For the first time in years, close campaigns are being simultaneously waged for Alexandria mayor and city council, with the outcomes to be determined in the Democratic primary on June 12.
Because much of the focus has been on the mayoral race between incumbent Mayor Allison Silberberg and challenger Vice Mayor Justin Wilson – a contest in which the Times will not make an endorsement – the city council race has been a bit lost in the process. That’s a shame, because 12 impressive individuals have put themselves forward for consideration. And whether Silberberg or Wilson captures the mayoral nomination, the winner is going to
need at least a few like-minded individuals on council to advance their agenda.
Our recommendations follow below, but first we want to explain the process that went into these endorsements. The Times’ three-person editorial board consists of our publisher, editor and reporter, and for the first time our recommendations are unanimous.
During the past six months, we have watched, listened to and talked with these council candidates in a variety of ways. We did a story on each, offered all candidates the opportunity to run a “Why I’m running for council” My View column in the Times, have had at least one member of our editorial board at each council debate and have carefully considered the candidates’ responses to our questionnaire and yes/no chart. We also reviewed incumbents’ voting records and actions in office.
We do not make these endorsements lightly, especially since we are only recommending two of the four incumbents for re-election. Any of the 12 could, in our opinion, serve Alexandria well, but we believe the following six would make the best council, collectively and individually, for reasons we will explain below beginning with the case for the collective group. Our selections are, alphabetically: Canek Aguirre, Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, John Chapman, Del Pepper, Robert Ray and Mo Seifeldein.
First, we believe this group would bring much-needed diversity to council. With two
women and three minorities – one the son of immigrants and another an immigrant himself – a broad swath of Alexandria would be represented.
But more important than diversity of origin is that of perspective. The outgoing council has appeared to succumb far too often to groupthink, largely because of the dearth of business experience among its members. For that reason, three of the four newcomers we endorse have made their careers in the private sector: one is a lawyer, one an entrepreneur and another runs a family owned small business.
This group would also make council younger in average age and add the perspective of Millennials to the Baby Boomers and Generation Xers that we also endorse. Only two of our endorsees are over age 50 and three would be in their 30s throughout a threeyear council term. The problems Alexandria faces now and into the future require the input of younger, more technologically savvy leaders – though mixed with that of older hands who have the wisdom that more life experience brings.
We believe this council would actually utilize public input in their decision-making.
The outgoing council earned a – well-deserved in our opinion – reputation for not listening to the public.
Corporate interests too often prevailed over legitimate livability concerns of residents.
Public hearings have been pro forma meetings rather than vehicles for change. Many individuals in Alexandria, whether wealthy homeowners or those struggling on the margins, have complained of feeling ignored by their local government.
And now, the case for the individual candidates, again alphabetically:
Canek Aguirre: The son of Mexican immigrants, Aguirre is an advocate in both his
professional life and volunteer time for those who are marginalized in our community. His day job is helping people better access health care, while he also serves as chair of the city’s Economic Opportunities Commission and president of the Tenants and Workers United board of directors.
Our large and growing Spanish-speaking population needs a voice on council who literally speaks their language. His three years spent working within Alexandria City Public Schools also gives him a helpful perspective on issues the school system faces.
Elizabeth Bennett-Parker: An Alexandria native, born to two U.S. Naval officers, Bennett-Parker has legitimate bona fides as an entrepreneur, environmentalist and nonprofit leader. She founded Fruitcycle, a company that used food destined for waste to create healthy snacks and later merged it with Together We Bake, a nonprofit that was already working to help provide women ex-offenders with employment skills. We believe Bennett-Parker’s thoughtful and smart voice, though quiet, would be a welcome addition to council.
John Chapman: A fourth-generation Alexandria native, incumbent councilor Chapman is an educator with an unusual perspective of both the public and private sectors. Chapman grew up in public housing, and thus knows the obstacles facing that population. He has spent 12 years working for Fairfax County Public Schools and is an entrepreneur, having formed a
company that provides curated tours focusing on early African American history in Alexandria. Chapman thus has useful windows into education issues, the business community and the city’s tourism industry.
During meetings, Chapman usually listens quietly, but when he speaks, he does so authoritatively and displays a deep command of the issues. If he is re-elected, we encourage Chapman to take his leadership to the next level by refraining from social media criticism of his colleagues, particularly while on the dais.
Del Pepper: Alexandria’s own ageless wonder, Pepper remains relevant after 33 years on city council. We endorse her for yet another term because the qualities that have enabled her longevity are still valid: she’s tireless in representing the city at events, cares deeply even about unpopular topics and actually appears to not pre-determine her vote on all issues.
Pepper says prior to meetings she visits the site of every issue that council is to consider, and her comments on the dais lend credence to that claim. Pepper also brings a useful sense of perspective to controversial concerns, as many topics have come around previously during her tenure. Her courtesy to people who appear before council, civility toward her council-mates and good-natured humor are all valuable, and disappearing, qualities.
Robert Ray: A native Alexandrian and second-generation shop owner, Ray would bring a
needed small business perspective to council. Ray’s passionate commitment to keeping Alexandria livable and prodding of our local government to be more transparent is evinced by his constant attendance at many city committee and task force meetings.
While an Old Town resident, Ray champions other issues that resonate in Del Ray, Arlandria and the city’s West End, particularly support for Alexandria’s immigrant community. He has extensive experience with budgeting, is committed to giving the city’s civic associations a larger say in determining policy and is a committed environmentalist.
Mo Seifeldein: Seifeldein’s personal narrative is the most compelling of the candidates.
Born in war-torn Sudan, Seifeldein immigrated to the United States as a child with his parents and five siblings. He began working during high school, put himself through college, then became the first member of his family to attend graduate school. After becoming a lawyer, he moved to Alexandria and established his own law firm that specializes in helping small businesses and disadvantaged individuals.
Seifeldein’s cheerful optimism is contagious, and we believe his approach of balancing responsible development with livability concerns and historic preservation is the right one. He is someone who is capable of doing a serious job with a light touch.
Those are our six recommendations for council. For voters who prefer the next city council to include only newcomers and no incumbents, we recommend they cast their final two votes for Matt Feely and Amy Jackson.
Feely retired to Alexandria after a career in the Navy and is an adjunct professor at Columbia University, where he teaches leadership and crisis decision-making to graduate students. His emphasis is on livability, improved financial strategy and integrated planning.
Jackson is a former teacher who currently serves on numerous boards and commissions in Alexandria. She grew up in Alexandria, attended Alexandria City Public Schools and is a graduate of T.C. Williams High School.
Whether or not you agree with our choices for council, we encourage all Alexandrians to vote in the June 12 Democratic Primary, which is open to all registered voters within the city, regardless of party affiliation.