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Monday, December 5, 2022
ArlingtonAnalysis: Did neighborhoods just deliver Arlington Democrats a warning?

Analysis: Did neighborhoods just deliver Arlington Democrats a warning?

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Incumbent Arlington County Board member Matt de Ferranti’s healthy re-election victory in the Nov. 8 general election did not come without some inherent warning signs for Democrats about one segment of the county population’s unhappiness with current governance.

Whether the party heeds the potential canary in the coal mine, or even needs to, remains to be seen.

De Ferranti won about 60.5 percent of the vote as he cruised to re-election in a campaign that turned out to be noisier (largely on the issue of Missing Middle zoning changes) than the end result suggested it needed to be. Audrey Clement, a perennial candidate who ran on an anti-Missing Middle platform, received 28.4 percent of the vote, while Adam Theo, who wants more aggressive changes in county housing policy, picked up 9.8 percent, according to figures reported by the Virginia Department of Elections.

The end result suggested that despite campaign tumult that focused largely on the housing issue, often to the detriment of other issues, voters eventually came home to roost where they usually do in Arlington. With the Democrats.

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But Clement managed to best de Ferranti in four of the county’s 54 precincts in Election Night reporting, although that number was expected to fall or disappear entirely as the early-voting tallies are merged into precinct results and several thousand outstanding provisional ballots are added to the mix. But regardless of how many, if any, precincts Clement comes away winning, there’s no doubt that large swaths of North Arlington single-family neighborhoods voted for Clement to send a message on the Missing Middle issue.

Clement’s healthy performance in the northernmost areas of Arlington seems to acknowledge two, somewhat politically contradictory, facts:

• Single-family communities, especially in North Arlington, are not happy about the proposed Missing Middle zoning changes, which threaten to turn their streets into an array of fourplexes, sixplexes and, if some advocates get their way, even eightplexes on lots that now hold a single property.

• While the Missing Middle issue dominated in that corridor of Arlington, it was either a non-factor or saw support in other parts of the county. Pro-Missing Middle candidate Theo, while not winning or even coming close in any precinct, tended to outperform his countywide total in areas with a significant number of apartment- and condo-dwellers, some of whom see Missing Middle as their ticket to a single-family home in Arlington, albeit possibly one wedged cheek-to-jowl up against others and still likely to cost $1 million or more.

Twenty years ago, a revolt among voters in Arlington’s far-northern single-family neighborhoods might have caused Arlington leaders to rethink their plans. But these days, those communities are a mere blip in the overall vote total, and ever since Donald Trump’s election, the Arlington County Democratic Committee has been able to convince renters and condo owners to vote the party line all the way down to local races – a factor that helped de Ferranti to victory over independent incumbent John Vihstadt in 2018 and smoothed his route to re-election in 2022.

And unless Arlington were to shift from at-large to district-based elections, something Democrats would likely fight tooth and nail, even outrage on specific issues in large parts of the community are likely to be overcome by the party on Election Day.

On the other side of the controversy, supporters of Missing Middle policies were quick to pounce after the election, with press releases and letters to the editor pronouncing the matter now settled, since 70 percent of voters (adding Theo and de Ferranti together) supported a candidate espousing a pro-Missing Middle agenda.

And indeed, supporters of the theory of Missing Middle probably, on balance, are more numerous than opponents among the Arlington electorate. But having a concentrated level of anger in a large swath of still-politically-potent areas of the county might give some Democratic strategists pause, and could cause more than just a ripple of problems for the party once the real-world implications of the policy begin to hit – something that could happen as early as next year, when Democrats have two County Board seats to defend and a light turnout gives more power at the ballot box to those with a grievance to nurse.

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