2024 Candidate Profile: Canek Aguirre seeks third Council term

2024 Candidate Profile: Canek Aguirre seeks third Council term

By James Matheson | jmatheson@alextimes.com

Canek Aguirre, the first Latino City Council member in the city’s history, is seeking his third term. He plans to build upon the issues of housing, public education and health, while shifting his focus to transportation and community engagement.

The 13-year Alexandria resident plans to accomplish these tasks with a critical eye for equity.

“Trying to build a solid foundation in utilizing an equity lens has been very important to me. That’s not something that happens from one day to another, even from one term to another. It really takes a long sustained approach,” Aguirre said. “I’m hoping that even once I’m off the Council, this is something that stays embedded within the city and the culture.”

The use of this lens has manifested through commitment to minority communities in Alexandria and the resources they depend on. Be it his influence in accommodating Spanish speakers on the DASH public bus system or expanding the bus routes to better service all city residents, Aguirre said his assistance toward minority groups expedites functionality in the daily lives of all Alexandrians.

“People forget that when we’re putting policies in place and supports for the most vulnerable, we’re actually putting in supports for everyone because you never know when you might fall into a similar situation and you’ll need that support,” he said.

Aguirre said he gravitated toward transportation issues when he was first elected to Council in 2018. Following COVID-19, he said he was all-in on the idea of creating a fare-free DASH system.

“Growing up [in Los Angeles, California,] I always had a pocketful of change so that I could ride the bus. Ironically, the local bus system was also known as DASH, just that it was purple and white instead of the blue and yellow [in Alexandria],” Aguirre said.

While obtaining his bachelor’s degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Aguirre utilized the free public transit there, traveling to and from school, his two restaurant jobs, shifts at a grocery store and at the UNC Medical School. He graduated in 2007 with a degree in Latin American studies.

The son of Mexican immigrants, Aguirre models his work ethic and politics on historical figures like Edward Roybal, Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez.

“What [Roybal] had to do to get onto that L.A. City Council was to build a coalition of Black people, Latinos [and] Jews to finally exert political power,” Aguirre said.

Like Roybal, a Mexican-American politician from California, Aguirre helped to create a political action committee, Juntos Por Virginia, for Latino candidates across Virginia. He has also served on several boards and commissions, some city and some private, including the Tenants and Workers United board, the Economic Opportunities Commission, the Health Systems Agency of Northern Virginia and the Health Service Commision.

Aguirre says his personal struggles – losing his home, facing housing insecurity in college and finding a place to live when he arrived in Alexandria – fueled his commitment to help others who are struggling to find housing. He knows from firsthand experience that many issues facing low-income residents are difficult.

“Social determinants of health, food insecurity, housing insecurity, language barriers, poverty, take your pick,” Aguirre said. “I was dealing with it and I think it was [not an] easy transition for me.”

When Aguirre moved to Alexandria in 2011, his first job was at George Washington Middle School. Aguirre moved to the Port City because his girlfriend at the time – now wife of five years – had a job on Capitol Hill. He also wanted to explore what the DMV had to offer.

He said he quickly, without even realizing it, began his emergence into the Alexandria political scene during this time.

After a year at GW Middle School, Aguirre was promoted to help establish the Family and Community Engagement Center, which engages with families and their students to promote academic success.

“I went from working at one school in one neighborhood to the entire school system across all of Alexandria,” Aguirre said. “Working with churches and nonprofits, city agencies and different groups, it really gave me insight into all the different groups within the city.”

Toward the end of 2017, he decided to run for Council. The desire to connect people to resources and make these resources more efficient motivated Aguirre to run, he said.

“It was always very frustrating to me: Why is this policy in place when it’s hurting people or why would you do a policy that in effect does nothing? We need to create policies that are going to actually improve people’s lives and not keep it neutral or hurt them,” Aguirre said.

Aguirre now works in the private sector doing health consulting full time. He just concluded a project addressing the overrepresentation of minorities in health issues but an underrepresentation in drug trials. Both Aguirre’s work for the city and his daytime job are centered around advocacy-based efforts, he said, and are a culmination of his life experiences.

As Aguirre seeks reelection for a second time – after a three-year stint which he admitted was more difficult than his first – he has the potential to be the second most tenured member of Alexandria City Council; John Taylor Chapman is seeking his fifth term on Council, while current Vice Mayor Amy Jackson, who has also served two terms on Council, is running for mayor.

This is a reality that scares Aguirre, he admitted. He says consistency and experience are important on Council.

“We’ve had to deal with some very controversial and divisive issues while I’ve been on Council these last five years,” Aguirre said. “That’s not to say that other Councils haven’t had those same issues, it’s just that I feel we’ve had a lot of things we’ve been challenged with and we’ve had to tackle.”

It is this hands-on, challenging experience that motivated Aguirre to run for Council in 2018 and to twice seek re-election, he said.

One challenge motivating Aguirre is the effort to raise revenue in the city. He said three main issues have existed in Alexandria since his arrival in the early 2010s: a lack of affordable housing, problems with infrastructure and “how the heck do we pay for everything.”

He says the third question only has two possible answers: expand the commercial base or raise taxes. Given the limited amount of land available in Alexandria, expanding the commercial base is a difficult task, Aguirre said.

During the March 12 City Council legislative meeting, Aguirre proposed the largest increase in the tax rate of any Councilor: a hike of 6 to 7 cents, which would have raised the current tax rate by 5.4%, on top of the increase of 3.5% in the average tax burden that Manager Jim Parajon had already proposed.

Aguirre said he believes Alexandria’s Metro stations are underutilized and supports additional building near the stations to generate revenue.

“We had an opportunity in Potomac Yard. It’s still prime real estate. It’s inside of the Beltway. It’s right next to a Metro station. We’re going to have to try to maximize that as much as possible,” Aguirre said. “Unless something changes down in Richmond where they give us an opportunity to do something around income tax, we’re stuck with two options.”

He said after Richmond’s rejection of Monumental Sports & Entertainment’s arena proposal, it is too early to tell what other development opportunities exist for Potomac Yard. Aguirre did not confirm whether any project would be in the same scale as the proposed Monumental Sports & Entertainment District, but said his team will nonetheless pursue opportunities.

“You can sit around and complain about something or you can do something about it,” Aguirre said. “There are different levels to doing that: maybe donating to someone or sending an email, maybe you’re at a march or maybe you’re part of strategic planning. Ultimately, if you’re one of the people casting that vote, that’s what makes the most difference.”