You arrive at the candidates’ debate hoping for tough questions that knock the pols off their rehearsed scripts.
A bit of such authenticity shown through in answers from county board incumbent John Vihstadt and Democratic challenger Matt de Ferranti during their umpteenth face-off, held Oct. 10 at the Arlington Committee of 100.
Queries from that plugged-in, famously civil audience and moderator Scott Brodbeck of ARLnow dealt with the usual topics of transportation, development, housing and who’s the most powerful endorsement magnet.
But there was one plain, cutting question: Who is your hero?
Vihstadt cited his father, now in his 90s whom he visits in McLean, who keeps him focused on issues such as senior housing. “I haven’t been able to wean him off of Fox News,” confessed Vihstadt, a longtime Republican who successfully ran as an independent.
De Ferranti named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he recalls learning about in 5th grade. “There’s something powerful about his message that’s relevant now” to equitable education, housing and food security, said the first-time candidate.
Vihstadt, a silver-tongued attorney active in Arlington schools, neighborhoods and county planning going back to 1981, has the advantage of two previous campaigns (one special and one general in 2014.) Having made a regional reputation by prompting cancellation of the Columbia Pike streetcar, he has four years of official engagement with Arlingtonians that he weaves into retail politicking.
An example came in response to a question from disappointed tree preservation activists about the board’s failure to prevent this summer’s destruction of a champion dawn redwood tree. “I called the developer,” Vihstadt said, referring to press-avoiding homebuilder Ross Richmond.
The businessman who chopped the tree to make room for a second mansion told Vihstadt “it is private property and there’s no way the county can tell him what to do with it.” So the current board is hoping to save other trees with tools new and old, Vihstadt said.
De Ferranti, a softer-spoken attorney for the National Indian Education Association, has lived in Arlington since 2013 (he grew up in McLean.) He served on Arlington’s Housing Commission and chaired a school budget advisory council.
De Ferranti’s polite strategy was to take subtle digs at Vihstadt, noting that Arlington’s commercial vacancy rate has been stuck at 20 percent for “four years.” He commended his opponent for acknowledging that the board messed up by delaying its replacing of the rusting salt dome on Old Dominion Drive. And though both consider Metro funding essential, the Democrat linked Arlington’s under-funding to opposition by a Republican from Fairfax.
The two staked out similar positions on spreading affordable housing countywide, welcoming immigrants, not wasting resources on the proposed gondola at Key Bridge and harboring mixed feelings about whether the county should offer incentives to attract the second headquarters of Amazon.
Vihstadt’s roster of endorsers include a half-dozen Democrats and current officeholders, while de Ferranti nabbed the entire current school board and state-level names like former Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.
Vihstadt informed his opponent that “it’s not particularly newsworthy” when Democrats endorse Democrats. He touted his legacy of “staying away from extravagant projects” and encouraging “give and take, and compromise.”
De Ferranti said Vihstadt’s call for “balance” hasn’t worked across the river in national government, adding, “I believe I am aligned with the next chapter of Arlington’s history.”
Local novel alert: Journalist Peter Roper’s “Morning’s Gray Light,” published last month by Lulu.com, recreates the high school football scene in a southern-flavored Arlington circa 1970.
Returning Vietnam vets and anti-war characters populate a fictional James Longstreet High School, playing ball against real opponents — Falls Church, Marshall, Washington-Lee. One scene unfolds at the Frozen Dairy Bar off Arlington Blvd.
From the opening scene-setter: “A shirtless, sweat-glazed road gang from the Arlington County Jail was chopping down weeds and pushing mowers through the heavy, stubborn grass on the shoulders of Lee Highway.”