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ArlingtonPoliticsUpdate: Democrats vote to maintain School Board caucus

Update: Democrats vote to maintain School Board caucus

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Despite criticism from some quarters that it benefits wealthier areas of the county and puts hurdles in the way of a more diverse field of candidates, the leadership of the Arlington County Democratic Committee voted overwhelmingly to maintain the party’s School Board endorsement caucus.

The vote was 117 in favor of maintaining the current process, 22 supporting scrapping it, party officials said Feb. 3 after all the ballots had been tallied.

Voting began after a lengthy discussion on the matter at the monthly meeting of the committee, held Feb. 2. As a result of the vote, Democrats this spring will once again choose an endorsee who will move on to the general election with the party’s backing.

Supporters of maintaining the status quo said having a vetting process prior to the general election would ensure the committee’s values were reflected on the November ballot.


“It is more urgent than ever,” said current School Board Chairman Barbara Kanninen, who like several caucus backers painted a picture of independents or Republicans sneaking away with victory in a multi-candidate general-election race.

Keeping the caucus process would likely ensure victory of candidates “proven to hold our Democratic values,” said Kanninen, who announced earlier this year she would not seek a third term, becoming the fourth School Board member in three years not to seek re-election.

Critics of the current caucus process, however, contend its limited turnout is more easily manipulated by those who know the system, and often shuts out minorities.

“It doesn’t look like we are trying to build an inclusive process,” said Arlington NAACP chairman Julius “J.D.” Spain Sr., whose organization was on the forefront of seeking to either eliminate or radically redesign the caucus process.

Others were concerned about partisan politics playing a role at all in selection of School Board members – who are, under state law, supposed to hold nonpartisan seats.

“I do not believe political parties should be involved with the process,” said Jennifer Sauter-Price, who was watching the meeting (held at Dr. Charles Drew Elementary School) online.

Still others said there should be a middle ground, perhaps keeping the caucus process but reforming it.

“We really need to make some fundamental changes,” said Mary Glass, to “find a process that will include as many people as possible.”

Even School Board member Mary Kadera, who in 2021 won the Democratic caucus en route to a general-election victory, seemed to be in that middle-ground camp.

“The process, Kadera said, needs “significant reforms.” She asked for a “commitment from party leadership” to development them rather than risk “pulling this local party apart when we have other urgent work to do.”

“We have to make this process more inclusive,” Kadera said.

That 2021 caucus drew more than 6,200 participants, a figure that drew derision from speaker Dave Schutz. He said Democrats may “crow” about the turnout, but in a county of 230,000 people, “the number of participants is really small.”

Voting on the resolution was open to a limited swath of the Democratic Committee: officers, area chairs, elected officials, members of the Democratic State Central Committee from Arlington, precinct captains and a few others. Those allowed to vote did not have to be in attendance at the meeting to cast ballots.

While those permitted to vote were limited to people with formal party positions, those outside the inner circle, or outside the party entirely, were permitted to speak on the matter at the Feb. 2 meeting.

“It’s important . . . that we hear directly from the community,” said newly elected Democratic deputy chair Mike Hemminger.

Traditionally, Democratic caucus voting is held over several days in May. Normally in-person voting has been the method used, but the party has pivoted to online and hybrid voting over the past two years. (Rules for the 2022 caucus are likely to be adopted in March.)

Kanninen’s decision not to seek a third term leaves the race wide open; given that the status of the caucus was in limbo, it may be little surprise that no candidates have formally announced plans to run. That likely will change at the March meeting of the Democratic committee.

Until the 1950s, School Board members in Arlington and across the commonwealth generally were appointed by the Circuit Court of the given jurisdiction. During that decade, Arlington (and only Arlington) received permission from the General Assembly to elect its five-member School Board.

That power was taken away in the early 1960s, and School Board members then were appointed by the County Board – a body that until the 1980s frequently flip-flopped between liberal and conservative majorities.

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the General Assembly allowed elected School Boards – this time in all of Virginia’s 133 cities and counties – if local residents voted to make the change. The Arlington electorate was quick to do so.

Since that time, nearly all School Board members have been in some way aligned with the Democrats. An exception was David Foster, a Republican who won terms in 1999 and 2003.

The Feb. 2 battle over the caucus proved a full-immersion baptism of sorts for new Arlington Democratic chair Steve Baker, who won the post in January, succeeding Jill Caiazzo.

At the kickoff to discussion of the subject, Baker suggested that the debate was healthy and, no matter the end result, reflected a party that has a strong commitment to public education.

“We care deeply about our schools,” he said.

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