As the rest of the country watches Republican infighting for the GOP presidential nomination, Alexandria has become a battleground for Democrats bent on a new direction for the city.
Alexandria’s city council, which including the mayor has a 5-2 Democratic majority, doesn’t tackle hyper-partisan issues like abortion or gay rights. But the city’s political landscape is shifting over municipal issues like development and transportation.
And it’s not just the two parties that are divided — the waterfront redevelopment vote split along party lines — but local Democrats as well.
That’s why 11 non-incumbent Democrats have declared city council bids, meaning 13 candidates will vie for just six seats in the June primary. One former Democratic politician, Andrew Macdonald, has hinted at challenging Mayor Bill Euille as an Independent.
A new political activist group, Democrats for a Better Alexandria, has sprouted out of discontentment with elected officials. The organization is mostly comprised of card-carrying members of the local Democratic Party.
“There’s a growing gulf between the city and the citizens,” said Jack Sullivan, DBA’s founder and an outspoken opponent of the waterfront redevelopment plan. “The notion is maybe we should look at who’s getting on council and improve the quality of governance.”
Yet splits among local Democrats have little to do with adhering to party values. Even DBA, a political organization, lists traditionally nonpartisan issues as its major concerns: land use, traffic and transportation, open space, affordable housing, and government transparency, efficiency and civility. DBA will endorse and support candidates based on these issues, Sullivan said.
Democrats have no categorical stance on waterfront redevelopment, for instance, yet they all voted to implement it last month. Republicans Frank Fannon and Alicia Hughes voted against the plan, though its pro-commerce tint was seemingly Republican in character.
So how much does party affiliation matter at the local level?
Alexandria Democratic Committee chairman Dak Hardwick said votes like the waterfront plan are “political, not partisan.”
“It has less to with the people voting and more to do with the people speaking,” Hardwick said. “Think about the very public opponents of the waterfront and try to assign a party label to each of them. It’s impossible to say all Democrats are for it or all Republicans are against it.”
The ADC certifies candidates but does not endorse them.
Macdonald, former vice mayor, said he doesn’t know what it means to be a Democrat in Alexandria anymore, which is why he’ll run as an Independent if he chooses to challenge Euille. It’s not a particular party value that upsets him about the administration, it’s city council’s homogony, he said.
“I think that it needs to be more heterogeneous,” Macdonald said. “I just think it’s not that good when one party or one group dominates the political system. We’ve created a power structure that’s unfortunately not in sync with the community.”
Despite discontentment, Hardwick said there’s no real fissure within the local Democratic Party over its values. Indeed he is ecstatic about having a crowded field of Blues running in the primary because competition ensures quality.
“Once the voters make their choice, we’re going to step up our game and elect six Democrats to this council,” Hardwick said confidently.
The city’s municipal elections, formerly held in May, will coincide with the November presidential election for the first time. With voter turnout expected to trump the last council election by more than 50,000, Hardwick may not be far off.