As Del Pepper, the longest-serving City Council member in Alexandria’s history, prepares to descend from the dais in city hall one last time later this month, there is much to commemorate.
Her sheer endurance, both electoral and personal, is astonishing.
It’s no small feat to win 12 City Council elections, which meant prevailing both in Democratic primaries and in general elections. And while Democratic sweeps have become almost automatic since 2012, when Alexandria’s local elections were moved from spring to fall, Pepper’s political career began in an era when Republicans regularly won seats on City Council. Included in those 12 victories were three terms as vice mayor, when she got the most votes of any council candidate.
Perhaps even more impressive is the amount of time Pepper will have spent on the dais, listening to city staff presentations, resident comments and remarks from her fellow councilors, all of which, to be honest, are often less than scintillating or uplifting.
By our calculation, at 36 years times 10 months a year of meetings at three meetings per month and an average of four hours per meeting, Pepper will have spent at least 4,320 hours on the dais (or the Zoom equivalent thereof during the pandemic). This, of course, is a small percentage of the actual hours Pepper spent preparing for meetings and attending gatherings of other committees and commissions on which she served.
Pepper is legendary for two traits: doing her due diligence on issues before council and showing up at community events.
She famously claims to have visited every site that has come before council for development or redevelopment consideration during her tenure. The image of Pepper, even into her 80s, roaring around town in a large car examining building sites may cause us to smile, but it’s also an indication of how seriously she has taken her service.
During the last 36 years, Pepper has also attended thousands of nonprofit events, business ribbon-cuttings and city celebrations, often doing the circuit of multiple events in one day. While we’re not sure if Pepper has uttered the phrase “Get up, dress up and show up,” she nonetheless embodies the sentiment.
Simply being present and listening is Pepper’s secret sauce. It’s what has endeared her to so many Alexandrians for so long. Being present for others is a trait that is easily overlooked, and yet, in our increasingly fractured world, it’s more important now than ever.
We haven’t always agreed with Pepper’s votes on important issues before council. Sometimes we sympathized with residents who were frustrated when Pepper would voice support for their position, then cast her vote with the majority anyway. We think she would have been even more effective had she voted more independently. But this is a time for celebrating, not quibbling.
There are several tributes to Pepper in today’s page one Alexandria Times story, “The legacy of Del Pepper.” David Speck, who served on City Council alongside Pepper, was spot-on when he said “… in the end when we finally would take a vote, it was her humanism that made the decisions better. For that I will always be grateful.”
Alexandria was ahead of its time when it elected Del Pepper to City Council in 1985. Pepper joined three other female pillars of Alexandria’s political life who assumed public office in that decade: future Mayor and State Senator Patsy Ticer was elected to City Council in 1982, the same year Marian Van Landingham was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, while Vola Lawson became Alexandria City Manager in 1985.
Pepper, the youngest of the four long-tenured women, served longer than any of them. For her many years of tireless service, for being present and for simply being Del, we say, “Thank you.”