Candidate Profile: Bill Campbell aims for council seat

Candidate Profile: Bill Campbell aims for council seat
Bill Campbell. Courtesy photo.

By Will Schick |

A self-described proud hillbilly mountaineer from West Virginia, City Council candidate Bill Campbell is no stranger to local politics.

According to Campbell, the focus of his campaign is to examine everything from infrastructure and education to housing, employment and sustainability – all through the lens of equity.

Campbell studied mechanical engineering at West Virginia University and worked for several decades in the Department of Defense. Campbell overcame an “extremely poor” upbringing to become a project manager overseeing large-scale DOD field operations and a member of Alexandria’s School Board.

“I had four brothers and a sister with a single mother [who was] extremely poor and on federal support,” Campbell said. Campbell added that this experience has helped him be appreciative of how far he has come and for those who have less and may not always have a seat at the table.

“I’ve seen that part and what that can mean,” Campbell said, “And I still had an eye back to where I had come from and a better understanding of some of the struggles of the younger kids and the single mothers and families there.

Campbell’s career took him across the country and world, before he finally landed in Northern Virginia in 1987.

After moving to Old Town in 2005, Campbell quickly became involved with the city’s public school system. At the time he moved to Alexandria, his three children were attending all three tiers of Alexandria City Public Schools: one in elementary school, one in middle school and the oldest in high school. As a result, his involvement and interest in Alexandria’s public schools grew naturally, Campbell said.

Before long, Campbell found himself enmeshed in local politics. “You know, you’re advocating for your kids and then you expand that to other families and kids, and then you get involved in more city stuff,” Campbell said.

By 2009, Campbell ran for a seat on the city’s School Board, a race he lost. Undeterred by this defeat, Campbell remained engaged with the community on issues related to education and ran again for School Board in 2012, this time successfully. He was elected to two consecutive terms, serving for six years.

Campbell’s proudest achievement during his time on the School Board, he said, was helping improve the relationship between the School Board and the city.

“When I first came into the city, it just seemed to be a lot of acrimony between the two bodies,” Campbell said.

According to Campbell, every year there were contentious debates between the city and the School Board about items like the budget.

Campbell also said that he was proud of his involvement with renovating and opening new schools during his tenure.

“We opened up a couple of new schools, renovated new schools. We opened the new Ferdinand T. Day School, which we hadn’t had a new school … in 16 years or so,” Campbell said.

But Campbell’s experience with local politics has not been limited to education. For more than 15 years, Campbell has maintained an active interest in a wide range of issues. Campbell pointed to his time serving on the city’s early childhood commissions and his recent appointment to the city-wide Commission on Aging.

An engineer by training, Campbell said he likes to look at things practically. From Campbell’s perspective, he said it is obvious that structural inequalities and systemic racism have long been a problem in the city.

In Campbell’s view, the best way to correct such inequities is to first acknowledge the ongoing historical and social context that created and perpetuated them.

“You can’t simply say you want equality,” Campbell said. “You can’t simply just all of a sudden start treating people equally because, to me, that discounts the negativity and the impact of the first 350 years or so that you weren’t equal.”

For Campbell, words like “diversity” and “inequity” are not meant to describe some abstract ideas but rather are meant as concrete calls for specific actions.

“If you really appreciate diversity, then there are things that you have to do. For example, you have to have affordable housing if you’re going to continue to have diversity, that’s just a fact,” Campbell said.

According to Campbell, diversity is something that should permeate everything a city chooses to do.

“If you’re talking about diversity, you’ve got to have diversity of housing, you’ve got to have diversity of income. And in Alexandria, it also means diversity of race because the majority of our low-income housing [is] people of color,” Campbell said.

The challenge for any city leader, according to Campbell, is learning how to balance the need for building and preserving such diversity while also remaining pragmatic in a system that has been inequitable since the beginning.

Campbell, who at 60 is the oldest candidate running in the June 8 Democratic primary, said he is a firm believer in the need for compromise.

In Campbell’s experience, he said compromise is best achieved by listening.

“Probably the main thing that I’ve learned over the years is how to appreciate … different people who feel differently about stuff … and, of course, the best way to do that is by really wanting to listen and understand why people feel a certain way,” Campbell said.

Campbell, who has been married to his college sweetheart for close to 40 years, added that compromise was something that should not be overlooked.

“I’ve been married now for 37 years and my wife and I probably agree you know, 75% percent of the time,” Campbell said.

For this reason, Campbell said, it was important for him to also let voters know that he won’t always be in lock-step agreement with them.

“I’m going to tell you right now, I may not agree with you. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to agree with you on everything. But I like to think that I have enough experience and knowledge and know-how to explain to you why I’m taking a certain position,” Campbell said.

If elected, Campbell said he plans to examine all city-wide issues from the lens of equity. According to Campbell, there are a number of problems the city needs to examine from this angle.

When talking about the need for an equity-based approach, Campbell pointed to the disparate performance of students in ACPS.

“We exceed the state in all four of the categories – reading, math, science and writing … with our white students, but with our students of color and our ESL students and our low-income students – which are the majority here in Alexandria – we tend to fall below the state,” Campbell said.

Campbell said it is imperative for elected officials to pay close attention to this kind of data as it may reveal non-overt institutional biases – biases which can be corrected.

“I think you can apply that type of lens to everything you do,” Campbell said. Campbell also said the city still has several areas of much needed improvement, particularly when it comes to its infrastructure.

“I think part of what we do, as elected officials, we’ve got to convince people that infrastructure is one of those things where either you pay me now [or] you pay me a whole lot later,” Campbell said.

For this reason, Campbell said, he was also a firm supporter of the recent increase in the city’s stormwater fee.

Campbell, who is retired and plans to dedicate himself full-time to City Council if elected, said he hopes that voters will cast their ballots for him not necessarily because of his stance on specific issues but because of the totality of his experience as a community leader.

“It’s not just what you think you can do and what you say you can do, it takes experience to get in there and interact … because it’s going to have to end up being a collective decision that’s being made,” Campbell said.