Vying for voters at West End forum

Vying for voters at West End forum
City council candidates gather at the West End Coalition's candidate forum at William Ramsay Elementary School on Sept. 22. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

At a forum Saturday afternoon, city council candidates gathered for the first time since the Democratic Primary in June to make a play for Alexandrians’ votes in November.

The debate, hosted by West End Coalition of Alexandria Civic, Condo and Homeowner associations, an organization that coordinates activities among groups west of Quaker Lane, took place at William Ramsay Elementary School.

Peggy Fox, a reporter with WUSA Channel 9, moderated the forum, asking candidates questions on key city issues including Metro, affordable housing, public safety, development and quality of life.

After the primary election in June, the candidate pool for Alexandria City Council is down to nine – six Democrats, two Republicans and one Independent.

With a little more than a month to go before the general election, most of the candidates used their time at the forum to try to differentiate themselves from other candidates. As the city has an all-Democratic incumbent council and a historically left-leaning political climate, the two Republican candidates and sole Independent candidate were especially vocal about what set them apart.

Independent candidate Mark Shiffer said he would serve on council full-time, if elected. He said the Potomac Yard Metro was a symptom of councilors working on too many issues in a small amount of time.

“There’s a lack of focus, there’s a lack of accountability, and there’s a lack of commitment [on council],” Shiffer said. “It means that our city council is doing too much in too little time. … The solution is the city council needs to be full-time, and I think that the city council needs to focus what they’re doing and pay attention to what they’re doing and not give all the responsibility to city staff. That’s not how you run an organization.”

Along similar lines, Republican Kevin Dunne made several comments about the city being run by staff rather than council.

“Fundamentally, we are a city which is staff-led. Many people don’t recognize that,” Dunne said. “You elect a council, [and] they have great ideas – you’ve heard many of them tonight – but the problem is that the city doesn’t listen because we are a staff-led city. That is a problem. I am not for professionalizing our political leadership. Leadership should be local and civic-oriented.”

Republican candidate Michael Clinkscale stood out on from the pool of candidates with his blunt ideas and contrary opinions.

When Fox asked how candidates would establish and maintain credibility in city government after the south entrance of the Potomac Yard Metro was removed from plans without notice in the spring, Clinkscale replied “Fire everyone involved. Hire better people.”

When asked about affordable housing, Clinkscale said he did not support it because it encourages “poor people to remain poor and does not instill a value system in them at all.”

As the only veteran councilors at the forum, Councilors John Chapman and Del Pepper used the platform to defend their past actions on council, including those related to the Potomac Yard Metro.

“What had happened was a kind of complicated mess which had nothing to do with the council, in my view, or the city manager,” Pepper said. “It had to do with the management at WMATA and the belief that they would not let the city manager share information. … So what can you do better? As the manager has said, he wanted to get it in writing next time that it was officials there at WMATA that had been so secretive. We like to share our information and to be as open as humanly possible.”

Chapman, meanwhile, himself a resident of Taylor Run, cited his quiet efforts toward West End inclusion as one of his biggest accomplishments.

“I’ve worked on council, not talking about it, not bragging about it, to be an ally to the West End,” he said. “I’m not going to beat my chest about working for the West End because I believe that’s part of what we need to do. But I am committed and I’ve shown that commitment and if elected, I will show that commitment again.”

While the forum was civil overall and did not give candidates an opportunity to debate amongst themselves, Democratic candidate Mo Seifeldein challenged Clinkscale’s comments on affordable housing.

“We’re talking about workforce housing, not free giveaways. Those are for hardworking people who went to college, graduated, and are working within our city,” Seifeldein said. “A lot of our teachers, … our firefighters, our EMTs when you have an emergency, can’t afford to live here.”

Chapman said the city is doing all it can to help Alexandria’s lower income residents.

“Anyone who tells you that the city is not doing what it can for those in poverty or those impoverished here is not telling you the truth. And I’m a walking testament of that,” he said.

Some newcomers relied on the fresh perspectives they’d bring to council to advocate for support.

Democrat Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, who received the largest percentage of the vote in the Democratic Primary, referenced her experience as a small business owner frequently throughout the forum.

“We need to broaden our tax base and attract more businesses to Alexandria to help lower the burden of residential property taxes,” she said in response to a question about taxes. “We need to streamline our permitting and our business operations to help make it friendly to our small businesses who operate here.”

Democrat Canek Aguirre, similarly, cited his expertise on the causes he supports as one of his strengths.

“I bring a very unique perspective in the fact that I’ve actually worked or advocated in all three of my platform areas, which are education, health and housing,” he said.

While the forum gave equal treatment to Democrats, Republicans and Independents, some candidates referenced party politics in their closing comments.

Amy Jackson, who zeroed in on education throughout the forum, used her closing statement as a rallying cry.

“We need to do something and it needs to start with the schools,” Jackson said. “We need to do something. How do you get that done? With a bold, inclusive slate of Democrats that are sitting up here right now. You vote for us, and we’re going to get it done.”

Dunne chose to spin his obvious differentiator as a Republican to his advantage.

“I just want to step back and say, look and ask yourselves,” he said. “We’re standing up here and fundamentally, we’re offering different strategies forward. If you were an investor, … would you buy all six of the same stock and not hedge, or would you try to diversify your portfolio?”

Seifeldein closed his speech with a continuation of Dunne’s hypothetical scenario.

“If you had the option of investing in Apple or Enron, would you choose six Apple stocks or two from Enron?” he quipped.

Alexandria will elect six city council candidates and school board representatives for Districts A, B and C on Nov. 6. For more information about voting in the city, visit www.alexandriava.gov/Elections. 

Correction: A former version of this article quoted Mo Seifeldein referring to Ameren instead of Enron stock. The Times regrets the error.