“Was It a Romp or a Wake-Up Call for Democrats?” was the question plastered across the front page of the first edition of the Sun Gazette that rolled off the presses in the wake of the Nov. 8 Arlington County Board election.
If the Arlington County Democratic Committee is smart – and nobody is doubting its acumen – the party would be wise to consider the result of the election less a vindication of its Missing Middle housing policies, and more the potential of a canary in the coal mine.
That’s the view of veteran Arlington election-watcher Frank O’Leary, the former county treasurer who, in a post-election roundup, said Arlington Democrats did as expected in 2022 but may have a challenge on their hands in 2023.
“I have a feeling that this happy state [in which Democrat incumbent Matt de Ferranti won nearly 61 percent of the vote in a three-way race] will not be the case next year,” O’Leary said after parsing the data and extrapolating into the future.
He released his after-election report on Nov. 20.
Between them, de Ferranti (who is pro-Missing Middle in concept but still hazy on what specifics he would support) and independent Adam Theo (who wants the county government to be aggressive in eliminating single-family zoning across the county) secured more than 70 percent of the vote. Audrey Clement, making another in a string of runs for political office and this year running on her opposition to Missing Middle, garnered just 28 percent.
But Clement did far better than she ever has before in some North Arlington neighborhoods, and if Missing Middle is enacted next year by the County Board, the matter will move from being a concept to Arlington voters into having real-world implications.
As a result, “I expect the impact of the Missing Middle issue to grow in future races,” O’Leary said.
Next year will bring two County Board seats before the electorate.
Incumbent Democrat Katie Cristol has said she will not run again and her fellow two-termer Christian Dorsey, while still mulling it over, could face intra-party opposition if he decided to run again.
That could put two new Democratic faces before Arlington voters in 2023, a year in which there are no high-profile (federal or statewide) races on the ballot. This once-every-fourth-year-in-the-cycle race is known as the constitutional year, because Arlington’s constitutional offices (sheriff, treasurer, commonwealth’s attorney and the like) are on the ballot.
“The constitutional year is famous for its low turnout, averaging less than 30 percent,” O’Leary noted, adding that local Republicans were likely to find candidates for General Assembly seats, causing an increase in turnout among Arlington’s modest but not inconsequential GOP voter base, as happened in 2021.
Throw in the possibility that County Board members will extend ranked-choice voting to the County Board general election “and you have a recipe for a hot time in the old town, with a slew of candidates vying for election,” said O’Leary, who was first elected treasurer in 1983 and won re-election seven times.
That does not, necessarily, guarantee that Democrats would pay a major political price for endorsing Missing Middle zoning revisions. Theo managed to improve his vote total from 4,828 (about 5% of the vote) in the 2021 election to 8,662 (about 10%) in 2022. Most of those voters appear to have been younger and harbor hopes, whether realistic or not, that Missing Middle changes would provide a better likelihood that they could move from an apartment or condominium to a single-family home in Arlington – albeit a single-family home that might be crowded with many others on what once had been a lot with just a lone property on it.
But the ultimate question circles back to: Is there a candidate who can fire the imagination of voters enough to pole-vault over the Arlington Democratic sample ballot and springboard to an election victory?
Clement and Theo would seem to have built-in ceilings among voters. Republicans have been all but incapable of fielding legitimate County Board contenders for more than a decade, same as had the Arlington Green Party (which endorsed Clement this time around but didn’t seem to do so with a lot of enthusiasm).
Democrats apparently still fear the re-emergence of John Vihstadt, who rode the Columbia Pike streetcar controversy to victory as an independent (backed to one degree or another by both Republicans and Greens) in 2014.
But Vihstadt was defeated by de Ferranti in 2018 after the Arlington County Democratic Committee was able to channel voter anger over the election of Donald Trump into more votes in local races.
Should Vihstadt or some other viable alternative emerge, the all-Democratic County Board might well decide not to allow ranked-choice voting for the 2023 County Board general-election race in an effort to protect its turf by retaining the traditional winner-take-all format that has reigned in Arlington since the 1870s.