City Hall Watch with Bill Rossello: Becoming a one-faction town

City Hall Watch with Bill Rossello: Becoming a one-faction town
Bill Rossello. (Courtesy photo)

By Bill Rossello

A recent Alexandria Times analysis by Mark Eaton told the story of how major changes to Alexandria’s electoral process since 2009 have tilted the field more in favor of Democratic candidates. Clearly, those moves engendered a view among local Republicans that the system has abandoned them. As City Council has passed more extreme development, transportation and economic policies in recent years, an increasing number of Democrats are feeling the same way.

Recent examples of policies opposed by a broad swath of local Democrats include the pro-developer Zoning for Housing legislation, the Monumental Sports & Entertainment arena deal, major road redesign and road diet projects, natural stream “restoration” initiatives and the redefinition of green space to include building rooftops.

So, have we gone from nominally a two-party town to a solidly one-party town to now a one-faction town? It certainly seems that way.

In a city of just under 100,000 registered voters, the very small group of people currently holding the most influence within the Alexandria Democratic Committee is that faction. It is they who decide who the ADC machinery will support. And it is they who mobilize much of the organization to staff phone banks, write postcards and canvass the neighborhoods in local elections. Clearly, they do all of that exceedingly well.

The ADC vanguard, led by the current mayor, produced the winning candidates in the last election, nearly all adopting the same narrow-minded urbanist ideology. Worse, they often seem to heed input from external forces more than that of their own residents. One need only note the powerful organizations that have been supporting them. It is also well-known that Mayor Justin Wilson has been supported by national and regional groups of realtors with monetary or in-kind donations as high as $20,000.

In the current Democratic primary campaign, one of the world’s largest investment firms is now in the mix. Blackstone has been gobbling up single-family properties in major metropolitan areas across the country. One of their board members, a city resident, donated a total of $40,000 to the mayor and all but one of the incumbent council members over the past year. After donating $5,000 last spring to Councilor Alyia Gaskins, the Blackstone board member donated an additional $10,000 to her the week after she helped lead the charge to eliminate single-family home zones and announced her bid for mayor.

Interestingly, the 2021 election may have been early evidence of disaffection among many Democrats. Wilson, the incumbent mayor, underperformed in the November general election against a previously unknown Republican. In that election, statewide candidates Terry McAuliffe, Hala Ayala and Mark Herring each garnered more than 75% of Alexandria votes while Wilson received somewhat less at 68% – in his own town. And in the earlier Democratic primary, former Mayor Allison Silberberg received 43% of the vote.

Disaffection among mainstream Democrats with the highjacking of the ADC, their choice of local candidates and the policies of the current Council are what make the primary election on June 18 even more important than in past years. Voters are looking for far less ideology and much more pragmatism on the local issues most important to them.

June 18 is an opportunity for local Democrats to make the statement: “We want our local party back.” They and like-minded others want our city back. If no one stands up to the ADC’s current vanguard, we may become known more broadly as the “One Faction Town.”

The writer is a civic advocate, management consultant and longtime Alexandria resident.