Candidates Take Aim as Campaign Season Opens Residents Question Political Priorities

Washington Post

Candidates Take Aim as Campaign Season Opens
Residents Question Political Priorities

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 14, 2006; VA03

The war in Iraq, rising property taxes and the loss of affordable housing topped the list of concerns among residents who showed up to quiz political candidates at a forum in Arlington last week.

More than 100 people turned out for the Arlington County Civic Federation’s candidates night at Virginia Hospital Center. The forum is a post-Labor Day tradition that signals the start of the fall campaign season.

U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) scrapped with opponents for his 8th District congressional seat — Republican Tom M. O’Donoghue and Independent James T. Hurysz — on the war and acceptance of money from special interests, while candidates for the County Board and School Board faced questions on county spending and the dwindling stock of affordable housing.

In response to a question on the war, Moran advocated that the United States begin a withdrawal of troops “immediately” and that the size of the force be halved by next summer.

Moran is seeking his ninth term in the majority Democratic district, which includes Arlington, Alexandria, Falls Church and a slice of eastern Fairfax County.

“We should not have begun this war with Iraq, and we should not continue it indefinitely,” he said.

O’Donoghue, a West Point graduate and decorated veteran of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, said that more diplomacy and planning will be needed before withdrawal begins.

“If we pull out prematurely, we risk destabilizing the entire region,” he said.

Hurysz — who said he is not accepting donations from lobbyists or political action committees — criticized Moran’s acceptance of money from special-interest groups. Moran has raised more than $1 million; his opponents have raised a small fraction of that.

When Moran said he opposed the Medicare prescription drug bill and recent legislation that would have given tax breaks to big oil companies, O’Donoghue noted that Moran nonetheless has accepted more than $25,000 from pharmaceutical companies and others such as the oil giant British Petroleum.

Rising property taxes and gentrification of Arlington dominated the discussion of the county board race, where County Board Chair Chris Zimmerman (D) faces Michael T. McMenamin, a lawyer and the president of Maywood Community Association, running with the backing of the Republican Party, and Green Party candidate Joshua F. Ruebner, a coordinator for a group that supports Palestinian causes.

McMenamin said he launched his campaign for the County Board because he believes the current board has been overspending and is “more and more disengaged from our neighborhoods.”

He criticized the board’s priorities in funding such luxury projects as the $135 million North Tract recreational facility over funding for storm drain maintenance and neighborhood traffic programs.

Ruebner said the county has been “under relentless attack by developers” in recent years, making it “out of reach for all but Arlington’s most wealthy.”

Arlington has lost nearly 10,000 moderately priced housing units to rising rents and redevelopment, Ruebner said.

“We haven’t been sitting idly by,” Zimmerman countered, saying that the county had preserved thousands of units of affordable housing in recent years. Last year, Zimmerman said, the county struck a deal with developers that will preserve part of some new residential projects for moderately priced housing and will add money to the county’s affordable housing trust fund.

School Board candidates Sally Baird, who has been endorsed by the county’s Democratic Party, and Independent Cecelia Espenoza grappled with questions about gangs in schools, the need to raise achievement among minority students and the school system’s construction budget.

Espenoza said it was “unacceptable” that a third of the county’s schools recently failed to meet federal benchmarks on standardized tests.

Both candidates were asked their thoughts about plans for the new Reed Educational Center, which will be part of a new library complex in the Westover neighborhood. The center will have a teenage-parenting program and a day-care center for school system employees — with a private courtyard playground that won’t be open to the public.

“I have the same questions about Reed that everyone else does,” Baird said. Other schools have “dramatic needs,” such as for new heating and air-conditioning systems, Baird said, so “why are we spending this money?”

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