2024 Candidate Profile: James Lewis runs for Council

2024 Candidate Profile: James Lewis runs for Council
James Lewis is a candidate for City Council, hoping to focus on transportation, affordable homeownership and public safety. (Courtesy photo)

By Caitlyn Meisner | cmeisner@alextimes.com

James Lewis is ready to take a detail-oriented approach to serving if elected to City Council in his second try. The chair of the Alexandria Transportation and Parking Board plans to prioritize public safety, mental health, affordable housing and the nitty gritty details if he gains a seat on the dais.

“There’s not really anyone focused on big details about something … it’s great to have a 35,000-foot view because we need that, but there’s no level of government between us and the project,” Lewis said. “I want to contribute to the good work that’s being done.”

A Monongahela, Penn., native, Lewis grew up in the smallest of towns just outside of Pittsburgh. He’s the oldest of three boys, but said there were always “extra” members of the family around, especially the children who lived next door.

Lewis’ parents were heavily involved in the local community – even as empty nesters – in Little League and the local church as secretary.

“Of course, we knew everybody. But it’s also a tiny town of 4,300 people, so you know everybody anyway,” Lewis joked. 

He moved to Alexandria in November 2010 after graduating from the College of William & Mary with bachelor’s degrees in international relations and biology. In 2020, he received his master’s of strategic studies at the United States Army War College.

Lewis began working as a senior policy and national security analyst at Robert Weiner Associates working on public affairs and issue strategies, but quickly transitioned to communications for The Aluminum Association.

“I’m a big believer in [having] a basket of skills and building out that basket, especially when you’re a manager-level or even a junior member of a team,” Lewis said of his dual degrees in different fields. 

Lewis then moved to work as communications director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation because he believes passionately in the opposition of an increase of nuclear weapons. He was able to parlay all of these experiences into his dream job – working on Capitol Hill.

“When the opportunity to come to work for one of your heroes comes along, you have to take it,” Lewis said, referring to his more than 2 ½ years working for U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California. He also worked for U.S. Congresswoman Robin Kelly of Illinois.

Lewis wound up in Alexandria in part because of his involvement in the Virginia Young Democrats and Young Democrats of America. He said he called up John Taylor Chapman and asked where he should live, and ended up in the Port City.

Lewis served as president of the state’s Young Democrats for just over a year in 2017, organizing volunteer opportunities during the 2017 state election cycle and expanding the organization to southwest Virginia. He previously served as the executive vice president and public affairs director.

“I was president right after [former President Donald] Trump got elected, so it was a real opportunity to catch lightning in a bottle, which I think we did,” Lewis said. “It was an amazing experience to work with really energized young people.”

For the past three years, Lewis has been the senior director of policy and advocacy at the American Society of Consultant Pharmacists. ASCP is a nonprofit organization of pharmacists and pharmacies that manage medications with a goal to promote healthy aging by empowering pharmacists with education and resources, their website reads.

Lewis said this work has been impactful for someone who grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania, a place where opioid addiction runs rampant.

“I graduated with 256 kids, and the last time a friend and I counted, we had 24 overdose deaths,” Lewis said. “This stuff is bad, and people don’t get treatment if there isn’t a conversation about treatment and about destigmatizing use. … And most of the time, there is some underlying mental health condition or trauma that is being treated.”

Working with pharmacists in both the assisted living and correctional spaces has given Lewis an informed perspective on drug use and has led him to work with Alexandria Sheriff Sean Casey on the Community Advisory Board.

Since 2010, Lewis has lived in both North and South Old Town, including serving as precinct captain of LylesCrouch district. He now lives in a home he purchased in the West End with his husband of nearly three years, Trevor Riley, and their dog.

“[Alexandria] is a city of neighborhoods,” Lewis said. “What Old Town wants and needs is very different than what we need and want [in the West End]. I think it’s really helpful in understanding that the city as a whole and different neighborhoods have very different needs and wants.”

Lewis said his experience living in different areas of the city has prepared him to be an effective member of Council, as he can relate to the specific characteristics of various neighborhoods and particular challenges people in those neighborhoods face.

“It’s a different story in different parts of the city,” Lewis said. “South Old Town is very wary of development. There’s also not a lot of land out that way. It’s a lot of single family homes, or some of those row houses. In North Old Town, there’s a lot of office-to-residential conversions. … Most of the people on the West End can’t walk to a grocery store.”

Currently, Lewis, in addition to chairing the Traffic and Parking Board, is vice president of the West End Business Association. He said a goal of his if elected to Council is to focus on details, like where the loading zone is for a particular development, and work closer with civic associations.

“It matters where the dumpster goes, where the stop sign goes, where the curb cuts go,” he said. “Those details are details and I realize that they’re boring, but they have a huge impact and huge unintended consequences that impact the broader community and our broader goals.”

Lewis also said he is focused on not just affordable housing, but affordable homeownership.

“That gets people out of the rent trap [and] gets people building generational wealth, especially disadvantaged and families of color,” Lewis said. “It gets people to put down roots. … I’m appreciative of this Council’s effort to expand, but we can twist arms hell of a lot harder than we’re twisting right now.”

Lewis said he was interested in adding more bikeshares in the West End and accessible bus stops.

“We need more benches, shelters, we need all of these things, especially because we’ve made DASH free,” he said. “If we want people to use it, it needs to then be accessible for people.” 

He expressed frustration, however, with the proposed Duke Street in Motion project, which if passed in its present form would reduce the amount of bus stops in the city with the stated goal of making the street less congested and safer, according to the city’s page on the project.

“So we’re going to spend all this money to make an accessible system that’s going to be much more reliable, but it’s going to be harder to use, because instead of walking an eighth of a mile to a bus stop you might be walking a half mile?” Lewis said. “If we’re going to spend millions of dollars on this project, why are we making it less accessible?”

And Lewis said if the arena proposal was on his desk as it stood on March 8, when he issued a statement, he would’ve voted “no.”

“There was no real traffic transportation plan. There was no long-term commitment from Richmond for the transportation funding that was needed to make something like that work,” he said. “I wish that there had been an opportunity for a better deal for us to have considered: greater representation on the stadium authority, less funding from taxpayers and more funding from the billionaire. But it was very obvious that no one was interested in anything that wasn’t what was put on the table.”

As for the commercial tax base, Lewis wants to hit the ground running and turn the numbers right side up.

“We’re upside down on the numbers [and] we’ve been upside down for a long time,” he admitted. “There’s a lot of people who’ve been on Council for more than a decade: What have they done as those numbers have continued to separate?”

Lewis said instead of working on the problem of taxes, the city spends a lot of time talking about the problem and pushing the issue of commercial development onto the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership and Visit Alexandria.

“It’s a great city; it’s a great place to live. We’re going in the right direction,” Lewis said. “But I think we just … need to have somebody who’s keeping an eye out for details.”