Alexandria Times endorses local election candidates

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Alexandria Times endorses local election candidates
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(File photo)

The year 2015 will be remembered politically as one of anger and discontent with the status quo, both nationally and locally in Alexandria.

In the presidential race, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has tapped into populist sentiment on the liberal side of the Democratic party, drawing some of the largest, most enthusiastic crowds. On the Republican side, bombastic billionaire Donald Trump inexplicably continues to lead the polls. While we think it’s unlikely that either man could wind up president of the United States, their ongoing popularity reflects broad dissatisfaction with politics as usual.

In June, Alexandrians showed their unhappiness with business as usual, when 12-year incumbent Mayor Bill Euille lost the Democratic primary. Fully 65 percent of primary participants voted against granting Euille a fifth term. Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg, widely viewed as a change agent, emerged victorious from the three-way contest that also included former Mayor Kerry Donley by 312 votes.

Whether Alexandrians will continue this change march when they head to the polls on November 3 to vote for mayor, city council and school board is the question everyone is asking — yet no one can answer.

As always, the Alexandria Times feels it is part of our mandate to weigh in on these races. These decisions were extremely difficult. All 11 candidates for council, all 13 for school board, plus Silberberg as the Democratic nominee and Euille as a declared, unaffiliated write-in candidate, have many positive attributes. All could reasonably be expected to serve capably in the posts for which they are competing.

But voters can only choose one candidate for mayor, six for city council and three per district for school board. We considered the relative merits of each candidate before arriving at our endorsements. Candidates filled out questionnaires, made statements in public appearances, debates and campaign literature, and incumbents are known to us through their voting record.

The team we recommend is a blend of old and new. We believe that many in Alexandria are dissatisfied with the status quo, and it therefore would be a mistake to re-elect all incumbents. But we also think our elected leaders have done a lot of things right, and it would be a mistake to throw everyone out and start with an entirely new team. Institutional knowledge matters and many incumbents have real accomplishments to their credit. Diversity also matters, not just of ethnicity and gender but also of thought and political affiliation. Alexandria is not well served by having a council and mayor all of one party.

Below are our choices.

In the mayoral race, we believe that Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg, by virtue of her hard fought and honestly won victory in the Democratic primary, has earned the right to serve as Alexandria’s mayor for the next three years. She is uncontested on the ballot, as the Republicans did not field a candidate and no one went through the process to be on the ballot as an Independent.

But as all local political observers know, Silberberg is not the only candidate running for mayor. Incumbent Mayor Bill Euille, elected as a Democrat, decided not to concede the Democratic primary race and is waging a write-in effort, splitting the local party.

Silberberg has the support of the Alexandria Democratic Committee and prominent elected officials such as U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-8), former Mayor and state Sen. Patsy Ticer and Sheriff Dana Lawhorne. On Euille’s side, many prominent former Democrats are backing the write-in effort, including Donley, former City Councilor Lonnie Rich and Delegate Rob Krupicka (D-45), as is their right. But the Times will not endorse a write-in candidate for mayor over someone who has won a contested primary.

In the city council race, there are 11 contenders with compelling personal stories and accomplishments — some in government, some in business and some in the armed services — to their credit. We believe that the following slate of old and new, Democrat and Republican, would best serve Alexandria for the next three years.

The Times therefore endorses incumbent Democrats Justin Wilson, John Chapman, Paul Smedberg and Tim Lovain. We also endorse Republican challengers Monique Miles and Bob Wood.

Justin Wilson has been around too long to still be viewed as a young hotshot. He is a seasoned veteran with an impressive grasp of detail on virtually every issue before council. Wilson uses his degree in information systems from VCU in his day job as a systems engineer for Amtrak. While his detailed knowledge on issues is impressive, he can at times appear arrogant when talking with those who disagree with him. Nonetheless, we believe that Wilson, a resident of Del Ray, is a vital city councilor who should retain his seat for the next three years.

John Chapman showed the most growth of any city councilor over this past term. No one watching his debate performances would guess he is just finishing his first term, so complete is his mastery of the issues. Chapman is a strong proponent of affordable housing and an independent thinker who has shown in some of his votes that he’s not afraid to stand against the majority position. Chapman is a native Alexandrian and a graduate of St. Stephen’s
and St. Agnes School and St. Olaf’s College. A career educator with Fairfax County Public Schools, he brings a valuable perspective to education issues before council. He lives in Taylor Run.

Paul Smedberg is the third incumbent whom we view as indispensable. Conciliatory in tone and manner, he nonetheless expresses his opinions in a direct manner that can come across as blunt. Smedberg has teamed with Wilson to advocate streamlining processes and to look for savings in the budget. He was critical of the Alexandria Rehabilitation and Housing Authority’s stewardship of the Ramsay Homes housing project, built to house black workers during World War II, and was one of two councilors to vote against demolition. He also has been a tireless advocate for the city in discussions with Dominion Virginia Power and the closure and redevelopment of the closed GenOn coal-fired power plant. A native of Connecticut, Smedberg holds degrees in history and economics from Allegheny College and works as a lobbyist for the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, a trade group. He lives in Old Town.

The fourth incumbent we endorse is Tim Lovain, though we do so with some reservations. Lovain is the only lawyer currently on council and a recognized expert in transportation issues, sure to be a prominent issue in Alexandria over the next three years. He holds degrees from the University of Chicago, Princeton and the University of Washington. A former officer in the U.S. Coast Guard, Lovain lives in North Ridge.

But during this campaign, Lovain showed a troubling tendency to react angrily when other candidates challenged his record. While elections can be frustrating, city councilors need to be able to work collegially even with those who disagree. In endorsing Lovain, we are taking the position that transportation and education expertise trumps temper.

We also endorse newcomer Monique Miles, an impressive young attorney who runs a law firm specializing in labor and employment issues. She campaigned on a platform of civic engagement and government transparency. Miles is committed to curbing spending by the city. She spoke eloquently at one council debate on the topic of Confederate symbols and street names, saying that as a black American, the issue is personal to her but that the city’s money is better spent elsewhere.

Some have criticized Miles for her tenure at the legal arm of a conservative advocacy group that helped write an Arizona immigration law that was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Miles says she was not involved with the controversial issue, but instead represented immigrants in a dispute with a multinational corporation. Miles holds degrees from the University of Virginia and Regent University. She lives in North Ridge.

Finally, we endorse Bob Wood, a former U.S. Army lieutenant general who spent 36 years in the military, including as president of the Army Command and General Staff College. In his second campaign for council, Wood displays an impressive grasp of the issues facing Alexandria. He has forcefully argued that poor planning decisions have contributed to a debt problem in the city, and that the city suffers from a lack of leadership. He also served on the waterfront plan work group.

It remains to be seen how effective the general would be at collaborating as one of seven votes on council, rather than giving orders to scurrying subordinates. But his intellect and leadership ability make him eminently qualified to serve on council. Wood is a 50-year Alexandria resident who currently lives in Old Town, but previously resided on the West End and in Seminary Hill.

Of the five candidates we did not endorse, the most difficult to exclude was probably the beloved Del Pepper, who tirelessly advocates for the West End and represents the city at civic functions. But we felt that given this year’s change tenor, 30 years on council is probably long enough. We also were impressed with newcomer Willie Bailey, a Fairfax County firefighter making his first run for public office. If Bailey does not win election this year, we encourage him to remain engaged and run again in 2018.

Fernando Torrez has terrific credentials, as a former member of the U.S. Air Force and a current small business owner. His background would bring a fresh perspective to council. But Torrez displayed a clear lack of knowledge about crucial issues facing Alexandria. We encourage him to serve on boards, learn the issues and try again. And though he is experienced and knowledgeable, we believe Townsend “Van” Van Fleet’s combative style would make him an ineffective council member.

Finally, Phil Cefaratti’s campaign left us a bit baffled. He is smart and speaks well on many issues, but his choice of Alexandria City Public Schools as his primary issue seemed tone deaf given the clear improvement ACPS has shown under Superintendent Alvin Crawley.

In the school board campaign, decisions are slightly easier by virtue of the fact that the candidates in District A are running unopposed. Incumbent Bill Campbell, current board chairwoman Karen Graf and newcomer Hal Cardwell are all shoo-ins on Election Day.

But in District B, only one incumbent is seeking re-election and is running against four challengers for three seats. Kelly Carmichael Booz has spearheaded the push for school redistricting at the elementary school level to help alleviate some of ACPS’ capacity issues and will remain integral to the effort in the next term.

Cindy Anderson’s focus not only on the need for additional space for the district’s rising student population but also on identifying where potential new schools should be located — sooner rather than later — is also commendable. And Margaret Lorber’s professional experience in education, both in advocacy and acting as a parent liaison for the district’s English language learners program, would provide strong expertise in areas where many school districts struggle.

In District C, three incumbents — Ronnie Campbell, Pat Hennig and board vice chairman Chris Lewis — square off against two challengers in Daria Dillard and Ramee Gentry. In our view, Chris Lewis is indispensable to the board. He is a sharp mind on both process and policy, and will be a valuable asset as the district tries to maintain its steady forward progress.

Ronnie Campbell similarly brings a wealth of experience, having served on the school board for nine years. Her work on adult education and passion for special education issues will hold her in good stead in a fourth term in office. And Ramee Gentry’s hawkish attitude toward capital improvement costs will be helpful as the board pursues a number of school construction and renovation projects in the coming years.

These were not easy decisions. Everyone running in this year’s local elections are strong, capable candidates, and would make Alexandria proud. But the city faces a number of important issues in the next three-year term, so it is important that voters go out and choose the candidates they see as best equipped to meet those challenges.

And to the citizens of Alexandria, we say this: Vote on November 3.

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