City council challengers hone their message ahead of campaign season

City council challengers hone their message ahead of campaign season
Alexandria City Hall. (file photo)

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

As sitting city councilors prepare their campaigns for re-election, a bevy of challengers are working hard to break the local Democratic Party’s hold on Alexandria’s government leadership.

On November 3, all six seats on city council will be up for grabs. Democratic incumbents John Chapman, Tim Lovain, Del Pepper, Paul Smedberg and Justin Wilson and political newcomer Willie Bailey will square off against Republican challengers Monique Miles, Fernando Torrez, Townsend “Van” Van Fleet and Bob Wood, as well as Independent candidate Phil Cefaratti. Frank Fannon had planned a campaign but withdrew his candidacy earlier this year.

As candidates look to garner support from voters, the challengers have convalesced around a number of key issues, from development and schools to the city’s finances and infrastructure.

Miles, a local labor and civil rights attorney, said if elected she would seek more oversight and vetting of projects and services, in light of the city’s mounting debt. The city currently carries around $500 million in debt, although officials note Alexandria’s triple-A bond rating and a number of voluntary policies to safeguard against over-borrowing.

“For the last eight years, we’ve been overspending when compared to our revenues, and that concerns me,” she said. “We need someone on council who will ask the right kind of questions to understand why certain priorities are taken over others. … We need to try to convince the people on council that we need to fund essential functions of government first, like first responders — the fire department and the police department — because we need those people to keep our city safe and keep residents content.”

Cefaratti said city leaders must focus on core infrastructure needs before considering other capital projects.

“We obviously have certain projects that have to happen — our sewer system absolutely positively has to be addressed,” he said. “But we’ve spent money on Jefferson-Houston [School] and on projects in the Seminary valley, and I question the real need for what happened at Jefferson-Houston. That money could be spent elsewhere operationally and not carry forward for the next 30 years.”

Other candidates echoed Vice Mayor and Democratic mayoral nominee Allison Silberberg’s refrain calling for more “thoughtful, appropriate” development.

“I think that city council is in the tank for the developers — anything they want they get — and you can see right it where I live on the waterfront,” said Van Fleet. “I’m not anti-development, but I just don’t want to see bad development. This council has approved a number of structures in this city that do not fit into the community and are not compatible with neighborhoods.”

“Development generally speaking is fine, but there’s been too much development that’s out of place, out of scale and out of touch with the community, and very often well beyond the infrastructure available to support it,” said Wood. “I don’t see us looking holistically at projects and asking, ‘Did it have the impact that we thought it would have?’ We seem to be chasing development to pay off the debt and chasing this constant acceleration of development.”

Torrez is among the candidates to pledge to bring a small-business mindset to council.

“As a business owner, I understand what the needs are for a start-up and for successful businesses and what they look for,” he said. “Having [a strong business climate] means expanding the tax base, not just for hotels and tourism but actual businesses, and that translates to relieving residents from the property tax increases that have happened [almost] every year.”

Several candidates also want to find new ways to improve instruction in the city’s public school system.

“[As a real estate agent], I have people and clients coming to me all the time saying, ‘Gee, Phil, our kids are getting to be of school age so we need to move out of Alexandria and into Arlington or Fairfax County,’” Cefaratti said. “That’s unacceptable. We should have people wanting to move to Alexandria for its quality of life and for the quality of its schools.”

And Miles said she wants to find new ways to preserve affordable housing in the city and to secure better deals with developers to help low-income residents stay in Alexandria.

“I’ve spoken with one woman who makes too much for Section Eight housing but not enough to live in the city anymore, and she just lives paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “I want to try to keep all socio-economic classes here so it doesn’t just become an area just for the wealthy. We need to make sure we’re fostering an economic environment that incentivizes the partnerships that lead to that.”