By Alexa Epitropoulos and Missy Schrott
With less than a week left until the Democratic primary, the already-heated clashes between mayoral opponents, incumbent Allison Silberberg and Vice Mayor Justin Wilson, have reached a crescendo.
As the conflict between the two has intensified, so too has the contrast between their differing styles and approaches to nearly every city issue.
Those differences were on full display at the Alexandria Democratic Committee’s mayoral debate on May 30, during which they discussed topics on which they’ve agreed, disagreed, collaborated and sparred over during their time on council.
The style of the ADC’s debate lentitself to more back-and-forth between the candidates than pre- vious forums. If either wanted a rebuttal, they were given it, and during the rebuttals, the claws came out – both from the candidates and their supporters in the audience.
As he’s done at all of three mayoral debates and several candidate forums, Wilson repeatedly mentioned Silberberg’s lone dissenting votes against projects that have come before council in recent years and the consequences of those votes.
Silberberg, meanwhile, needled Wilson on ethics, zeroing in on his recent endorsement from the Sierra Club, several leaders of which gave him donations prior to conducting their endorsement process.
When Wilson brought up Silberberg’s vote against the bud- get, Silberberg argued that she “supported the city’s manager’s proposed budget which fully funded the superintendent’s request,” enunciating each word with a fist to the table.
Wilson challenged the claim, which she’s repeated several times at each debate, with a clarification.
“I think we have to clarify this,” he said. “What the mayor is referring to is the superinten- dent’s operating budget request, not the superintendent’s capital budget request. The city manager’s proposed budget did not meet the superintendent’s capital budget request, which deals with facilities.”When debate moderator Fenit Nirappil asked candidates about how they would fight for Alexandria to be an environmental leader, Wilson said he was proud to have received the endorsement of the Sierra Club, which inspired one of the more memorable responses of the debate.
“As far as the Sierra Club endorsement, it’s a free county. This water bottle could endorse someone. I don’t care,” Silberberg said, spurring laughter from the audience. “The fact is … we have a very different environmental record. Just look at the record.”
“Two members of the Sierra Club board leadership had actually, we just learned, had given to my opponent long before the questionnaires even went out,” she continued, referencing donations made by the local Sierra Club chapter’s Seth Heald and Pat Soriano.
During the debate, Wilson criticized Silberberg’s dissenting vote in 2016 against Ramsey Homes, an affordable housing redevelopment project that council voted to loan an additional $1.6 million to recently.
“The mayor was, unfortunately, in the minority on that, but caused that project to be delayed by an extended amount of time that added significant amounts of money to the cost of that project, depleting much of the new dedicated funds that we provided this year,” Wilson said.
“I wasn’t the only one to vote against it,” Silberberg said, “but the fact is that I voted against it because it wasn’t ready, and in the end, it was ready with the neighbors saying thumbs up. That’s what we want. Thumbs up from the neighbors.”
Wilson also accused Silberberg of voting against St. James Plaza and Jackson Crossing – both projects with affordable housing components – and reduced parking standards, which Wilson said incentivize affordable housing.
Throughout the debate, Silberberg visibly grew increasingly frustrated with Wilson’s representation of her record.
“Don’t pervert the record. It’s really not worthy of it,” Silberberg said at one point. “I don’t distort your record. I don’t think you should distort mine.”
While Silberberg appeared to be mostly on the defensive, she did call into question Wilson’s initiative to limit the amount of speakers who are able to speak at the beginning of public hearings. She also accused Wilson of not devoting the public speakers his full attention when on the dais.
“I put a huge value on listening to the people, and when I’m there on the dais, I’m totally fo- cused,” Silberberg said. “Frankly, my opponent has said publicly that he’s multitasking and that he’s fine with that, but when people spend time preparing a statement, and they’re nervous, we should give them all our attention.”
Silberberg’s comments underscore the candidates’ different points of view on civic engagement. While Silberberg attends numerous ribbon cuttings, tree plantings and community gatherings around the city, Wilson is known to quickly respond to constituents via email, Facebook and Twitter.
Those differences, however, just scratch the surface.
Silberberg and Wilson’s differences begin with their journeys into local politics.
Silberberg, who has worked in politics and as a teacher and writer, burst onto the scene during the 2012 election. Despite never having held elected office, she garnered the most
votes of any council candidate and became vice mayor during former Mayor Bill Euille’s final term.
She decided to run for mayor in 2015, joining former Mayor Kerry Donley in challenging Euille, a four-term incumbent, in the Democratic primary. The three-way race became bitter and contentious, and Silberberg narrowly defeated Euille. After losing the primary, Euille then launched a write-in campaign as an independent in the November general election. Silberberg easily won that contest by an almost two-to-one margin.
Silberberg has attracted supporters due to her practice of listening intently to individual residents’ concerns, hosting monthly coffee and “meet with the mayor” events and appearing at endless ribbon cuttings and charitable events. She’s also known for her 6-1 dissenting votes on contro- versial issues, including her votes in opposition to the 5.7-cent 2017 tax increase and accompanying FY2018 budget, Karig Estates and reduced parking standards.
“I’m proud of the fact that I listen to the people, that I do encourage civic engagement,” Silberberg said. “I want more civic engagement – it’s the people’s city.”
Wilson, a longtime IT professional who is now senior director of vendor and contract management at Amtrak, became the youngest member of council when he was elected in a special election in 2007 at age 29. He lost his first re-election bid in 2009 when former Councilors Frank Fannon, a Republican, and Alicia Hughes, an independent, ascend- ed to the dais. Before Wilson and Councilor Tim Lovain, who also lost in 2009, left council, they voted to move local elections from the spring to the fall.
Wilson kept working on local boards and commissions while out of elective office, and, in 2011, announced he would run again in 2012. Wilson said losing was a formative experience for him.
“I always say the best thing that ever happened was losing in 2009. … It allowed me to put context around what I was doing and how I was doing it,” Wilson said.
The 2012 council contest, held in the fall for the first time, coincided with a presidential elec- tion and resulted in a Democratic sweep as Wilson regained the seat he had lost three years prior. After running for re-election in 2015, he gained themost votes of his council colleagues and became vice mayor.
Wilson has gained supporters, in part, due to his command of the budget, data and his in-depth understanding of a wide range of city issues, down to minute details. He is also known for his quick responses to residents’ inquiries, whether it’s through email or on social media.
“I would hope that even with people who disagree with me on every issue will find that I’m always accessible,” Wilson said. “I will answer everyone and talk to everyone and engage everyone. I’ll tell them what I feel and I want to hear what they feel. That doesn’t always mean we’re going to agree, but I think the public deserves a full airing out of these issues.”
Wilson and Silberberg’s conflicting approaches have been evident on a wide range of issues.
Though it wasn’t the first issue the two clashed over, Silberberg and Wilson notably sparred in early 2017 over Wilson’s proposal to limit the number of public speakers at the beginning of council’s monthly public hearings.
Silberberg called Wilson’s proposal “anti-democratic,” while Wilson countered that it protected the speakers who were at the meeting to speak about items on the agenda.
The two, throughout the course of 2017, were also at odds over the proposed Old Town business improvement district. While there was no vote on the proposal itself, Wilson supported the concept, while Silberberg opposed it. Silberberg has prodded Wilson on the subject during her re-election campaign, saying in debates and in her campaign mailers that he was the BID’s primary proponent, which Wilson has denied.
Silberberg voted against Wilson’s proposal during the FY2018 budget cycle to increase the property tax by 5.7 cents to $1.13 per assessed value, supporting City Manager Mark Jinks’ proposed 2.7-cent tax increase. Wilson has criticized her ensuing vote against the overall budget, saying the 2.7-cent tax increase wouldn’t havefully funded Alexandria City Public Schools’ capital improvement program.
The candidates have differed on a number of proposed developments, including Karig Estates off of Seminary Road and a 138-unit upscale condo development on Main Line Boulevard in Potomac Yard. Silberberg also cast the lone dissenting vote on the proposal to revise parking standards, which reduced parking requirements for new businesses. In 2013, Wilson supported the elimination of dedicated dollars in the budget for the open space fund, a change opposed by Silberberg.
If their differences hadn’t been made apparent already, the candidates have left no doubt as to where they stand in the months leading up to June 12. Recently, they have disagreed on whether to provide dedicated funding in the budget for affordable housing, which Silberberg supports but Wilson opposes. Wilson and Councilor Willie Bailey both proposed plans to increase the meals tax by 1 percent, but Bailey’s plan dedicated the fund- ing to affordable housing while Wilson’s would have gone into the general cap- ital improvements budget. Bailey’s plan passed by a 4-3 vote with Silberberg voting in favor and Wilson voting against.
The two are also on opposite sides of whether to consolidate the Old Town and Parker-Gray boards of architectural review, with Wilson favoring consolidation and Silberberg advocating for keeping the Parker-Gray board, in a historically black neighborhood, separate. The topic has not as of yet been scheduled for a vote.
The two have often found strengths in what the other paints as weaknesses.
Silberberg, though criticized for lone dissenting votes on a number of issues, said most of council’s votes are unanimous. When she winds up voting alone, Silberberg said it’s from conviction that council is making the wrong decision.
“I don’t go into the meeting knowing everything – that’s not right. I’m here to really listen and you see me taking notes and I’m not doing anything else during the meeting. I’m just in the moment, totally in the moment, trying to discern what the right answer is and trying to find a way forward and we often do,” Silberberg said. “But it’s better to get something done right than just get it done for the sake of saying you got it done – because the city’s going to have to live with it for a long time.”
Wilson, though criticized for his heated reactions on the dais, said his emotion comes
from a place of passion for the direction of the city.
“I care about this stuff, I’m very passionate about it and I live and breathe it, so I’m certainly going to get emotional about topics that I care about and that I’m excited about,” Wilson said. “I try to do so respectfully; I think I’ve been relatively successful at doing that. It doesn’t mean I’m always going to agree with everyone.”
Throughout their run for the Democratic mayoral nomination, Silberberg and Wilson have touted a number of victories, many indicating different visions for the city.
Silberberg has highlighted her statement on inclusiveness, her creation of a clergy council, the city’s steps toward fixing all four of its combined sewer outfalls ahead of the state’s mandated deadline and her efforts toward securing state funding for the Wash- ington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority.
Wilson counts as victories his measures toward funding Alexandria City Public Schools’ operating and capital budgets, both through his proposed 5.7- cent increase in 2017 and through his proposal to create a joint city-schools facilities task force, which presented its findings on increasing efficiency and maximizing cost savings to city council early this year.
A common criticism of Silberberg is that her resolutions, including the statement on inclusiveness and a recently passed resolution advocating for gun reform, are not enforcable actions. Silberberg said the inclusiveness statement she initiated showed where Alexandria stood as a city, both to individuals and companies, like Amazon, who shortlist- ed locations within city limits for its HQ2.
“People are very nervous right now across the country. There’s a culture of fear, but in our city I’m trying to create a culture of inclusiveness and comfort and joy and compassion and to increase our sense of community and resilience and part of that is putting a stake in the ground and saying ‘This is who we are,’” Silberberg said.
Silberberg and city residents have criticized the 5.7-cent increase put forward by Wilson. Wilson counters that making difficult deci- sions now will help taxpayers save in the long run.
“My big push has been trying to maintain that state of good repair, both in municipal facilities, our sewers, our roads, our sidewalks, our broadband infrastructure,” Wilson said. That’s been my focus and it’s also a hidden debt – last year, we had $500 million in unfunded capital investments. Construction goes up five percent per year. Every year, that’s an increase sitting on our balance sheet and we borrow 2.1 percent a year. We can borrow and tackle that stuff at 2.1 percent or we can wait and spend 5 percent per year.”
Though their visions on what an ideal city looks like vary, they both say they’re striving toward a better version of Alexandria.
A better city
While the candidates have made their distinct visions for Alexandria clear, the two have also empha- sized that their intention is to make an impact while they’re serving.
For Silberberg, that comes in the form of resident out- reach and championing livability concerns. For Wilson, that comes in the form of building coalitions on council and creating a path forward for good policy.
Silberberg said, if re-elected, she intends to keep pushing against developments that encroach upon quality of life and to continue listening to the public.
“We’re here to be a government for the people and so, if I’m fighting for Alexandria, part of what that means is the conditions that go into these development proposals need to protect the residentsand the businesses,” Silberberg said. “We’re here for the people – it’s about public service.”
Wilson said, if elected, he plans to continue to push for smart development and build consensus on council toward projects that can make a difference.
“While I’m here, I want to make an impact and I want to actually help leave a mark on what I think will be a better community. That means stirring things up sometimes, that means raising issues that sometimes aren’t popular and sometimes things fail,” Wilson said. “That’s OK, but I’m trying not to take up space. I’m trying to leave a mark and that’s always been the way I’ve approached this job and, if the voters like that approach, I’ll keep on doing it.”
Voters will choose between Silberberg and Wilson for mayor in the Democratic primary on June 12.