Facing final countdown, council candidates brawl

Facing final countdown, council candidates brawl
Twelve Democratic council candidates at the final debate before the Democratic Primary. The debate was hosted by the Alexandria Democratic Committee. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

Exactly one week before the Democratic primary, the dozen candidates vying for six seats gathered for a final debate on Tuesday evening hosted by the Alexandria Democratic Committee.

Arguably the most exciting moment of the debate – the third held between council candidates this year – was when newcomer Mo Seifeldein got into a heated back-and-forth exchange with incumbent councilors Willie Bailey, Paul Smedberg and John Chapman.

The debate format allowed each candidate three rebuttal cards to use at any point to respond to other candidates’ comments.

Smedberg initiated a series of rebuttals when he responded to a comment from Robert Ray about improving civic engagement.

“I know, at times, there is real frustration out in the community,” Smedberg said, “but I have to say, some of the comments I’ve heard tonight from some of the people at this desk, I really do not agree with, and it shows a lack of understanding, quite honestly, of how the city operates.”

“We have staff that is dedicated, that spends hours and hours and hours meeting with residents, meeting with neighborhood associations, meeting with civic associations, meeting with the school community, trying to come up with plans, listening to them ahead of time,” he said. “I don’t want it to go unnoticed here that our staff and many members of this community spend a great deal of time trying to make this work.”

Seifeldein said the problem was not with staff, but with transparency on council. Using one of his rebuttals, he said city staff compensation was a problem and recounted a conversation he’d had with a health department employee whose funding had been cut.

“How are they supposed to perform their services, such vital services, when their funding’s been cut?” Seifeldein said. “Let’s do a better job there and not take staff down by just saying they do a great job. Provide resources for them so they can do a great job.”

Bailey said he disagreed with Seifeldein.

“We’re fighting,” Bailey said. “We’re working with public safety, making sure our police, fire and sheriffs are getting paid commensurate to what everyone else is making in the northern Virginia metropolitan area…”

“They’re not, they’re not, they’re not. Facts matter,” Seifeldein interrupted, raising his voice.

“…Well Mr. Seifeldein, if facts matter, you should know then that the health department is funded from the state,” Smedberg said.

The ensuing passionate argument was primarily between Seifeldein, Bailey and Smedberg, with Chapman chiming in several times.

The audience struggled to follow the conversation as the candidates continued to talk over one another, and Seifeldein neglected to turn on his microphone, despite repeated requests from moderator Michael Lee Pope.

One of the tweets projected on the screens behind the candidates, which were submitted by debate viewers who used the hashtag #AlexDemsDebate, questioned whether Seidfeldein was at a council debate or in a bar fight. Another read, “Does it seem like the incumbents are a bit defensive?”

Earlier in the evening, before the drama unfolded, candidates addressed development, parking, speakers at public hearings, multiyear budgeting, the Old Town BID, lights at the T.C. Williams football field and immigration.

On several topics, candidates repeatedly echoed each other’s responses.

For example, when asked to cite instances of “smart” growth and “dumb” growth in the city, many candidates referenced developments in the Eisenhower/Carlyle area as smart growth, while touting the BRAC building and Victory Center to be dumb growth.

On the topic of parking, several candidates evaded the question of whether they were for minimum or maximum parking requirements by stating that it depended on a case-by-case, neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. Ray and Matt Feely, who both live in Old Town, said they supported parking minimums.

The parking question wasn’t the only one that revealed which candidates’ views aligned.

Regarding lights at the T.C. Williams High School stadium, Amy Jackson, Del Pepper, Canek Aguirre, Dak Hardwick, Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, Chapman, Bailey and Smedberg said the stadium should have lights. Chris Hubbard, Seifeldein, Feely and Ray said it should not.

On the topic of whether candidates would support a one- or two-year format for the city’s operating budget, Ray was the only candidate to say one-year.

When asked whether they agreed with the decision to limit the number of people who could speak before a public hearing, Hubbard, Bennett-Parker, Smedberg, Hardwick, Aguirre, Seifeldein, Bailey, Chapman and Jackson said they agreed with the limiting it to 15, while Ray, Feely and Pepper disagreed.

For more detailed information about where candidates fall on the issues, check out Alexandria Times’ voter guide from the May 31 issue, which is available online and in print. The Democratic primary takes place on June 12.