By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
James Lewis wants to get his community more engaged in local government, and his first run at City Council aims to do just that.
A member of the city’s Traffic and Parking Board and former member of the North Old Town Independent Citizens’ Association board, Lewis said he knew he had to run for office after experiencing the frustration of attempting to engage with a city that seemed to ignore the input of its residents.
“We’ve got some of the best and brightest people in the world in this city. The people who are experts for the federal government [and] national nonprofits live in Alexandria,” Lewis said. “We need to lean into that because we do have a lot of challenges, and that’s the way I think we get creative about solving them.”
Lewis said that growing up in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, a small, ex-steel town in the southwest part of the state, he learned how people and their government can work together to address problems.
Lewis moved to Virginia to attend the College of William and Mary, where he received a bachelor’s degree in biology and international relations. He moved to Alexandria in 2010 to work for a small public relations firm and said he saw a lot of the same civic spirit that existed in his hometown.
“When I moved to the city, I wanted to be involved because I felt like this area had that sort of same smalltown character of people caring for each other and that government’s the way to get involved,” Lewis said.
Lewis, who currently works in Old Town as the director of policy and advocacy at the American Society of Consultant Pharmacists, quickly got involved in the Alexandria Sister Cities Committee and the Virginia Young Democrats. His work with the former eventually led to his appointment on the Traffic and Parking Board.
His experience on the TPB has given him a sense of how everything from the smallest signage change – the addition of a stop sign – to the most controversial infrastructure project – the Seminary Road “road diet,” which he opposed – can affect residents’ lives.
“What I really liked about that and what I think the benefit of that committee has really set me up for in this run is we really do go block by block, whether it’s a no turn sign, a stop sign, curb cuts. These are very specific issues, but they really impact peoples’ [lives] day to day,” Lewis said.
After moving to Old Town from the West End, where he now lives with his fiancé Trevor Riley, Lewis served on the board of the North Old Town Independent Citizens’ Association, alongside his fiancé. Lewis said his time with NOTICe was a crash course in Alexandria civic engagement – with an emphasis on the “crash.”
The optimistic view of residents’ role in city government that Lewis had going in was dashed, as the city government routinely ignored or did not seek his civic association’s input, according to Lewis.
“It’s frustrating to see people who want to be involved … run up against a brick wall when they try to get involved in this city,” Lewis said.
Lewis said engagement is at the core of this campaign. Many of the problems Lewis is concerned with in the city – flooding, affordable housing, development, collective bargaining – are exacerbated by what he views as the city’s lackluster citizen engagement, which can at times seem “antagonistic,” he said.
“Across the city, no matter where you go, people have a problem, and the same issue is that they’re not being engaged,” Lewis said. “Really what’s prompted me to run is I’m actually willing to listen to people and actually willing to demand city staff tell me how they did their [community] outreach before this even, and I’m going to ask them questions about it.”
Lewis said the city’s flood mitigation efforts and stormwater infrastructure are at the top of his priority list going into the campaign. While acknowledging that “resources are tight,” Lewis emphasized the need for creative thinking and solutions that will aid the city and its residents not only in the short-term but the longterm.
“One of the things I’ve looked at and talked a little bit about, down in Norfolk, for 40 grand they put in a sensor system that allows them to more adaptively manage where water flows. So, if one pipe’s at 80% and one’s at 50%, you can shift some of that water,” Lewis said.
Lewis said a key longterm solution to the city’s flooding problem is “aggressive” pursuit of transforming some of the city’s impermeable surfaces to permeable surfaces. Lewis said the city also needs to examine its broader environmental strategies and plans.
“The state’s going to give us more authority, hopefully, to protect trees and to expand renewable energy,” Lewis said. “I think we need to take that authority from the state and run with it because the trees will help us with the flood mitigation and more renewable energy is just better.”
The city’s current approach to bringing in new developers is another source of concern for Lewis, who said that Alexandria could stand to be more selective in the projects it approves.
“There’s not a lot of land in Arlington and Fairfax left, but we’re the prettiest girl at the dance and we say, ‘Yes’ to everyone who asks us to dance,” Lewis said. “I think we can hold out a little bit more.”
In evaluating potential development projects, the city routinely provides developers with a list of priorities and contributions that can be made to achieve those priorities, including public art and affordable housing. Lewis said City Council needs to “do a better job at prioritizing that list” and being direct with developers about what it needs.
“I think for so long we’ve let developers drive the process as opposed to saying, ‘This is what we want,’ actively going out and finding types of developers who do the kinds of projects we want in the city,” Lewis said.
Affordable housing remains a priority, and while Lewis recognized the need for affordable rental units, he emphasized that many of the affordable rental units the city has created will eventually turn market rate.
“That doesn’t solve the problem long-term. You know what does? Allowing people to buy houses, creating pathways for people to buy a home and build generational wealth, and then that also means that teacher, that server, they’re actually building equity,” Lewis said.
Lewis also noted that the city even struggles to maintain its own staff and public safety officers due to salaries that lag behind those of nearby jurisdictions. To address this, Lewis said the scope of the collective bargaining ordinance that City Council is considering on Saturday needs to be expanded.
“If we’re going to have a collective bargaining agreement, we actually need to have a collective bargaining agreement, not a wage negotiation agreement that we call collective bargaining,” Lewis said.
Specifically, Lewis said the city needs to increase salaries for public safety employees and first responders at the risk of continuing to hemorrhage talent to Arlington and Fairfax County. Lewis previously handled first responder issues on Capitol Hill as a staff member for Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Illinois).
“We consistently in this city are losing not just public safety officers but also staff to Arlington and Fairfax because they can pay more money,” Lewis said. “We’re basically the training ground. People are coming out of school, they’re spending two years with us and then they’re leaving, so we’re losing our investment in people.”
Lewis criticized the way the city government has handled its relationship with residents over the past few years. However, Lewis said the optimistic core of his belief in the power of civic engagement remains intact from his years growing up along the Monongahela River.
Going into the June 8 Democratic primary, Lewis said he aims to listen and learn just as much as he makes campaign promises.
“No one has a monopoly on good ideas, and I think the way we do it is by leveraging the super smart people who live here and putting all the pieces together,” Lewis said. “That requires listening to people. It requires admitting that you might not be the smartest person in the room.”