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ArlingtonObituary: Former Co. Board member helped set in motion a progressive Arlington

Obituary: Former Co. Board member helped set in motion a progressive Arlington

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Tributes poured in after news came that Albert Eisenberg, who served both on the Arlington County Board and in the Virginia House of Delegates, had died Nov. 15 at the age of 76.

“The causes Al championed both on the County Board and in the General Assembly set the framework for the progressive policies that govern Arlington today,” said state Sen. Barbara Favola, who served with Eisenberg on the County Board.

Eisenberg, a Democrat, first was elected to the County Board in 1983, one of the years in Arlington’s election cycle when two seats were on the ballot. He came in second behind incumbent Republican Mike Brunner, but his finish was good enough to knock off Walter Frankland Jr., a two-term Republican incumbent.

Eisenberg would go on to win re-election in 1987 and 1991 (each time on a Democratic ticket with William Newman Jr.) and 1995 (on a ticket with Paul Ferguson).

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“Al was a gifted colleague,” said former County Board member Jay Fisette, who joined the body in 1998 and served for 20 years. “He had a magic pen that brought his passion for human rights, affordable housing, the needs of the less fortunate to life. We were lucky that he applied his talents in service to our community.”

Favola believes Eisenberg was a trailblazer on a key issue that today dominates local governance.

“He was passionate about expanding affordable-housing opportunities in Arlington, and he brought an incredible amount of expertise to the conversation,” she said.

“Al could persuade the harshest critic on why affordable housing mattered, because he believed that everyone deserves a chance to build a life and raise a family,” Favola noted.

Chris Zimmerman, who was elected to the County Board in 1996 and became a driving force until his departure in 2014, also pointed to housing as one of Eisenberg’s core principles.

Eisenberg “was both knowledgeable and passionate on the issue,” Zimmerman told the Sun Gazette. “He pushed the Board, and the county, to go farther than many were comfortable with, long before there was a broadly recognized housing crisis.”

“From his earliest days on the Board, everyone knew Al would go to the mat on housing, and that made it possible for Arlington to make significant strides, and become a leader in an area it had previously trailed,” Zimmerman said.

In 1999, Eisenberg resigned local office to take a political-appointee post in the U.S. Department of Transportation during the Clinton administration. In the special election called to fill his seat, Republican Mike Lane defeated Democrat Charles Monroe, but just months later Monroe and Ferguson defeated Lane and fellow Republican Frances Finta in the subsequent general election.

The election of George W. Bush in 2000 brought an end Eisenberg’s federal service. In 2003, he ran for the 47th House of Delegates seat when Democratic incumbent James Almand opted not to seek re-election.

(Almand, like Newman, would transition from politics to seats on the Arlington Circuit Court).

In the 2003 race, Eisenberg defeated Republican Christian Hoff by a healthy majority, and was unopposed in re-election bids in 2005 and 2007.

In the House of Delegates, Eisenberg was given seats on the Agriculture/Chesapeake/Natural Resources and Science/Technology Committees, augmented by a seat on the General Laws committee for his final two-year term.

In 2009, he opted to retire and was succeeded by Democrat Patrick Hope, who continues to hold the seat today.

“I try each and every day to live up to his standard,” Hope said. “When anyone says we are ‘standing on the shoulders of giants,’ one of those giants is Al Eisenberg.”

Hope said that Eisenberg’s work at both the local and state level has had lasting impact.

“He’ll be remembered as an champion for transit-oriented solutions during his time on the County Board, making Arlington a model for urban smart-growth policies,” Hope said. “He’ll also be remembered for his time in the General Assembly as a strong and passionate advocate for protecting our children.”

The delegate also recalled another facet of Eisenberg’s personality.

“Anyone who really knew Al knows of his passion for history, especially the Civil War,” Hope said. “He loved to learn the stories behind the men and women who fought and died.”

“I will always cherish the moments we spent together,” Hope said. “Whether it was walking the battlefield of Antietam or sifting through his extensive Civil War collection, listening to Al accurately describe the events behind each battle and recite the personal stories through each letter written back home, Al had a knack of bringing those events lost to history back to life.”

“Had he not gone into public policy, he might most naturally have been a history professor,” Zimmerman added.

Albert Charles Eisenberg was born on Oct. 15, 1946, in Jersey City, N.J., earning college degrees at the University of Richmond and Hampton Institute. He served in the U.S. Navy in 1968-69.

While unquestionably a political partisan, Eisenberg’s tenure on the County Board was marked by an acknowledgement that the opposing party had a role to play even as Arlington was beginning to transition into a Democratic stronghold.

Scott McGeary, a longtime civic leader and for a time chair of the Arlington County Republican Party, noted that Eisenberg made sure there were seats reserved on county boards and commissions for GOP appointees, to try and accurately represent the balance of power in the community.

Eisenberg also became famous for asking, anytime something new was proposed, “What problem are we trying to solve?” Woe to a staffer, or even colleague, who did not have an answer at the ready.

“This had a lasting impression on his younger colleagues; we learned the lesson well,” Zimmerman said. “In the years after he left the Board in 1999, on many occasions one of us would say, ‘It’s time for the Eisenberg Question.’”

Eisenberg was married since 1976 to Sharon Davis; they met as members of Arlington Young Democrats. Davis served as chief clerk and chief minority clerk for the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Energy and Commerce for more than three decades, and twice was on the losing end of exceptionally close elections (one general election to David Foster, one Democratic caucus to Sally Baird) for Arlington School Board. Their union produced two sons, Matthew and Alex.

For about a decade before his death, Eisenberg had been living in an assisted-care facility owing to cognitive decline.

Favola said she hoped her former colleague understood how important he had been to the community he served.

“Al, your legacy will live on and Arlington will continue to flourish, because you cared,” she said. “May you rest in peace.”

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