He made economic development a cornerstone of his successful County Board bid, and now Matt de Ferranti says he plans to deliver on his promises.
“That’s the issue and the funding priority I have identified consistently in this campaign, and that is what I will focus on initially,” said de Ferranti, who on Nov. 6 defeated one-term independent John Vihstadt and regained for Democrats a County Board seat the party had seen slip away during the Arlington voter rebellion of 2014.
“My top priority will be to work on bringing down the office-vacancy rate so that we can afford to invest in our schools and Arlington’s future,” de Ferranti told the Sun Gazette. “The other priorities – housing affordability, renewable energy and child hunger – will also be areas I will work on, but the majority of my time preparing to serve will be thinking about how we can grow and attract businesses to help us grow and afford the investments we need for our future.”
Kate Bates, president of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce (which does not weigh in on political races), said after the votes were tallied that any focus on economic development would be welcomed.
“The importance of our commercial sector’s health is even more apparent in a time such as now, when the county faces increasingly challenging budgets,” she said. “We look forward to continuing our partnership with the Arlington County Board and staff to foster a strong economic environment.”
De Ferranti, an attorney by day who serves on the county government’s Housing Commission, was helped by a robust turnout in Arlington, which helped him blunt Vihstadt’s power of incumbency. In the end, de Ferranti took home 53 percent of the vote.
Although few candidates could out-hustle Vihstadt on the campaign trail, de Ferranti did focus significant energy on walking neighborhoods and knocking on doors. Some of what he heard, or didn’t hear, from voters was unexpected.
“Single-family development and pedestrian safety came up more than I anticipated, as did tree canopy,” de Ferranti said. “Transportation has been discussed less than I thought it would be at the beginning of the campaign,” perhaps “because the legislature has taken action to help address the issue.”
De Ferranti’s victory represents redemption for the Arlington County Democratic Committee, which with his swearing-in will again see all 22 local political posts – five County Board, five School Board, five constitutional and seven legislative – in the party’s hands.
Vihstadt bounded into office in a 2014 special election called when Chris Zimmerman resigned to take a job in the private sector. At the time, the all-Democratic County Board was under fire from many in the community both for extravagant capital spending and a perceived tin ear verging on arrogance in dealing with the public.
Vihstadt handily defeated Democrat Alan Howze in the 2014 special election, then later that year went on to win a full four-year term.
Shortly after that second victory, two County Board Democrats – Jay Fisette and Mary Hynes – bit the bullet and switched sides on the Columbia Pike streetcar project, effectively killing the $300 million proposal. Their move outraged transit advocates and those hoping to cash in on redevelopment of the Pike corridor, but went a long way to calming the political waters. Board members later tackled other white elephants, shuttering the Artisphere, downscaling the Long Bridge Park aquatics center and lowering the cost of what were derided, perhaps somewhat unfairly, as “million-dollar bus stops.”
In the final analysis, the Democratic victory in the County Board race in part was due to President Trump, whose unpopularity among the Arlington electorate seems to know no bounds.
Voters cast just over 100,000 votes in the County Board race – a huge number for a non-presidential year – and while there was some ticket-splitting, the sheer volume of those voting a straight Democratic ticket enabled de Ferranti to win without the night turning into a nail-biter.
Vihstadt’s four-year tenure on the County Board was the longest by any non-Democrat since the early 1980s, and was the first since Mike Lane served a brief stint in 1999. His term formally comes to an end on Dec. 31.
With the 2018 election over, the question now becomes whether any of the three Democratic office-holders who publicly supported Vihstadt will pay any price within their party.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos and Treasurer Carla de la Pava, who backed Vihstadt against de Ferranti, are up for re-election in 2019 and potentially could face intra-party challenges, although both are popular and have their own power bases to rely on.
The seat of County Board member Libby Garvey, who helped Vihstadt to victory in 2014 and supported him again in 2018, is not up for grabs again until 2020. In 2016, she faced a tough primary fight from Erik Gutshall but emerged unscathed, while Gutshall won a County Board seat the following year.