Every three years, Alexandria’s local elections provide a spark of civic engagement.
In this mostly one-party town, the Democratic primary tends to be the main event, and, while we will profile all other candidates prior to the November general election, the focus of this endorsement editorial is the June 8 Democratic primary.
Thirteen candidates are vying for the six Democratic slots on the November ballot and two more for the chance to be the Democratic candidate for mayor in November. The Times will list the slate of six council candidates below that we endorse, with a general discussion of why this list, in its entirety, is recommended as well as the pros and cons of each of the six. The candidates will be listed in the order of their support from the Times editorial board.
This year’s mayoral race is a rematch of the 2018 Democratic primary contest between two intelligent and capable leaders with distinctly contrasting visions for Alexandria: incumbent Mayor Justin Wilson and former Mayor Allison Silberberg.
Because a silent partner in the Times ownership group made a financial contribution to Silberberg in 2018, in order to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest, the Times did not make an endorsement in that contest. We again will not make an endorsement in the contest between Wilson and Silberberg.
A number of factors played a role in our City Council endorsements. We considered: the voting records of incumbents; the responses – or lack thereof – by candidates to questions asked in our Alexandria Times voter guide; positions taken by candidates and their performance in debates; and the candidate profiles and My View columns about and by the candidates that have run in the Alexandria Times the past two months.
While all Times staff who covered any facet of the election had input into the endorsements, the final list was a consensus reached by our editorial board, which consists of Times Publisher Denise Dunbar and Times Editor Cody Mello-Klein.
The Alexandria Times endorses the following six candidates for City Council:
Before discussing the candidates individually, we would like to consider them as a group. For a governing body to be representative, it needs to reflect the range of perspectives in the community it serves; diversity of thought is needed. Diversity of thought comes from having people of different ethnicities, races, ages and genders on council – along with a range of life experiences.
It’s true that most groups of six people are going to have their own set of diverse characteristics, and this one is no different. Here are a few of the traits of these six candidates as a group that we think are particularly important:
• For the most part, all six candidates have deep roots in Alexandria, from Jackson and Chapman who grew up here and attended Alexandria City Public Schools to Rossello, who has lived here more than 30 years. While the other three haven’t been here as long, they’ve made significant contributions during their tenures in Alexandria.
• There is diversity of gender, race, ethnicity and sexuality, including two women, two Black candidates, two Latino candidates and one openly gay men.
• There’s a range of ages and experience levels, from Gaskins and Lewis, who are 31 and 33 respectively, to Rossello, who is 62.
• There’s also a range of perspectives in this group on the direction of Alexandria. While Rossello in particular has been critical of how our city government currently operates, Lewis and Jackson have voiced some of the same criticisms. Chapman and Aguirre, on the other hand, have voted in support of Alexandria’s increased urbanization in recent years, while Gaskins’ views seem to fall somewhere in between.
And now, on to the individual endorsements.
James Lewis is the candidate the Times editorial board most strongly endorses. Though only 33, Lewis is mature and experienced beyond his years. Lewis has experience on city commissions, currently serving as vice chair of the Traffic and Parking Board. He has also served as an officer in an Alexandria civic association. We view both types of service as significant: Lewis understands the value of diving into detail on many of Alexandria’s most urgent issues, and he also understands the implications of these issues from the perspectives of both impacted residents and city staff. In his professional life, previously as a senior staffer on Capitol Hill and currently as director of policy for a consultant group for pharmacists, Lewis has extensive experience dealing with the public on contentious issues. One of Lewis’ most admirable traits is his ability to discuss divisive issues, such as the narrowing of Seminary Road – which he opposed – with civility.
We view Amy Jackson as the most indispensable incumbent member of council. The only female incumbent to seek re-election, Jackson is informed and deeply engaged with the community; while courteous, she is no one’s pushover. Jackson’s record reveals that she has voted in favor of developments that provide substantial amounts of affordable housing and for significant projects like the redevelopment of Landmark Mall into a new Inova hospital center. Yet she has also been willing to cast “no” votes when she deems proposals to be harmful to residents. Jackson voted against three of the most contentious issues to come before council during the last three years: the Halal live butchery on Colvin Street; the narrowing of Seminary Road from four to two through lanes; and the decision to remove police officers, commonly called SROs, from Alexandria’s high school and middle schools.
With Del Pepper’s decision to not seek re-election, John Chapman, at age 40, is the longest-tenured member of City Council, having been elected in 2012. Chapman’s knowledge of city issues, his intelligence and his ability to bring different sectors of the city together are all invaluable. Chapman has evolved into one of the most significant and visible Black residents of Alexandria, alongside leaders like Alfred Street Baptist Church pastor Howard-John Wesley, Alexandria Black History Museum Director Audrey Davis and former Mayor Bill Euille.
Though his votes are invariably in favor of development projects, Chapman engages with local residents on contentious issues more than most members of council. Chapman voted in favor of the Halal live butchery, against narrowing Seminary Road and for removing SROs from city schools.
Alyia Gaskins has accomplished an astonishing amount in her 31 years. She holds an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University and masters’ degrees from both the University of Pittsburgh and Georgetown University in public health and urban planning, respectively. Married with a young son, Gaskins is the assistant director of programs at the Center for Community Investment, where she helps communities expand access to healthy food, affordable housing and transit. Prior to joining CCI, Gaskins was a senior associate at the National League of Cities.
As impressive as her credentials is Gaskins’ common-sense approach to issues. Gaskins seems to be someone who will genuinely seek compromise. In this era of polarization, both locally and nationally, someone who will actively work to bring people together rather than push them apart has our support.
Bill Rossello would bring a compelling array of credentials to council. The son of a Puerto Rican migrant, Rossello was raised in a poor section of Baltimore. He has deep roots in Alexandria, as well as a long record of service: he has lived here for more than 30 years; his two children attended ACPS; he served on the city’s budget committee for seven years and on the board of the Alexandria Soccer Association for five years; he has served as a board member of a civic association and as an officer on the George Mason Elementary School PTA.
Rossello, who holds an MBA degree from the College of William & Mary, has more than 30 years of business experience, including advising Fortune 500 companies and all levels of government. Rossello understands how local governments work and would have a small learning curve as a new member of council. Rossello has been a frequent critic of what he calls the current council’s lack of transparency and is a former administrator of the “Bring Integrity Back to Alexandria” Facebook page.
Incumbent Councilor Canek Aguirre has a powerful personal story as the son of immigrants from Mexico. As chair of the City of Alexandria’s 2020 Census Complete Count Committee, Aguirre successfully led efforts to achieve a 100% count of all city households, which will benefit Alexandrians for a decade. His efforts in this realm, along with his work to improve language access in city communications before and during the pandemic, his professional work as a former liaison to Spanish-speaking families within ACPS and current role as an advocate helping low-income residents obtain health coverage, form the basis of our endorsement.
Aguirre’s stance on the three contentious votes by the incumbents that we have singled out were the opposite of Jackson’s: He voted in favor of the Halal live butchery, in favor of narrowing Seminary Road and in favor of removing SROs from schools.
Aguirre served on a number of boards and commissions prior to his election to City Council in 2018, including the Virginia Board of Social Work, chair of the Economic Opportunities Commission and past president of the local Tenants and Workers United board of directors. Despite these accomplishments, in his three years on council Aguirre has at times been dismissive of residents with whom he disagrees on issues. Aguirre also declined to answer significant portions of the Alexandria Times voter guide questionnaire.
These are our picks for city council. Whether you agree or disagree with our recommendations, be sure and vote on or before June 8 in the Democratic primary, which is open to all Alexandria registered voters.