By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
Del Pepper first ran for City Council in 1985, when the role of women was widely viewed differently than it is today.
At the time, she received a moderate amount of pushback and head scratches from neighbors who she said didn’t understand why she would want to serve when she could stay home and housekeep.
“[I’d say] that because there are so many things that I feel passionate about, I needed a forum, and the best forum possible was to serve on City Council,” Pepper said. “So that’s why I ran, and why I continued to run. It’s the best place to have influence if you really feel strongly about something.”
Despite the naysayers, Pepper won a seat on the dais, and would go on to serve for the next 36 years. Her career spans 12 terms in total, three of which were as vice mayor – meaning she got the most votes among candidates for City Council. She served alongside six different mayors and five different city managers over her storied career in local politics.
As such, Pepper is the longest-serving city councilor in Alexandria’s history.
And for Pepper, a native Nebraskan, her political ties run even deeper than her time in Alexandria. Her father served as a city councilor and state senator in Omaha, Nebraska.
“I’ve been campaigning, I swear, all my life, because I used to stand outside the polling places and say, ‘Will you vote for my daddy?’” Pepper said with a laugh.
In November 2020, however, Pepper announced that she would not seek reelection. It’s a decision that, although tinged with sadness, she said was a long time coming.
“I just felt it was time, that’s all. I had done it all this time and I loved every minute of it and I was grateful for every minute of it,” Pepper said. “Being elected is a gift, but it’s a gift you must return, and now is my time that I’m returning it.”
Reflecting on her time on council, Pepper said a flood of memories come to mind when she thinks back to the most impactful projects she’s worked on over the years.
One of these feats is Potomac Yard, which used to be a switching station for trains and will now be the site of a new Metro station and Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus. Pepper recalled the effort involved in its transformation and, at one point, the fear that it might become a football field.
“Turning that around, getting it sold, getting a big master plan for it, and just in general to develop that precious land … seeing that blossom was really something,” Pepper said.
While the city is working on constructing a Metro station at Potomac Yard, the fight to get there was not a straight line. According to Pepper, Metro initially felt there weren’t enough people or traffic in the area to warrant a station. As a result, council was unable to move forward with the plans for a while, but Pepper dug her heels in, especially during her campaign.
“I remember saying, ‘You build it, and they will come.’ That was my answer,” Pepper recalled.
After numerous delays, the Potomac Yard Metro station is set to open in fall 2022.
Pepper also pointed to other accomplishments of which she’s most proud, such as the new Inova Alexandria Hospital campus coming to Landmark Mall; the permanent shutdown of the Mirant Potomac River Power Plant, which involved a community monitoring group she co-chaired; development of Ben Brenman Park, which her West End home overlooks, and construction of the Vola Lawson Animal Shelter.
The longtime city councilor views Alexandria from an unusual vantage point, having seen it grow and evolve over so many years. She summed up this experience in one word.
“Extraordinary, it’s just extraordinary,” Pepper said. “ … There are a bunch of things we’ve [worked on] that were very important, and I wanted to be a part of them.”
Many residents would agree with that statement, as one of Pepper’s trademarks through the years was her passion for getting out among her constituents. She was a mainstay at countless community events and ribbon cuttings through the years. Councilor Amy Jackson said she’s learned a lot from Pepper, not just as a female role model in city leadership, but as someone who demonstrates the importance of community engagement.
Jackson has long been a supporter of Pepper. She recalled canvassing for Pepper in Fox Chase at age 13, specifically pointing to one photo on her website of Jackson holding the “Pepper Paper,” a newsletter Pepper wrote that covered the goings on in the city and her goals at the time.
“I’ve always, always taken my cues from her concerning, ‘You get out in the community and you be engaged,’” Jackson said. “She is that woman. She is that councilor and always will be. I look and go, ‘Okay, is she a living legend yet?’”
Pepper never considered not showing up.
“It’s terribly important. That’s how you see your city changing. Each one of those ribbon cuttings was another change in our city,” Pepper said. “They may think they’re talking about just their little restaurant or just their little park, but it’s another part of the city that’s changing, and I want to understand that.”
Among those who have served on City Council, both current and former members emphasized Pepper’s dedication and commitment to citizens as well as her knack for bringing balance to the dais. Former Mayor Bill Euille, who served with Pepper for 23 years, recalled many fond, playful moments with her.
“What I will always remember about her is how often she would compliment me on my perfectly pressed dress shirts and coordinated pocket handkerchiefs,” Euille said. “And how I would often chide her that her hot tea wasn’t always tea, but rather a nice bourbon, knowing full well that she didn’t partake in alcohol.”
Former Councilor David Speck praised Pepper’s patience on the dais, which he acknowledged sometimes clashed with his approach, but ultimately made for a better council. Speck said that hindsight and reflection have given him an even deeper appreciation for Pepper’s contribution to local politics.
“I was more of a legislator by temperament and Del was more of a populist. I would get impatient if I thought we knew what was the right decision; Del was much more willing to talk to more people and listen to more opinions,” Speck said. “Sometimes that dragged things on a bit, but 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.”
When asked what she has learned about the city in general, Pepper had a ready answer: She expressed deep pride in the city’s widespread recognition and tourism appeal.
Moreover, she said the residents who make up the city are not only generous and willing to volunteer, but also extremely involved.
Pepper’s “humanist” approach to politics was on full display as she talked about visiting churches several years ago to get a better understanding of what was on people’s minds.
“I found that people were just really good-hearted, hard-working people,” Pepper said. “Alexandria residents have an opinion on everything, right down to every curb cut and every pothole. I love saying that because that’s how I feel.”
“I am proud to be an Alexandrian, I really am,” Pepper added, a statement that holds weight coming from a fourth-generation Nebraskan, who is married to a fifth-generation Nebraskan, Dr. F.J. Pepper; the two moved to Alexandria in 1968. “I’m here because it’s such an exciting city.”
That’s why it may not come as a surprise that after she retires from the dais, Pepper plans to stick around in the city she has served for more than three decades.
This decision is due in part to the fact that she wants to keep a close eye on the future of the West End, an area for which she has long acted as a self-proclaimed “cheerleader.” Pepper predicted that Eisenhower East and especially Eisenhower West will transform into an entirely different area within the next 10 to 20 years.
“I could just go on and on about the West End [because] I feel that this is what is developing. This is a really big effort we’re making,” Pepper said.
On a more personal note, before her mother passed away Pepper promised that she would put together a family tree. The two had traveled across Nebraska and Iowa together, visiting graves and gathering historical family artifacts and information. Pepper plans to consolidate all the material they found together in one place and share it with the rest of the family.
“I’ve got books and books of pictures and conversations and I just want to get them all together so we don’t lose that information, and that’s really what I intend to do,” Pepper said.
One thing remains certain, though: Citizens can expect to see Pepper at many future events.
“You can be sure I will be attending all kinds of things,” Pepper said. “I always want to be involved in something, so I’ll probably find some kind of group that I’d like to serve with where I can be a helper, let’s just say.”