2024 Candidate Profile: Jesse O’Connell runs for City Council

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2024 Candidate Profile: Jesse O’Connell runs for City Council
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By Caitlyn Meisner | cmeisner@alextimes.com

Jesse O’Connell has hit the ground running in his first campaign for City Council, ready and raring to go on policy matters before Alexandria.

“I was raised to be somebody that when you see work that needs to be done, don’t assume that someone else is going to step forward and do it,” O’Connell said. “You raise your hand and do it yourself. And in this cycle, I saw an ongoing need for that kind of attitude on Council.”

O’Connell grew up in Westminster, Maryland, with two sisters and his parents. They lived in the small rural town for his mother’s job as a college administrator for McDaniel College – previously known as Western Maryland College until 2002 – a small, private college in the same town. His dad stayed at home to take care of Jesse and his sisters.

Growing up in a college town himself, it was easy for O’Connell to transition to college life at Georgetown University in the early 2000s. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in sociology – and being a five-time All-American in track and field and setting university records – O’Connell remained in higher education.

He initially thought he’d spend the rest of his life as a professional track and field athlete, so he signed a contract with Adidas and competed in the 2004 Olympic trials; but constant injuries forced him to change career paths.

His first gig out of undergrad was in Georgetown’s financial aid office as a financial aid counselor, which is also when he began studying for his master’s in public policy. O’Connell worked his way up to become associate director by the time he left in 2013.

“Working as an aid officer gave me the chance to interact with families and … see the strain of the increasingly challenging environment around college affordability,” O’Connell said of those years.

He then went to work as a policy analyst for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, then for the Lumina Foundation and most recently for the Center for American Progress as senior vice president of education. Since June 2023, he’s been the chief advancement officer of the American Council on Education, an organization that works to advocate for public policy to help higher education institutions better serve students.

“I’ve spent my whole career in higher ed policy … grappling with how do we make college more affordable and ensure more Americans get a credential after high school that, in a way, leads to a fulfilling life,” O’Connell said.

His dedication to affordability and access to education, in addition to his upbringing, led him to seek positions on Alexandria’s many boards and commissions since moving to the city about 12 years ago.

O’Connell lives with his wife, Emily, and their two elementary-aged children, Kennedy and Chase, in the Del Ray area. Currently, he is serving on the board at DASH, the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria and Hopkins House Learning Center.

Jesse, his wife, Emily and their children, Chase and Kennedy, at the campaign kickoff event in February. (Courtesy photo)

He has also served as member and chair of the city’s Budget and Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission, Braddock Implementation Advisory Group and member of the Parks & Recreation Commission. He was also the founding vice president of the Braddock Metro Citizens Coalition.

“I want to solve problems,” he said, “and I like to [work with] people to come up with solutions.”

He also said his experience working with city staff on important issues through these committees has prepared him to be on City Council.

O’Connell noted that with his career in policy, he understands the importance of not just creating and agreeing on policies, but implementing them seamlessly.

“I’m very aware of the fact that when you make policies, there’s a lot of data, but the long tail of implementation is where you actually make some impact on people’s lives,” O’Connell said. “And I think this current Council has tackled a lot of these issues and moved the ball on things that matter, but now we need to make sure that implementation … avoid[s] unintended consequences.”

O’Connell’s main priorities heading into the Council election are increased development, the budget and housing affordability. And, O’Connell said, he wants to focus on the DASH bus system and make the city more dependent on public transportation.

“People want to live in Alexandria: people that are here want to stay … and people look at the great services we have. They want to move here from other places,” he said. “I don’t think we should ever be in the business of discouraging people from wanting to live in an awesome place like Alexandria.”

Now that the Potomac Yard arena proposal – at least in terms of negotiations on the city’s behalf – is over, O’Connell said the process, ultimately, was disappointing.

“[The city] didn’t really have a chance to look at the final proposal and really decide if it was right for us,” he said. “Coming out of this conversation, we should look for big opportunities … and get a deal that’ll actually be right for Alexandria.”

But, he believes there are nuggets of opportunity left all around the city.

“I think we need to look at areas where there’s already some development underway,” O’Connell said, citing the Carlyle and Eisenhower Valley as neighborhoods with lots of potential, “and thinking about how effective [those areas are] … and what can we do to really try and sell and communicate the potential.”

O’Connell proposed the city potentially purchase land the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority owned by and redevelop it to benefit the city. WMATA announced Friday it is seeking proposals for redevelopment of a “prime property” in the Eisenhower Avenue neighborhood as it continues to struggle financially.

And as an advocate for higher education, O’Connell said he hopes Council can create more opportunities or pathways for Alexandria City Public Schools students to connect to local colleges and universities.

“How can Alexandria be a place that grows and keeps talent? Are we creating opportunities for youth mentorships and engagement, and are we putting people on workforce pathways that lead to better jobs?” O’Connell asked. “We [need to] have strong partnerships between our public schools and great higher education institutions that are in our region.”

O’Connell noted that local government is instrumental in fostering these essential relationships so people see a future for themselves and further generations in Alexandria.

He said achieving these long term goals goes hand-in-hand with expanding the commercial tax base and relieving residents of funding the majority of the city’s revenue base.

According to City Manager Jim Parajon’s proposed fiscal year 2025 budget, residential taxes fund nearly 37% of the city’s revenues. And just last month, City Council approved a 4-cent tax increase ceiling ahead of budget talks; this would increase the property tax rate by 3.6% if approved.

“One of the ways [Alexandria can grow] the commercial tax base is by being an incredibly compelling place for employers to move here,” O’Connell said. “I think we have done a pretty good job; that’s why we landed the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus.”

The city has done an effective job at telling the story of this city and welcoming employers and other businesses here, O’Connell said, but he wants to see more of it.

He applauded Northern Virginia Community College as a “world-class” two-year institution, stating ACPS’ relationship is great and NVCC should continue to be utilized by local K-12 schools.

Even with these big picture ideas and goals, O’Connell said “the little things” still matter to him, as City Council is ultimately responsible for listening to the people and fixing issues on a daily basis.

Jesse O’Connell with supporters at the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in early March. (Courtesy photo)

“I think local government should be really good at different topics: collecting trash and … having sidewalks that you can walk on. At the end of the day, people notice that stuff, day in and day out,” O’Connell said. “It becomes this background reminder that government can be a force of good in people’s lives and can deliver for people.”

Ultimately, O’Connell said he’s running for Council because there’s a long way to go in Alexandria, and he wants to be a part of it.

“There’s months to go in this [race], but already, I’ve just been tremendously uplifted by the conversations I’ve had with residents,” O’Connell said.

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