By Alexa Epitropoulos | [email protected]
When Paul Smedberg first ran for city council in 2000, his bid ended with a loss.
Three years later, he ran again, and that time was successful. Now in his fifth term in office, Smedberg recently kicked off his campaign for another three-year stint. He’s second only to Councilor Del Pepper in terms of time served on council.
Making the decision to run again came down to the fact that he enjoys the work – and that he’s just beginning to see the seeds of actions taken throughout his time on council take root.
“It’s amazing – I’ve been on council for 15 years, but there are some things I’ve talked about or worked on that are just now seeing results. It’s exciting,” Smedberg said. “I like representing the city on the regional level. I really enjoy the work. I think that, too, is showing results for us, and working with staff on those issues has really been important for me and I want to continue doing that, if given the opportunity.”
Smedberg, who formerly worked in medical policy as director of advocacy and government affairs at the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and is now a consultant, has a policy focus that’s both local and regional. He counts his work on boards and the region as one of his successes, including as chair of the Virginia Railway Express and the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission.
“It’s an important time to be chair of that group because, with all the transit funding and the Metro funding issues, that has been something that I’ve put a lot of time into and I’ve been really proud of that work,” Smedberg said. “It’s about regionalism and making sure Alexandria is at the table.”
Katie Cristol, who has served with Smedberg on the boards of both the Virginia Railway Express and the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, said his ability to think beyond just Alexandria is a significant asset.
“Paul has a capacity to think regionally, as well as be a champion of local issues, and that’s a hard balance – he’s really capable in those interactions of being able to recognize the interests that different stakeholders have in the region and even in the state,” Cristol said.
The knowledge Smedberg brings to the table on transportation, Cristol said, is particularly vital at this time for Northern Virginia, particularly with WMATA’s growing financial needs.
“He has a real depth of knowledge on Metro governance from serving as an alternate on the WMATA board. We hear a lot of opinions, but Paul has the depth of experience about what approaches have been tried and which are the most effective in improving the systemic problems,” Cristol said. “ … Particularly in this day and age in this political moment we’re in, I find it inspiring that he finds a solution based on data and experience.”
Smedberg also considers the closing of the GenOn (formerly Mirant) Power Plant
in 2012 as a highlight of his council career.
“That was very meaningful for everyone who came together – city council, the community and really everyone had a pretty major victory,” Smedberg said. “Ultimately, we’ll have something there that we can all be proud of other than a coal-fired power plant, which is great.”
The fight against the Mirant Power Plant was a yearslong struggle. Lifelong Alexandria resident Elizabeth Chimento was one of the North Old Town residents pushing for change. Chimento said she reached out to Smedberg in his first term on council as she was going about the process and as the community was conducting a scientific study about the pollution produced by the power plant.
“He was an advisor in many ways. The other thing, and I see this particularly in Paul, is he can read complex, scientific data very quickly and then he can analyze and formulate questions or weaknesses in the data,” Chimento said. “That was important, that skill, because all of the scientific data is something we ordinary people didn’t know anything about.”
Chimento said Smedberg was always available as her contact at the city.
“Paul was my go-to person as any issues arose that I needed to ask or that I couldn’t fix. … Never once … did he claim success for himself – he just doesn’t do that,” Chimento said. “He worked extremely hard all those years behind the scenes. He was a person that I knew I could call up if things were awry. For the most part, I was working with city environmental staff and then calling Paul if issues came up that we had hit like a brick wall.”
There’s also his time as chair of the waterfront commission, during which the commission delved into updating the city’s waterfront plan.
“… There were a lot of differing opinions there about what we should do with the waterfront, but at the end of the day, I think we’re going to have something we’re all proud of. [With] the opening of the King Street Waterfront Park, you’re going to have a walkway along the waterfront that will be continuous,” Smedberg said.
Nate Macek, a member of the planning commission who originally met Smedberg through the waterfront commission, said he has the capability look critically at proposals on the table.
“One of Paul’s strengths is he asks tough questions – I’ve seen that on some of the issues I’ve championed,” Macek said.
He said Smedberg lends balance to council.
“He listens and he provides a voice for people who sometimes feel they’re not being heard. It’s important there are members of city council who are looking out for their best interests,” Macek said.
Smedberg said it’s victories in the community, both big and small, as well as decisions that lead to incremental change, that motivate him to run for another term.
“I really like diving in and working with people on issues and problems – it’s what I do in my professional life and I really enjoy working with people to contribute back to the community and seeing the things that change,” Smedberg said.
With a new term, he said he would focus on some of the most significant issues facing Alexandria, including constrained budgets, transportation funding, school funding
and school capacity, as well as issues posed by development. He said the issues have
changed since he was first elected in 2003.
“Even though it was only fifteen years ago, it was a simpler time,” Smedberg said. “I don’t want to sound like I’m in Mayberry here, but the issues are becoming more complex.”
That change, Smedberg said, necessitates a longer-term focus.
“We’re trying to look at the big picture and [lay] the groundwork of the city – not just being focused on one issue or one topic,” Smedberg said. “ … We’re a town and a city at the same time and our issues are becoming so complex and they’re multi-faceted.
It just requires rolling up our sleeves and working together – not only with the issues the city is dealing with, but the issues the region is dealing with.”
Smedberg is running for reelection alongside fellow incumbent council members John Chapman, Del Pepper and Willie Bailey and against a field of newcomers, including Dak Hardwick, Mo Seifeldein, Amy Jackson, Robert Ray, Canek Aguirre, Matt Feely and Elizabeth Bennett-Parker. The Democratic primary will be held on June 12.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated Paul Smedberg was currently the director of advocacy and government affairs at the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Smedberg left that job and is now a consultant in the industry.