At just 33, outgoing Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol is using her age as an asset.
When you’re only 33, but you’ve already reached the top of the ticket for Arlington’s elected officials, some confusing moments are sure to ensue.
First elected to the Arlington County Board in 2015 for a four-year term, Katie Cristol is currently wrapping up a year-long stint as the board’s chair, an annually rotating position.
She’s nearly a decade-and-a-half younger than the board’s next-youngest member, Christian Dorsey, which leads to the occasional wrong assumption. “I was at an event with [Fairfax County Supervisor] Penny Gross,” Cristol recalls. “She introduced me to a woman who lived in her jurisdiction who said, ‘Oh, are you Penny’s aide?’”
Misunderstandings aside, Cristol insists her young age is actually an asset rather than a detriment in her public role. “The thing I’m really trying to hold onto from 2015 that I think resonated with voters was I knew that I didn’t have all the answers. Since then, I’ve only learned the extent to which nobody in this job can have all the answers. There’s a humility that comes with that that people really appreciate.”
A Right Start
As County Board Chair, Cristol is known as a progressive Democrat. But she didn’t always identify with her current party. As a politically aware young person, she considered herself a Republican. Her father was one, though moderate on social issues; she describes him as “one of those Republicans that the party has left behind.”
She followed his lead until the Iraq War began shifting her ideology. “As I learned more, I became more of a John Kerry supporter,” she explains, crossing parties for that one particular candidate despite still not identifying as a Democrat. “He seemed to me to have a better strategy for dealing with this international instability that had so shaken my own conscience.”
At the University of Virginia, Cristol founded Cavs for Kerry that year and the vast majority of fellow members were indeed Democrats. Speaking with them frequently helped change her mind more completely, as did experiencing life on campus.
“My father’s family had struggled economically in Georgia, but he had created this comfortable life for his family by sheer hard work. The story I felt I saw was that hard work is rewarded, the market works, minimal government intervention,” she explains. “It wasn’t until I got to UVA that I really saw, for example, cafeteria workers on the campus. It really started to burst my bubble that life was a fair playing field and government had no role.”
Fast forward to today, and Cristol is a committed Democrat and—since Arlington has no mayor—the top elected official in a county of more than 230,000 residents.
Arriving in Arlington
Cristol was born and raised in Atlanta until age 8, when her family moved to Montgomery County, Maryland, for her father’s job in trade association management. Both her parents retain their southern accents to this day, though Cristol herself gradually lost it in Maryland.
She went to UVA for undergrad, where she met her now husband, Steve Giballa, when they co-starred in a campus Shakespeare on the Lawn production of Cyrano de Bergerac.
He played the best friend Le Bret and she played the love interest Roxanne, although in real life they were just friends and Giballa was dating somebody else at the time. A few years later, he and Cristol had both cancelled their spring break plans and accidentally ran into each other in the basement of an academic building.
“So we got sandwiches,” Cristol says. “Now here we are.”
They stayed together even as she moved to New Jersey to get her master’s degree in public policy at Princeton, marrying in 2011 with a fellow Cyrano co-star performing the ceremony. They moved to Arlington that same year for Cristol’s job at Education First Consulting. Today they live off of Columbia Pike with a cat nicknamed Shirlie, whose full name is Shirlington after the Arlington County town. She and Giballa are also expecting their first child in May.
A Tree Grows in Arlington
Cristol may be relatively young, but she’s passionate about local issues that cross all age ranges. For example, the current tree population in Arlington. It’s been an intense topic—and also an eye-opening one that demonstrates the difficulties of communicating to her constituents.
“One of the hottest topics right now is tree preservation in Arlington. At every public comment, we’ll have people basically saying that this county is failing to lead and letting down the community because trees are being destroyed everywhere they look,” Cristol says. “Then I was talking to a group of fifth grade Girl Scouts on Sunday, asking them what they liked about Arlington. One girl raised her hand and said, ‘I just really like that people don’t cut down trees.’”
“Now, data helps so much. Our tree canopy has grown 2.5 percent in the last five years,” Cristol clarifies. “But people perceive either that this county they love is being clear cut, or they see neighbors that are making trees a priority. One of the things I think is so fascinating is how people can look at the same environment or issue in Arlington and arrive at completely opposite conclusions.”
Always aware of navigating those perception issues, during her tenure on the board, Cristol has spearheaded several initiatives—some more popular than others.
Some policies may not sit well with strict fiscal hawks or advocates of limited government. In the past three years the county budget has consistently increased from $1.55 billion to $1.62 billion to the most recent $1.65 billion. (Although some counter that the budget has actually failed to keep pace with the county’s recent exploding population, especially the school-age population). The homeowner tax rate remained level under her tenure, but it required accepting some cuts in county services.
Other policies have been more nonpartisan, such as the implementation of a dockless electric scooters pilot program at $1 per ride as an alternative method of transportation. You’ve probably seen these zipping around in the past few months, especially in more urban areas of the county, such as Rosslyn, Ballston, Clarendon and Courthouse.
Prior to taking office, “I was aware, of course, of the board’s responsibilities and general areas of oversight and policymaking. But the level of detail required to dig into the weeds on all of these issues?” Cristol asks rhetorically. “It’s not simply what is our master transportation plan, how will we be investing in buses, paving and WMATA? It’s, for example, what are the federal manuals that we are using to ascertain whether or not a speed bump is warranted? What are the appropriate heights of the speed bump?”
Dealing with The Donald
When discussing politics in this era, it’s nearly impossible to avoid the elephant in the room. During Cristol’s three-plus years on the board, its Democratic majority has remained the same and the new Virginia governor remained a Democrat as well—but the White House administration changed, to put it mildly.
Arlington County voted 16.6 percent for Trump and 19 percent for Republican governor candidate Ed Gillespie—far from a majority, to be sure, but certainly not zero. The board’s five member makeup in 2018 was four Democrats plus independent John Vihstadt, who was endorsed—though not formally nominated—by the Arlington Republican Party. This year, it’s 100 percent Democrats with Matt de Ferranti beating out Vihstadt in the most recent election.
Probably none of the board’s policies during Cristol’s time could be considered right-leaning. The closest thing would be the county’s decision to not designate themselves a “sanctuary city” for undocumented immigrants, as so many other American cities have done during the past two years. Arlington’s reticence there, as it explains more fully on its website, is more an issue of semantics regarding the specific word “sanctuary,” rather than a tacit approval of current federal immigration policy under this administration.
How has the current administration—one that’s operating just a few miles across the river but worlds away from the majority of her constituents—affected her job?
“When they threatened a government shutdown, that can be catastrophic in a place like Arlington. Even factor in all the sandwich shops that live and breathe by the federal workforce and contractors buying lunch,” Cristol explains. “Within the first months of this administration, we were contending with how we could make sure that our mixed-status families still felt comfortable going to the police or taking advantage of critical safety net services.”
Cristol also spoke out against the Unite the Right rally and the attack in Charlottesville, the city of her alma mater, which drew widespread condemnation across party lines.
“That I found to be heartbreaking. In addition to the general alarm and concern I felt as an American, it wouldn’t be accurate to say it was like watching a terrorist attack on somewhere that I loved, it was a terrorist attack on somewhere that I loved,” she laments. “To see the violence perpetrated by the Unite the Right rally attendees on a street corner that I knew so well, I had been a million times before. In addition to the general devastation that I felt to see that happening in our nation, it felt so personal to see it happening in a city that I love.”
“Arlington County has had progressive policies and progressive commitments for a long time,” Cristol continues. “We aren’t going to change those. Probably, we’re actually going to be clearer about them than ever.”
Living in Arlington
Cristol’s days and nights may be devoted to improving Arlington, but she’s also a longtime resident with favorite haunts and go-to spots.
“Two of my absolute favorite places in Arlington are the dueling pupuserias on Glebe Road, just north of 50, Doña Bessy and Doña Azucena.” I reply that I haven’t been, but I’ll make a point to try them soon. Cristol, who has spent the previous hour of our conversation acting calm, professional and political, lets out a small gasp. “Oh, I’m so excited for you! Because you’re about to experience the best thing in the world!”
For those unaware, papusas are an El Salvadorian dish of deep fried corn flour patties stuffed with fillings, often served with a cabbage slaw and picante salsa. Cristol says her personal favorite is bean-and-cheese.
Other top NoVA locales she recommends include Clare and Don’s Beach Shack in Falls Church, the newly opened Rosslyn Observation Deck with views of the city and DC, and the sprayground at Penrose Square during the summertime when young children play in the outdoor fountains.
“Plus the Heidelberg Pastry Shoppe bakery,” Cristol adds. “I’m Ashkenazi Jewish, so they have this smoked fish like you’d grow up eating at your grandmother’s house.”
Leading Beyond Arlington
Cristol’s year-long term as board chair ends on Jan. 2, and she returns to her post as board member. She is up for reelection to a second term in November 2019 and plans to run again. “We’ve got a lot more work to do in Arlington. I’m excited about the progress we’ve made on the child care initiative, making some moves to amend regulations and make it easier to open up quality daycare. We’ve got more work to do on housing, getting more creative in different forms of ownership housing, a huge policy effort I want to stick around for.”
“I’m thinking of my reelection campaign as a high-stakes performance review,” she continues. “I hope I can convince my bosses: the people of Arlington.”
She does not rule out a future run for higher office. It may seem she is too young for such speculation—but then again, Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax is only six years older than her, while newly elected New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is five years younger.
For the moment, though, Cristol is focused on her current role—in both its official and ceremonial aspects. For example, a few days prior to this interview, she served as a host for the annual Great Arlington Bake-Off.
“There was an entry of homemade bread and butter that was amazing. It’s the simple things. That was the entry I was partial to, although my choice actually ended up coming in second. Just like in the 2016 election,” Cristol laughs. “Although in the bake-off, we go by the popular vote.”
It’s at places like the bake-off where she gets to engage one-on-one with her constituents, something she’ll continue to do as she gets ready to run for reelection.
Contrary to the stereotypes of politicians pandering or acting like a snake oil salesman when speaking with constituents, “You’re asking them their point of view because I’m genuinely interested,” Cristol explains. “There was a humility that led to a listening quality. I hope I can maintain that sense of curiosity.”
And to convince anybody who originally voted against her due to age during her first election, Cristol jokes that her next campaign slogan will be “I’ve only gotten older since then.”