By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
Incumbent Mayor Justin Wilson outraised former Mayor Allison Silberberg by about $25,000 in overall donations during the period Jan. 1 to March 31, 2021, according to mandatory campaign finance reports filed with the Virginia Department of Elections.
Silberberg, however, entered the race just a week before the first quarter filing deadline and outraised Wilson by almost $30,000 among individual donations of more than $100 during the seven days they went head-to-head.
Wilson raised $90,740 overall and received 531 distinct donations, while Silberberg received 238 distinct donations totaling $65,364 during the first quarter of 2021. But between March 24 — the day Silberberg declared her candidacy and began fundraising — and March 31, she brought in $53,512 in individual donations of more than $100, compared to $23,706 for Wilson.
The Times examined data on both the VDE site as well as The Virginia Public Access Project website, which presents the same information in a more user-friendly format. Only donors who give an aggregate of more than $100 are required to be listed by name on campaign finance reports.
Though Silberberg initially did not plan to run for mayor, she made a u-turn on March 24 when she announced her candidacy after gathering the required number of signatures in one day.
Silberberg has been widely known over the years as a populist candidate backed predominately by grassroots supporters. This time around, she accepted 20 donations of $1,000 and over between March 24 and 31, compared to Wilson’s 12 of that level during the entire three-month period.
“It’s really too early to tell what the narrative will be, but I am definitely always serving on behalf of the people, thinking about the people,” Silberberg said of being the larger-donor candidate, noting that 153 people contributed donations of less than $100. “When I announced, we only had one week, really, to ramp up, and I think a lot of people saw that as an opportunity to express their strong support immediately, rather than spread it out.”
Wilson said that he’s “extraordinarily pleased” with the high number of smaller donations and first-time donors.
“I think it shows the grassroots support of our campaign,” Wilson said. “We’re also pretty struck by the fact that I have an extraordinary number of new contributors. There are many folks who have not given to me before, and I’m gratified by that.”
Among Wilson’s heftier contributors is Reginald J. Brown, who donated $5,000 on Feb. 9. Brown had donated $80,200 of his total $82,700 prior-year contributions to Republican candidates across Virginia. Brown did not respond to a request for comment about his donation in this campaign.
Then there’s Mark C. Williams, who gave $7,500 to Silberberg’s campaign – the largest single donation amount to either mayoral candidate this election cycle, despite supporting Wilson in previous elections.
Williams has contributed a total of $171,768 to various Virginia politicians over the years, almost entirely Democrats, and had previously given Wilson a cumulative $6,000. But due to what Williams has described as “a catastrophic series of mistakes” by City Council since 2018, the 26-year resident deliberately shifted those donations.
These factors include controversial policy handlings on various topics, from the longstanding sewer drainage issue to the Seminary Road diet.
But the most “unjustifiable blunder” for Williams was council’s decision to approve a hotly contested Halal live butcher shop in March 2019, which Williams vehemently opposed then and now.
The company in question, Saba Live Poultry, has been sued multiple times for labor abuse and convicted of animal cruelty and on-the-street slaughter in other locations. Williams said he presented these facts to council at the time, but asserted that they were “intentionally disregarded.”
Wilson voted in favor of the project and still maintains his support for the live butcher shop, which is about to open its doors.
“It was an application in the industrial zone; it was largely a by-right use. I believe we have to be a city of laws, absolutely,” Wilson said, adding that Williams has been “consistent” in his donations to candidates who have also expressed opposition for the project.
Although she wasn’t in office at the time the Halal butchery was approved, Silberberg has since become one of those opposing voices.
Citing Saba Live Poultry’s violations in other states and the fact that it will be located on Colvin Street near both a pet grooming facility and restaurants with outdoor seating, Silberberg stated that the business “doesn’t belong” within the city limits.
“When you vote for [this, you’re supporting] any kind of slaughterhouse. It doesn’t matter what kind,” Silberberg said. “We’re a very densely populated 15 square mile city – it just doesn’t belong.”
Williams said that he’s planning on donating to several other candidates like incumbent Amy Jackson, the only councilor seeking re-election who voted against the project, with the intention of making a statement and investing in “something better.”
“What I’m hoping to do [with my 2020 donations] is make up for my prior donations and also to help get some favorable attention on some people who I think will do better, and who I think will do better more visibly and transparently, without a lot of bizarre decisions getting in the way,” Williams told the Alexandria Times in an interview.
When asked about their donation policies, both Wilson and Silberberg separately stated they do not take contributions from anyone who has business before the city.
Wilson said that in this cycle alone, he’s rejected donations from a number of developers and land use attorneys who have plans to bring applications before council later this year.
Planning Commission Chair Nathan Macek gave Wilson a donation the day after Wilson voted with the majority of council to reappoint Macek to his post. Macek’s employer, the engineering firm WSP, has played a leading role in numerous large projects in Alexandria, including the under-construction Potomac Yard Metro. Though several commenters on the Bring Integrity Back to Alexandria Facebook page have dubbed this an example of “pay for play,” Wilson said he’s “proud” to have Macek’s support.
“Oh, give me a break,” Wilson said of the accusations. “Nate’s a good friend and has contributed to my previous campaigns, and I believe his contribution was relatively small as well. He’s been a very committed community volunteer for our city for a long, long time, and the residents should be very thankful that he’s willing to give his time and expertise to help our community.”
Macek also donated on Feb. 10 to incumbent councilors John Chapman and Canek Aguirre, who both voted to reappoint Macek to the Planning Commission on Feb. 9.
The 13 City Council hopefuls – three incumbents and 10 challengers – have cumulatively raised $313,927 in the first quarter of 2021.
Newcomer Kirk McPike raised the most money in the first quarter, at $65,660. Only 15 of his 146 donations of more than $100, however, came from people with a home address listed in Alexandria, one of which was himself.
Eight of the 13 candidates raised at least $15,000, including McPike, Chapman, Alyia Gaskins, Aguirre, Sarah Bagley, Jackson, James Lewis and Bill Rossello. Chapman currently has the most cash on hand at the end of the quarter, at $53,495.
Challenger Mark Shiffer didn’t raise or spend any money for his campaign during the quarter.
Both Wilson and Silberberg emphasized the importance of transparency during their campaigns. Wilson noted that 20 years ago he worked with the local registrar to put campaign finance reports online. Transparency is an issue he’s been “firmly committed to” throughout his time on council, Wilson said.
Silberberg said that her campaign goes back to “the heart” of basic ethics principles.
“This is all about fairness; this is all about the peoples’ business; this is all about doing the right thing. It’s about creating a more ethical culture, and it’s about transparency and public trust,” Silberberg said.
The first quarter campaign finance reports are available on VPAP.org and from the Virginia Department of Elections.
Denise Dunbar also contributed to this story.