What recent political happenings in Arlington can tell us about politics in general

A series of events in Arlington VA underscores issues with our political system that prevent good people from serving in public office.

Arlington County recently experienced the following series of events:
  • County Board member Barbara Favola won election in November to the VA state Senate, requiring her to resign her seat on the Board
  • The County held a special election in March to fill the empty seat
  • Arlington School Board member, Libby Garvey won that election, requiring her to resign her seat on the School Board.
  • The empty School Board seat did not need to be filled by election; the four remaining School Board members chose the replacement board member.
  • The School Board chose Todd McCracken to fill the empty seat through the end of 2012, at which time whoever wins the election in November will take the seat.
When the school board announced the process for selecting someone to fill the empty seat, sixteen (16!) citizens submitted letters of interest and resumes (disclosure: I was one of those).  For a relatively small jurisdiction like Arlington, that struck me as a remarkable level of interest. 

Before Libby Garvey won the County Board seat, opening the School Board seat, Arlington's political parties had been seeking nominees for the November School Board election to run for her seat. Garvey had announced she would not run for School Board again regardless of the outcome of the special election. In Mid-April, the Arlington Democratic party announced that one of the two candidates who was planning to run in November had withdrawn.

Since only one candidate remained for the empty seat, the party would not need to caucus to decide which candidate to support in the election. (NOTE: School Board seats are "non-partisan." However, the parties often "endorse" candidates, which in Arlington essentially amounts to the same thing as being the party's named candidate.)

There may or may not be a Republican endorsed candidate; none has filed yet. Regardless, Noah Simon, the Democratic endorsed candidate, is very likely to win based on Arlington's historical voting patterns. (Emma Violand-Sanchez, currently on the School Board, will be running for her own seat and is a shoo-in for re-election.)

That is an amazing contrast.  Only two people in the county will be mounting campaigns to run for School Board (the Democrat is very likely to win based on historical results) while more than a dozen others are clearly interested in representing the County on the School Board.  Note that they are unlikely to be doing this for monetary reasons: the job is part-time, but quite time consuming, and only pays a couple thousand a month.

Unquestionably, some of these people are highly qualified and capable (not me necessarily; but others)--perhaps more so than either of the candidates who are running.  I spoke with Todd McCracken, and he told me that he was not interested in running for office.  Yet clearly he is interested in serving. 

The School Board chose a citizen who is not running for office, so clearly they also believe that running for office is not a prerequisite for being a good public servant.  Otherwise they could have chosen Larry Fishtahler, who was one of the Democratic candidates and was also one of the sixteen.

Are the citizens of Arlington best served by using the current political process to select School Board members (and County Board members, for that matter)?  Are they getting the best people?

I think probably not.  However, I don't see an easy alternative.  Clearly we would like a system that allows people to choose their own representative to serve on the Board, and elections are the most obvious way to determine that.  On the other hand, the challenges that go into campaigning dissuade a lot of excellent people from ever even running.

Some might argue that requiring people to campaign can help weed out those who don't have the stamina or organizational skills or other traits needed to run an effective campaign.  That may be true, but for an office like local School Board, I believe the correlation between those traits and traits needed to be an effective Board member are weak.

Are there other solutions?  One could imagine an appointed School Board--appointed by the County Board.  But that just raises different issues, such as favoritism.  Or perhaps a hybrid in which some Board members are elected and others are selected through a different process.  I don't have a good answer.  But this recent turn of events in Arlington does seem to indicate that our current electoral system is likely keeping good candidates from running for and serving in public office.

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