By Alexa Epitropoulos | [email protected]
Vice Mayor Justin Wilson announced on Monday morning that he will run for mayor in 2018, setting the stage for a showdown against incumbent Mayor Allison Silberberg.
Wilson, who is in his third city council term, said he will focus on education, the economy and infrastructure.
He said priority issues arefast-growing enrollment at Alexandria City Public Schools,
insufficient citywide access to pre-K education, the Potomac Yard metro, Landmark Mall’s redevelopment effort and retail vacancy. Infrastructure needs he will emphasize include fixing the city’s sewer system, modernizing schools and maintaining city parks.
Wilson’s candidacy comes as little surprise to those tuned into city politics.
Wilson and Silberberg have clashed on a number of issues since she was sworn in as mayor in January 2016. The two first tangled over Silberberg’s proposal to create a study group to examine ethics issues and come forward with an ethics pledge for city officials.
Wilson said at the time that he was supportive of the idea in theory, but then engineered a less ambitious plan without an enforcement mechanism that council ultimately passed.
This year, the two have disagreed on a range of issues, including a 5.7-cent real estate tax increase advocated by Wilson, which council approved by a 6-1 vote in May. Silberberg was the lone dissenter.
Wilson and Silberberg were also at odds during the debate about the proposed Old Town business improvement district, with Wilson supporting the initiative and Silberberg expressing reservations.
City Manager Mark Jinks said he was dropping the initiative at a council meeting in September after Old Town businesses and residents voiced opposition to the plan by a roughly three-to-one margin.
The current mayor and vice mayor also had a heated disagreement in January of this
year about Wilson’s proposal to change the public comment period to allow only the first 15 public speakers who sign up to speak at the start of city council’s monthly public hearings.
Others beyond the initial 15 who wish to speak during the public comment period are required to wait until the meeting concludes. Silberberg called the proposed limits “anti-democratic” at the time.
Wilson said his decision to run isn’t based on those disagreements.
“This is not a campaign about the mayor. It’s a campaign about what we’re going to accomplish if I’m fortunate enough to be the mayor,” Wilson said. “That’s where these areas of focus come in – addressing challenges of our kids, ensuring we have an economy that’s growing. We have another budget at 1.3 percent revenue growth. That’s not a sustainable revenue for Alexandria to support all that residents expect and demand. That’s not going to cut it.
“We’re going to have to grow economically or radically change the expectations of the community,” Wilson said.
Wilson said he began seriously considering running for mayor over the summer.
“It’s one of those things where you kind of look at the issues that are before the city that we need to make progress on to continue being the community that we are. You realize that kind of leadership can be helpful in the end of the day,” Wilson said in an interview. “That’s what got me there. We’ve been working as a council to proactively tackle a lot of these important issues – infrastructure, school capacity, environmental sustainability.
I’ve shown an ability to build coalitions on these issues and get things done. That would be my approach as mayor.”
Silberberg said she will be running for reelection in 2018, but said she won’t have an official campaign launch until early next year.
“I’m very proud of all that we’ve gotten done in the city since I became the mayor.
We’ve been tackling issues that have been festering for years. I’m extremely proud of that,” Silberberg said. “I look forward to discussing the issues in the months ahead.”
Meanwhile, former Mayor Bill Euille, who describes Wilson as a protege, isn’t ruling out running for mayor again.
“At this moment, I’m leaving my options open for anything,” Euille said. “There
may be something in the new [Ralph Northam] administration in Richmond, I have an
option to still run for mayor or run for city council.”
Euille complimented Wilson’s ability to lead, but said it wouldn’t necessarily encourage or dissuade his plans to run.
“He’s highly qualified. Justin is a protege of mine. He served on my campaigns in early years … He serves council well and the public well. Certainly he’s thought about it long and hard. He’s talked to me many times.”
“There’s still so many people that ask me constantly before his announcement to please run again and, since, people have still said ‘we’d like to have you back, but we understand whatever decision you make.’”
Silberberg and Euille set a precedent of the mayor being an around-the-clock job, contributing to the expectation that the mayor should attend nearly every event that takes place in the city.
It’s unclear how that would change if Wilson, who works as Senior Director of Vendor & Contract Management for Amtrak, is elected. Wilson said his employer and his family – wife, Alex; son, Eli and daughter, Lena – are supportive of his decision to run.
“The mayor is technically a part-time job and we’ve had a long legacy of having citizen
legislators who have full-time jobs and families and carry on either mayor or council roles in the city. I’ve certainly continued that legacy,” Wilson said. “It’s always a balance, but I’m fortunate to have a very understanding family and day job who are able to accommodate.”
Wilson said he looks forward to discussing the issues during the seven months leading up to the June 12 primary election.
“This is going to be a long campaign between now and the primary. I hope it’s a vigorous conversation about the future of our city. Citizens should want and expect that. I’m looking forward to a ton of debates. I hope to meet with as many residents as possible so we can get a sense of what’s important to them,” Wilson said.
Wilson’s decision means two city council seats will be open, as incumbent Tim Lovain recently announced he will not seek reelection. Mo Seifeldein announced his candidacy on Nov. 11. Dak Hardwick previously announced his candidacy for council in October.