Arlington County Board members on April 30 voted to petition the Virginia Supreme Court to delay, for up to 30 days or even to the Nov. 3 general election, the planned July 7 special election to fill the seat of their late colleague Erik Gutshall.
Even as that plays out, candidates are out making their cases to the public, with one independent having jumped into the race and four Democrats vying to be their party’s nominee.
But as of press time, it remains an open question when the voting actually will take place.
Having the election on July 7 is “not good for either democracy or public health right now,” County Board Chairman Libby Garvey said before a vote by County Board members, made without public input, asking the governor and/or courts to intervene.
Board members relied on a provision in the Code of Virginia allowing localities to request deferral of an election in the event of emergency conditions. Virginia currently is operating under a state of emergency declared by Gov. Northam due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The request now goes to the state’s highest court, where a three-judge panel presided over by the chief justice will consider the matter. State law limits any election postponement to 30 days; the last Tuesday within that window would be Aug. 4.
The County Board resolution, however, asks the court to consider ordering the election be held as late as the Nov. 3 general election, although there is no provision in law for that to happen. Adding that provision to the resolution raised eyebrows that the all-Democratic County Board could be colluding behind the scenes with some in the Arlington County Democratic Committee, although the party says it only seeks a delay until September – which also would require existing state law to be ignored.
Even if a delay to Aug. 4 is granted, the court’s action is not likely to change the May 8 filing deadline to appear on the special-election ballot. County Democrats and Republicans are each scrambling to have candidates in place prior to that deadline.
Gutshall died April 16 from brain cancer. Under rules laid out in state law, Circuit Court Chief Judge William Newman Jr. could have set the date of the special election for either June 30 or July 7. He selected the latter date. The Arlington Electoral Board then selected the May 8 filing deadline, also the last date available on the calendar under state law.
The Arlington County Democratic Committee over the past two weeks has scrambled to find a way to postpone the election for enough time to enable it to hold a broad-based nomination process. As things now stand, about 275 party insiders will select the nominee during balloting to take place May 5-6.
Four candidates are in the running for the Democratic nomination: Takis Karantonis, Nicole Merlene, Barbara Kanninen and Chanda Choun.
Susan Cunningham, a founding member of the county government’s Joint Facilities Advisory Board who also has chaired several school-system committees, on May 5 formally entered the race as an independent.
“I will focus relentlessly on reconnecting our communities, valuing what’s essential and balancing growth and livability,” Cunningham said in a campaign statement, saying her goal was to live up to Gutshall’s “legacy of vision, listening and planning that will help drive Arlington’s future.”
Republicans also have been working to recruit a candidate.
“I believe strongly that we should run a Republican in every single partisan race, and this is no different,” party chairman Andrew Loposser said. “The shortened campaign timeline and unique circumstances give Republicans an opportunity to make a strong case to Arlington voters.”
All candidates have until May 8 to get their paperwork in order. Former County Board member John Vihstadt, who served from 2014-18 as an independent, has suggested he is not inclined to run, but has not entirely ruled out a bid.
Although an announcement of his planned resignation was made on Facebook in the weeks prior to his death, Gutshall never actually transmitted a formal resignation letter to county officials. He was the fourth County Board member to die in office, the first since Charles Monroe succumbed to a stroke during a board meeting in January 2003.
A special election to fill Monroe’s seat was held two months after his death. It was won by Walter Tejada, who served in office through 2015.