By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
Justin Wilson took Alexandria’s oath of office for the fourth time at the city council initiation ceremony on Wednesday night. It was his first time, though, being sworn in as mayor.
As he makes the leap from vice mayor to mayor, Wilson said his initial focus will be on getting the new council, which has four newcomers, acclimated and through the nearly three-month-long budgeting process.
“My first priority with the majority new council and [being] the new mayor is working to learn each other’s personalities and how we work together and to build a vision for how we’re going to operate together,” Wilson said.
Since he won the Democratic primary for mayor in June after a heated race against then-Mayor Allison Silberberg, Wilson said he has been working to get the Democratic council nominees, all of whom were elected in November, up to speed.
“We’ve had big and small decisions to make over the last month, from small things like who sits where on the dais to big things like who’s going to be on which board and commission,” Wilson said. “I think we have a good lineup that plays to people’s strengths and weaknesses.”
Wilson and councilors John Chapman and Del Pepper are the only three returning members on Alexandria’s seven-seat council this term. They are joined by newcomers Canek Aguirre, Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, Amy Jackson and Mo Seifeldein.
Several Alexandria leaders said Wilson is well-equipped to lead a majority new council.
“The council coming is a council that is going to need some time to verse themselves in the issues facing the city, and Justin has years and years of experience dealing with all of those issues,” Glenn Hopkins, president and CEO of Hopkins House, said.
“He understands that he needs to be mindful of the fact that there are some seasoned council members but also new council members,” he said. “So in order to get new legislation through, he’s going to have to be very thoughtful in making sure the new members are well educated about what those issues are, and the ongoing council members will certainly have to be patient during that process.”
Mark Eaton, co-chair of the T.C. Williams High School English Department and former school board member, said Wilson will not only be leading a majority new council, but a younger one as well. Wilson has gone from being the youngest member of council – he was 29 during his first term – to one of the oldest.
“I think Justin is well suited to lead the council in what’s clearly been a demographic shift,” Eaton said. “The council’s gotten younger and it’s gotten more diverse, but I think Justin is prepared to deal with that effectively.”
Wilson said it is the budget process that will define the dynamic of the new council.
“This will now be my fourth council I’ve served on and every one of them has had a different personality,” he said. “How we get through this budget process … will in large part shape this council. We’ll have a lot of new questions, which is great, and new eyes looking at every part of that budget.”
This year’s budget will be especially challenging, Wilson said, as certain items that have been threatened to be cut in the past will likely return to the chopping block.
“[The city manager is] going to be presenting a budget that has a significant amount of cuts on it,” Wilson said. “The easy stuff [to cut] is long gone, so you are very much cutting into the marrow of the services that the residents of this city expect. You will see things that were proposed to be cut in the past that will come back again.”
Lynn Hampton, who was chair of the Ad Hoc Joint City-Schools Facility Investment Task Force that Wilson created, said she expects Wilson to help expedite certain budgetary issues that have dragged in the past.
“I expect that the budgeting process will get under control,” Hampton said. “I think he is concerned that we drag our feet too much, and have for many years, and that causes many of our problems.”
Wilson said it is things like effectively navigating the budget and prioritizing major city issues that will dominate his term.
“I’m not rolling out a new flashy initiative or anything like that,” Wilson said. “It’s the important work of local government that we’ll be working to advance and accelerate.”
In addition to dealing with budget cuts and major issues like infrastructure and school capacity, Wilson said he plans to find ways to grow Alexandria’s economy so the city manager won’t have to continue finding cuts in the budget year after year.
“In the end we’re not going to be able to do any of the big things we want to do unless we positively affect the economic picture of the city,” Wilson said. “… We should really have a competitiveness plan for the city for our economic future. There are a variety of things we can do as a city to continue to lead into the adjustment we’re seeing in this region due to federal spending changes, and I think we should take those on, and we should take those on with energy.”
Wilson said the main way to grow the city’s economy is to pursue appropriate development. A revised plan for the redevelopment of Landmark Mall – which has been in the works for years – is expected to come before council in early 2019, he said.
“Development is how we get out of having these difficult budget situations,” Wilson said. “By sustainably growing our economy, we won’t be stuck in these angst-filled triage efforts.”
Wilson said the arrival of Amazon’s HQ2 in Crystal City and the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus in Alexandria should help efforts to kick-start the local economy. The new facilities will bring 25,000 jobs to the region, not including the multiplier effect of restaurant, retail and service jobs that will be needed to support those new employees.
Another of Wilson’s priorities is education.
“How we narrow the achievement gap in our schools is an issue that I’ve worked on throughout my time on council, and I’m excited that new members on council also have background on that issue and can bring real experiences there,” Wilson said.
Improving pre-k accessibility was one of Wilson’s major campaign themes, and one on which he hopes to make progress during his term as mayor.
“I know he’s been a supporter of enhancing the pre-k opportunities,” Eaton said. “There’s a lot of research about the prospects for kids who arrive in kindergarten without a lot of ‘lap time’ or a lot of stories read to them. It can be a real problem when kids arrive at any level not fully ready to learn.”
Wilson said he also hopes to make progress on transportation issues, adding to the affordable housing supply and synchronization between the city and schools.
“There’s a lot of things you want to get done in three years, and so I’m ready to keep that pace and get things accomplished,” he said.
Beyond policy, Wilson will bring his own leadership style to the mayoral chair. During his time on council, Wilson has acted as an information hub, known to be well-versed on issues that come before council and constantly working on his phone, no matter the time or place.
“Justin is a very hands-on guy,” Hopkins said. “He is constantly looking at his cell phone and addressing issues in the city all the time. He gets emails throughout the day and the night about this issue and that, and he responds to all of those regardless of where he happens to be and who he happens to be with. Having a responsive leader in the city I think is critical.”
Denny Hampton, a resident who worked with Wilson on the city’s Budget and Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee, said Wilson’s leadership will introduce a new pace to the council.
“I think his ability to manage the city council is pretty good,” Hampton said. “I think there can be a lot of time wasted on council, and he will be able manage them so that doesn’t happen, and that’s not easy to do.”
Wilson said the feature of the mayoral job he is most looking forward to is carrying out the responsibilities of local government.
“I love the give-and-take with residents on these important issues,” he said. “There’s a reason I send a bazillion-word newsletter every month and get a gazillion responses right after I send it – it’s because I enjoy the giveand-take on those issues. I wear the wonk label proudly because I’m in public service because I enjoy it, and I enjoy seeing the results when we all work together and all row in the same direction.”