Alexandria Vice Mayor Andrew H. MacDonald, who abruptly resigned Tuesday, is a bit of a Renaissance man. Born in Paris, France, the son of a Naval officer, he’s led a colorful, adventurous life — ocean scientist exploring the Arctic for signs of global warming, environmental policy analyst on Capitol Hill and professional photographer capturing scenes of environmental degradation on the Potomac. All of these threads somehow led to city politics, and a successful, albeit short, run at that.
A civic leader, MacDonald was elected to City Council in May 2003 after being appointed to the city’s Environmental Policy Commission in 2000. For years he wrote a newspaper column, “Earthwatch,” which helped him develop a constituency among other civic activists who appreciated his protective stance on the environment and historic preservation. MacDonald was re-elected in 2006, winning such a wide majority in the spring elections that by custom he became Vice Mayor on July 5 of that year. Stepping down 10 months later is a tough call, he says.
“I just needed a break,” MacDonald said over coffee Wednesday morning. “I came to the conclusion that I really needed to step back and take care of myself. I know that people will be disappointed, but I hope they’ll support my decision as one I needed to make.”
It was a decision, he said, which “didn’t happen overnight…it was many months in the making.”
MacDonald said an elected official it was “trying to be in a constant social environment…It’s a very tough profession, no matter what.” There were no personal medical issues driving his decision, he added.
Susan Kellom, chair of the Alexandria Democratic Committe, said, “We thank him for his service and we sincerely hope that everything turns out fine for him.”
Council members are paid $27,000 per year, not sufficient to live on in a city where the median income is $83,000. “Financially, it’s crafted now for wealthy people to run, and are supported by special interests,” MacDonald said. “If you don’t make it there, you have to make it somewhere else…My mother is 95, and I think I caused her more stress than she caused me.”
He added, “Do want a taxicab driver to feel free to run for office? Absolutely.”
Previous city councils, he said, made many decisions “we’re having to live with today,” such as allowing developers to “do whatever they want” and passing the costs of road improvements and sewer hook-ups to the taxpayer. The current Council had rectified this by creating fee structures for new development. “I still believe a lot of people here would want to pay higher property taxes to keep the character of the town, than face more development,” he said.
“The previous councils had become a little arrogant, not open-minded,” MacDonald said. “If you don’t have good people at Council listening to a variety of voices from the community, the special interests can manipulate the system. This Council has tried to listen more.”
MacDonald said relations with other City Council members improved in his second term. “It’s natural that we all disagree on issues,” he said. “But in the second term, we all got along better and learned how to disagree politely.”
MacDonald said a past frustration was that some issues were not getting the attention they deserved, such as historic preservation and environmental degradation. “It’s still an uphill battle,” he said. “But I’m convinced the current council will continue to work on these matters.”
The abiding question for MacDonald lay on whether more housing and commercial development would cut property taxes, a notion he disliked. “I never liked the idea that economic development and historic preservation are at odds with each other,” he said. “The wealth of the city is its history.”
During the city’s budget season just concluded, MacDonald was proud of the transparency brought to the process. “Less meetings, more focus on topics,” he said.
Born in Paris, France, MacDonald attended elementary, middle, and high school in Alexandria, graduating from St. Stephens & St. Agnes. He earned his bachelor’s and Ph.D. in geology from St. Lawrence University and the University of Western Ontario. respectively. After graduate school, MacDonald was staff scientist on a Texas A&M University research vessel which plied the world’s oceans studying the effects of oil drilling and global warming on natural habitats.
Following several years on Capitol Hill in the Office of Technology Assessment, MacDonald lectured at George Mason University from 1989 to 1993, and then at Johns Hopkins University, from 1993 to 2000, assisting teachers with the development of science curriculums and consulting on pollution prevention, municipal waste disposal and pesticide pollution for the Environmental Protection Agency.
In 1990, after living all over the world, MacDonald returned to his hometown of Alexandria and became active in civic affairs. He wrote a weekly column and taught classes on the environment, and opened Patowmack River Studio above a spice and tea shop in Old Town, selling his photographs. He also led natural history trips to southeast Alaska, Antarctica and the Columbia River.
After being elected to Council in 2003, MacDonald engaged heavily in these issues, serving on the Council of Governments’ Ad Hoc Task Force on Regional Water Supply Issues, the Chesapeake Bay Policy Committee and Metropolitan Washington Air Quality Committee. His other commitments include work on the Economic Opportunities Commission, the Library Board, the Potomac Watershed Roundtable, the Waterfront Committee and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Neighborhood Task Force.
“My whole life just unfolded this way,” MacDonald said. “It’s been about raising awareness about environmental issues and trying to be a good, honest thoughtful politician.”
MacDonald concluded, “All I can say is I did my best…I gave my 100 percent. But I couldn’t continue to serve the community in the way I would have liked.”