripped the county government for extending millions of dollars in “payola and corporate welfare” in an effort to win economic-development successes.
Clement, who has run for elected office a half-dozen times before, topping out at 31 percent against Fisette four years ago, portrayed Arlington leaders as sharing a matrimonial bed with the development community, rubber-stamping new projects to reap the tax revenue they generate.
“The County Board itself has a very serious conflict of interest,” Clement said, also criticizing board members for actively squelching citizen participation by holding interminable meetings that all but the most masochistic activists (or development lawyers who bill by the hour) avoid.
The board “spends hours debating minutiae,” Clement said, while pushing major issues to the end of its lengthy agendas.
“Once you’ve been through one of those marathons, you don’t want to come back,” she said. “It’s a real endurance contest.”
All three candidates offered specific proposals for retaining some of Arlington’s dwindling stock of affordable housing, although even if enacted, they may not make much of an impact, given the economic reality that encourages property owners to tear down existing properties and build grander ones in their place.
Both Gutshall and Clement have positioned themselves as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, while McCullough seems to be tacking further left on fiscal issues.
“I never get tired of the passion” brought out by candidates, said Lois Koontz, who moderated the forum.
Gutshall reiterated concerns he has raised over the past year that Arlington’s golden goose – its focus since the 1970s on transit-oriented commercial development – is being undermined by competition from neighboring jurisdictions, as well as changes to federal-government leasing policies and a trend toward teleworking.
“We had, for a long time, gone along on one model of how to do things,” he said. “I’m worried that, in Arlington, the gig is up. It is in jeopardy.”
How to address the new economic-development era? “Our values shouldn’t change, but our solutions have to,” Gutshall said. “We have got to evolve, we have got to adapt.”
In 2016, Gutshall challenged incumbent Democratic County Board member Libby Garvey in a contentious party primary; Garvey won by about 10 points. This May, Gutshall was a relatively easy winner in the Democratic caucus called to find a successor to Fisette, who backed his candidacy.
The annual Civic Federation debate serves as a de-facto kickoff to the general-election season, foreshadowing other forums that will take place over the next two months.
“We are Arlington’s civic voice. We should never forget that,” federation president Duke Banks told delegates.
Arlington Independent Media taped the forum. A link to coverage will be available at www.civfed.org.