When they head into the voting booths on Election Day, Alexandria voters will be confronted with a choice: Do they like the recent direction of government at City Hall, where controversial planning decisions have divided the city and the average residential tax bill has nearly doubled in the last decade? Or are they looking for people who will work against the status quo?
For the most part, that’s a partisan question.
Democrats have been in control of the city for years and have supported plans to increase density along the waterfront and the West End. Republicans and independents have offered a critical voice, challenging the direction of the development and the pace of spending. Now voters will have the final say when they choose a mayor and six City Council members on Nov. 6.
“We’ve let developers basically dictate a lot of the public policy,” said independent mayoral candidate Andrew Macdonald during a recent candidates forum. “We don’t need to let Moody’s dictate what kind of development we will have.”
On the campaign trail, Macdonald and others have been critical of Mayor Bill Euille and the Democrats for supporting the waterfront plan and the Beauregard plan, which allow developers to dramatically increase the scale of development in Alexandria. They’ve accused insiders for letting open space and affordable housing slip away, and they’ve been critical of spending priorities at City Hall.
“For all the things, Mr. Macdonald, that you and a few folks in this community are raising Cain over and suggesting that everything is wrong and that we’ve been a failure at it, it’s just the opposite,” Euille said at a recent forum. “If you get out and be among people in the community, if you go and attend events and if you are all over the city like I am, and if you are even outside the city like I am, you will hear from people that they are very pleased.”
THIS ELECTION YEAR is like none other in the long history of Alexandria. Ever since the city first began electing leaders, local races were held early in the year — sometimes as early as February, with recent years having May elections. But after two Democrats lost their seats in 2009, the lame-duck members of the all-Democratic City Council ditched the May election in favor of moving local elections to November, when record number of Democrats are expected at the polls to support the reelection of incumbent President Barack Obama.
“I think the move was cynical by those who lost,” said Republican Bob Wood. “I think it was moved to the national election to put it underneath the cloud of national politics.”
Democrats have defended the move as a way to increase the number of voters who participate in the process and save money. The move gives Democrats an advantage because of the sheer number of voters who will be voting in the presidential election — many of whom would never think about voting in a May election for mayor and City Council. One potential stumbling block for the party, though, is the layout of the ballot. Party labels will not appear for city candidates, and the Republican candidates will appear first.
“After you vote for the president, turn over that ballot and the first name you are going to see is Frank Fannon,” said Frank Fannon in his closing remarks at a recent debate. “Put a check by it.”
NO OTHER ISSUE has dominated city politics in recent years like the waterfront plan. The zoning change would almost triple density allowed at three sites on the waterfront compared to what’s there now. The proposal led to several emotional public hearings, culminating in a January vote that’s now being challenged in court.
“I think the original proposal made by the city went way too far, and I can understand why people got upset,” said former Democratic Councilman Tim Lovain. “But over the course of a couple of years with a lot of input from citizens, that plan was greatly improved and in the end I thought it was a pretty balanced plan that I would have favored.”
Allison Silbergerg is the lone Democrat on the ballot who opposes the waterfront plan. Although she was one of a handful of candidates who opposed the plan during the primary earlier this year, she was the only one who won a spot on the ticket. Now she is an outsider among insiders, speaking out against a plan that has the support of every other Democrat running for City Council.
“The plan did not have consensus, and I felt that we should pause and get it right,” said Silberberg. “While National Harbor is great to some people, to some people it feels like Pottersville.”
ALL THREE REPUBLICANS oppose the waterfront plan, as do Libertarian candidate Robert Kraus and independent candidate Glenda Davis. They are trying to capitalize on the unpopularity of the plan, especially in Old Town. Many residents who live close to the three sites slates for redevelopment feel that their concerns were dismissed by city officials, who refused to accept a protest petition calling for a supermajority vote to pass the plan.
“Upzoning is a mistake,” said Republican Councilwoman Alicia Hughes. “You’ve got three private properties that make up this plan. Essentially develop them parcel by parcel by parcel and let the citizens have their day and save the taxpayer dollars.”
Supporters of the plan — all the Democrats with the exception of Silberberg — say it was the best possible outcome. They say Alexandria does not have the money to purchase them, and allowing by-right development would have privatized the waterfront by adding new residential properties that would not welcome the public. Meanwhile, giving developers additional density would give the city an ability to seek money for flood mitigation and transportation improvements.
“The waterfront is the reason that Alexandria is Alexandria, and it’s what makes us different in the region,” said former Democratic Councilman Justin Wilson. “Unfortunately, many of the folks on this stage are laboring under the assumption that the preservation of the status quo was a possibility.”
AS THE CAMPAIGN heads into the final stretch, each of the candidates has been crafting their own message to voters about what they would do if elected. Independent candidate Jermaine Mincey, for example, answers every question by saying he will “listen to the people.” But when pressed about how he would have voted on key issues, he declines to say what he would have done if he had been a council member when those votes were taken. On the campaign trail, he has repeatedly called attention to a civic engagement plan known as “What’s Next Alexandria,” which he says was modeled after his campaign platform.
“The first line of that plan says to reach out to the entire community,” said Mincey. “If the current council members and former council members would have done this during the Beauregard plan, they would have realized there was a problem.”
Incumbent Democrats such as Del Pepper and Paul Smedberg have defended recent actions of City Council, describing the direction of City Hall as responsible and responsive in a time of economic uncertainty. First-time candidate John Chapman has largely agreed with the recent direction of city government, although he said he might have voted to defer action on the Beauregard plan during the primary. More recently, he said the public participation during the waterfront plan and other plans have been lacking.
“A number of small-area plans have not yielded consensus with citizens,” said Chapman. “We need to figure out how to get it better — how do we not waste your time by not having you come to a meeting in the evening to hear about a plan that you are, two weeks later, going to hear about the same thing.”