By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
Mark Shiffer, a nonprofit owner with a background in data and technology, is running for council as the only Independent against a crowded slate of six Democrats and two Republicans in November.
If elected, Shiffer said he plans to serve on council full-time and to focus on schools, affordable housing and transportation.
The candidate was raised by a single mother in New Orleans, Louisiana and New Jersey. He went on to earn an undergraduate degree in math from Cornell University and a master’s degree in computer science from California State University, Long Beach. He was also a Ph.D. candidate in computational neuroscience at Boston University.
Before moving to Alexandria in September 2017, he taught computer science at alma mater Cal State, Long Beach, and worked as director of engineering at MediaMath in Boston, where he specialized in data science and artificial intelligence. Now, he researches climate science as president of the Cambridge Climate Institute, a nonprofit he cofounded with his wife.
Though his background is unconventional for a council candidate, Shiffer said his understanding of science would help him grasp city issues.
“I don’t think people realize what science is really about,” he said. “People think it’s about expertise, but really what you learn when you get a degree in science is how to become an expert in something. If you look at my career, it’s spanned industries, and that’s the case because I sort of have a talent for coming into an industry, coming up to speed quickly and then being able to address the problems that I see.”
Shiffer said he decided to run for council after getting involved with the Clover College Park Civic Association.
“I started sort of talking to more people and looking what was going on throughout the city, and basically it was the lack of transparency and accountability and truly working with the citizens that galvanized me to get into it,” he said. “I’m for a strong partnership between city government and citizens, and the fact that we didn’t have that, that sort of just drove me into it.”
Shiffer specifically wants to work with Alexandria City Public Schools to find solutions to capacity, maintenance and accreditation issues. He said he is especially interested in addressing these issues because of his two children – an 11-year-old who just started school at George Washington Middle School and a 4-year-old who will enter the ACPS system next year.
Regarding transportation, Shiffer said he didn’t think the city was approaching alternate transportation like Metro, buses and biking in a reasonable way.
“It would appear from the policies and the way things are done that we’re trying to force people into those modes of transportation, which is never a good idea,” he said. “You want to improve those modes of transportation and make them convenient and then people will move to them.”
Shiffer also wants to pursue creative solutions to affordable housing that are neighborhood-approved.
“I’ve talked to some people who have suggested there’s this new trend of micro-houses, … building these on existing properties,” he said. “In places where the residents are willing to experiment with that kind of stuff, I think we totally should. We can change zoning laws to increase density in different ways, without destroying the character in the city.”
While he has ideas, Shiffer said he doesn’t have all the answers.
“No leader is going to come in with all the solutions to all our problems and … we don’t have that large of a staff. They’re not going to have all of the solutions either,” he said. “We have a city of 160,000 people. A lot with advanced degrees, a lot of professionals, a lot of smart, civically engaged people, and I think part of the thing that got us to where we are is that the city doesn’t tap into that reservoir enough.”
Ming Tung, an engineering manager who worked with Shiffer at MediaMath, said his collaborative attitude would translate well to a position on city council.
“Modern politics is a bit like herding cats,” Tung said, “and that’s a very hard thing to do, but … there’s two types of politicians: there’s the kinds of people who just want to engage their interested constituents, and there’s the people who want to engage everybody, who want to … remind people we’re all in it together, and he’s definitely the latter kind.”
Roy Byrd, a 20-year Alexandria resident who met Shiffer through the Clover College Park Civic Association, said one of Shiffer’s greatest strengths is his ability to engage.
“What’s kind of a little bit different about him is that he’s a listener. He has opinions just like we all have opinions, but he actually takes in what other people have to say,” Byrd said. “The best way to put it, he kind of refines his position based on input. He seems to be really sensitive to the fact that other people have sensitivities, and he may not have all the answers, so he really takes into account other peoples’ perspective.”
As an Independent candidate, Shiffer faces the challenge of convincing Alexandrians to stray from their respective parties to vote for him.
He said he chose to run as an Independent because local politicians don’t deal with partisan issues. That being said, he was a registered Democrat before moving to Virginia, and he said he sees himself as more progressive.
Byrd, who also identifies as an Independent, said Shiffer’s decision to run as an Independent would present challenges, but also freedom from party associations.
“I think what he really has to do is emphasize the fact that as an Independent, … he’s not beholden to a party or a party dictums,” Byrd said. “As an Independent and given his personality, he’s really in a strong position to listen to and represent the citizens of Alexandria, as opposed to what’s right or wrong as we find in these days of polarization where party comes first.”
Shiffer, who announced he was running in the spring, also differs from his opponents because he’s only been a city resident for a year.
Jim Sholly, a resident of Janneys Lane who met Shiffer while he was canvassing, said he asked Shiffer early on why he should elect a newcomer who had only lived in Alexandria a short amount of time.
“I said, ‘Why would I want to vote for you Mark? You’ve only been here a year or so. I want someone who knows the city, knows it backwards and forwards,’” Sholly said. “His answer was a very good one. [He said,] ‘I think if you have the ability to understand problems and to analyze the situation, that combination, plus your being new, allows you do look at the situation with fresh eyes. And maybe even suggest something that would allow the discussion to go forward just by putting it in a slightly different context.’”
During the general election on Nov. 6, Shiffer will be listed on the ballot alongside Democrats Canek Aguirre, Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, John Chapman, Amy Jackson, Del Pepper and Mo Seifeldein, as well as Republicans Michael Clinkscale and Kevin Dunne. For more information about voting in the city, visit www.alexandriava.gov/Elections.