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Independent candidate holds off McAuliffe, Warner in deep blue county

Independent John Vihstadt is the first non-Democrat to win an Arlington County Board seat since 1999.
Independent John Vihstadt is the first non-Democrat to win an Arlington County Board seat since 1999.
Courtesy photo

After 15 years of frustration, conservatives are crowing over John Vihstadt’s victory in this week’s Arlington County Board election.

Though Vihstadt ran as an independent, Republicans and tea partyers openly supported the real-estate lawyer against Democrat Alan Howze.

Howze lost by 3,500 votes, despite email blitzes and robocalls from Gov. Terry McAuliffe and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner. It marked the first time since 1999 that a Democrat failed to win an Arlington Board election.

Political observers say the County Board’s big-spending transportation agenda — including $1 million bus stops and a controversial streetcar proposal — turned off voters.

“The election demonstrates what happens when a board believes its own propaganda about Arlington being a world-class community,” said Joe Warren, a member of the county Transit Advisory Committee and vocal critic of the board’s pricey transportation projects.

Arlene Smith, organizer of the Arlington Tea Party, agreed.

“With little thought to potential economic downturns, (the board) steamed ahead, burdening our taxpayers with one expensive vanity project after another.

“The story behind the story is that Arlington County voters have had enough of that,” Smith told Watchdog.org.

Vihstadt’s campaign zeroed in on Arlington’s highly contentious public-transit plans reported in a series of Watchdog articles.

“We need to focus spending on core services first — public schools, public safety, infrastructure maintenance and neighborhood quality of life — not a $310 million streetcar (and) million-dollar bus stops,” Vihstadt said during the campaign.

“We are still waiting for that bus-stop audit promised last fall,” he said.

Vihstadt advocated a bus rapid transit line along Columbia Pike and through Pentagon City and Crystal City.

“BRT can be implemented more quickly, at a fraction of the cost, with less disruption, better regional connectivity and with more flexibility than a streetcar,” he said.

Vihstadt gained momentum, even as Democrats scurried to save Howze.

“Terry McAuliffe and Mark Warner threw the weight of their organizations behind the Democrat in the race — including last minute emails from McAuliffe and robocalls from Mark Warner,” said Garren Shipley, spokesman for the Republican Party of Virginia.

McAuliffe’s emails stated, in part:

“This race is too important to ignore — we need you to go to the polls and vote on April 8th for Alan Howze. I will keep fighting for you in Richmond, and I hope you will join me in supporting Alan Howze so he can fight for you in Arlington.”

Democratic Party officials could not be reached for comment, but GOP activist Ron Meyer said Vihstadt’s 57-41 percent victory showed “when Republicans run on local issues and build deep community relationships, they can win in Northern Virginia.”

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