Alexandria Times endorses Democratic candidates for mayor, delegate

Alexandria Times endorses Democratic candidates for mayor, delegate

This year’s race for the Democratic nomination for mayor has been unprecedented in modern Alexandria politics. In this election, two accomplished, credible challengers — Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg and former Mayor Kerry Donley — oppose incumbent Bill Euille, despite his generally successful track record and no scandal to his name.

Debates between the three have been spirited, but civil. There has been finger pointing about the BRAC debacle at Mark Center and about the city’s threat to use eminent domain against the Old Dominion Boat Club. Every candidate also has laid out their own distinct vision and approach to development.

There is much to admire in all three candidates. All three care deeply about Alexandria. All made compelling cases for their vision of our city’s future — even when presenting radically divergent roadmaps. All three are intelligent, interesting and successful, but the challengers come up short in key ways. Because of this, The Alexandria Times endorses Bill Euille for the Democratic nomination for mayor of Alexandria.

What follows is our view of each candidate’s strengths and weaknesses and our reasons for endorsing Euille. Silberberg was a fresh voice when she roared onto city council three years ago, garnering the most votes of any council candidate to claim the vice mayor’s slot, despite being a political newcomer. Her “go slow” approach to building has made her the favorite of Alexandria’s anti-development contingent, particularly those opposed to the Old Town waterfront plan.

Silberberg has run a populist campaign, and her promise to listen to the opinions of all Alexandrians on every issue rings genuine. Both her emphasis on accountability and her pledge to restore trust in government are welcome in today’s cynical national political climate. She would represent the city well at the multitudinous ceremonial appearances required of Alexandria’s mayor.

However, we are concerned about Silberberg’s lack of experience in the business world, as her career has been spent primarily as a writer and working for nonprofit organizations. The city’s budgeting process — which requires prioritizing among more worthy causes than there are funds for — and efforts to lure corporations to Alexandria would be aided by someone with a business background and who knows how to say “No” in the face of resident outcry.

In addition, Silberberg has shown a disturbing tendency to ignore established processes when it comes to council operations. At times it is difficult to tell whether this reflects a lack of understanding of or disdain for those policies. Silberberg has also been the lone dissenting vote on numerous 6-1 council decisions. While at times we think her single vote has been right, such as when she opposed extending hours on parking meters, those tallies reflect an inability to build a consensus on council for her proposals.

Donley has been persistent and persuasive in his advocacy for faster development. He views building up Potomac Yard around a new Metro station as the key to Alexandria’s long-term economic stability — and has criticized Euille for not moving fast enough to build a station there. The city’s current ratio of residential to business tax revenue is around 70 percent to 30 percent; Donley has pledged to bring that ratio closer to 50-50 through aggressive growth policies.

Donley has extensive financial experience from his years working for local banks, which would aid his ability to effectively oversee the city’s budget. In addition, having held the post before, Donley would hit the ground running as mayor, with no learning curve. Many prominent members of Alexandria’s Democratic Party establishment also have endorsed him. There are two negative aspects of Donley’s growth on steroids approach to development. The first is what Euille has said in rebuttal to Donley’s criticisms during the campaign: They oversimplify the situation.

There’s a reason growth hasn’t happened faster these past several years and it’s the economy — first the recession and then the sluggish recovery that persists to this day. Existing commercial real estate has a 17 percent vacancy rate in Northern Virginia. Donley’s certainty that he will be able to attract new commercial building where others have failed in a bad economy seems misplaced. Likewise, delays in moving forward with the Potomac Yard Metro station have been process-related, not personnel-driven.

Our second reservation with Donley’s approach is that a hurry-up attitude toward development means that the macro will overwhelmingly be emphasized at the expense of the micro. When a leader is so convinced that his approach is right, and is in such a hurry to make major changes happen, then individuals most affected tend to get steamrolled.

This is why Silberberg’s stances and campaign have resonated with so many Alexandrians. It’s because there are many city residents who feel that commercial real estate deals are worked out first with developers, public hearings about projects are held for show, and individuals’ voices are not really heard. It’s difficult to posit that Alexandria needs to hurry through development decisions faster, rather than more thoughtfully.

Euille is as comfortable as a favorite sweater, which is both a positive and a negative for him. He has been mayor for 12 years, has a mostly positive track record and is a man of integrity who is devoted to his native city. His campaign has emphasized Alexandria’s excellent quality of life and the relocation of both the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the National Science Foundation here during his tenure. Euille is seemingly tireless, conducting city business by day and sometimes attending four or five charity events in one evening.

When someone has been in office as long as Euille, his approach to the job can become stale. But Euille continues to enthusiastically espouse new solutions to chronic problems like the lack of affordable housing — his idea to generate many new units by building them on top of a planned fire station at Potomac Green was inspired. While Euille agrees with Donley and Silberberg on the need for commercial real estate to account for a larger percentage of city revenues, he is also realistic about how much can be done and the amount of time it takes to satisfy required processes.

The adage that familiarity can breed contempt is also true. There are many in Alexandria who feel that 12 years at the city’s helm is long enough, and who wish for a fresh face. This sentiment has fueled Silberberg’s campaign, and has led many others to support Donley. It’s also true that 12 years in office leaves a record that can be both praised and criticized.

Euille’s accomplishments are many, from large achievements like luring the PTO and NSF to relocate here, to improvement in performance at schools like Maury, Barrett and Jefferson-Houston, to small but significant things like swearing in the student council each year at various local schools. Alexandria consistently rates highly in surveys of desirable cities to live in.

But Euille’s record also contains several significant blots. The biggest is the BRAC building debacle, for which both the mayor and Donley deserve criticism. Also disturbing is the fact that during Euille’s tenure many public infrastructure projects have come in considerably over budget, such as the Charles Houston Recreation Center and Jefferson-Houston School. This tendency toward significant cost overruns is particularly worrisome given the recent decision to move forward with a Potomac Yard Metro station.

Though his explanation for doing so is credible, the fact remains that Euille also reneged on his pledge not to threaten eminent domain against the Old Dominion Boat Club during their long-running dispute with the city.

Despite the strengths of the mayoral challengers and the shortcomings on the mayor’s record, the Times believes, after considerable research and deliberation, that neither Silberberg nor Donley has made a compelling enough case to topple a competent, honest incumbent. We believe that Euille’s steady, capable leadership has earned him the chance at another three years at the city’s helm.

In the 45th District House of Delegates race, five contenders vie for the Democratic nomination to succeed retiring Delegate Rob Krupicka (D). In a crowded field, it can be difficult for one candidate to distinguish him- or herself from the pack. But city spokesman Craig Fifer has done just that.

Fifer has shown a mastery of a broad range of issues, from education and the environment to issues affecting veterans and criminal justice. His experience writing draft legislation for the Virginia General Assembly, combined with his work in local government mean he will be able to make an immediate impact in Richmond.

Part of what made Krupicka such an effective advocate for Alexandria was his prior experience in city government as a member of both city council and the city school board. Fifer’s more than a decade serving in a variety of capacities on city staff will serve him similarly well. Fifer also knows how to produce successful legislation in a body dominated by Republicans. Instead of aiming for moon shots with no meaningful chance for passage,  Fifer plans to introduce incremental changes to state policies, like his proposal to drop the requirement that localities provide matching funds for all state allocations for pre-K programs.

Also worthy of praise this campaign is former Alexandria Democratic Committee Chairman Clarence Tong. Tong is extraordinarily sharp on some issues, particularly the environment, and while he is not as well versed in others, he admits that freely. He may be a person to watch for in the coming years as he steeps himself further in the intricacies of Virginia politics.