Del Ray Citizens Association holds mayoral candidate forum

Del Ray Citizens Association holds mayoral candidate forum
From left to right: Vice Mayor Amy Jackson, Steven Peterson and Councilor Alyia Gaskins are the Democratic candidates for mayor. (Courtesy photos)

By Denise Dunbar |

The three candidates running for mayor in the Alexandria Democratic Primary – Vice Mayor Amy Jackson, Councilor Alyia Gaskins and challenger Steven Peterson – answered questions and presented 10-minute explanations of their platforms at a Del Ray Civic Association meeting on April 10.

All three candidates spent significant time talking about three of the topics raised in the questions: education, the now-dead arena proposal for Potomac Yard and afford-able housing.

Amy Jackson

Jackson spoke first and focused on her rootedness in the Alexandria community as a life-long resident of the city who attended T.C. Williams High School. Jackson has raised her two children, who also attend Alexandria City Public Schools, in the city.

“I’m a hometown girl. I was raised here. Raised in Foxchase not a mile from my house now,” Jackson said.

Jackson emphasized her 20 years as an educator, and touched on a couple of issues that she said are critical to the youth of our city: a lack of food security for many and the need for Alexandria’s young people to have constructive places to congregate.

“We have food insecurities still at pandemic levels … but our school children don’t receive breakfast and lunch meals on holidays, weekends, spring break, winter break, things like that. So we’ve just provided again, a grant opportunity … so I’m working with School Board members and our superintendent along with others in our schools to provide that type of service for our kids,” Jackson said.

Jackson repeatedly spoke of the importance of community in her remarks, from the sense of community that Alexandria and especially Del Ray is known for, to the need for Council to help Alexandria’s youth build community.

“You know, when I grew up here, we had Landmark Mall. And all the kids felt safe and they could hang out with friends. Be independent but not independent in a way. … So we don’t have a mall anymore. We have Bradlee Shopping Center, where we’ve seen everybody gathering after school because there’s not a mall,” Jackson said. “We need an entertainment district for our youth.”

Jackson also emphasized that she was the only member of City Council to publicly oppose the arena project and the only Councilor to oppose the ordinance that allowed for accessory dwelling units. She added that preserving Alexandria’s, and Del Ray’s, history needs to be a priority as part of promoting tourism.

“You’ve also got to know I’m the history teacher. I’m happy about the tourism part. Especially when the hooks are usually Old Town Alexandria and Historic Del Ray – the Potomac Historic District. So those bring in the people and then the rest of our unique neighborhoods absolutely shine when people come to visit,” Jackson said.

Steven Peterson

Peterson spoke second in the random drawing of names. The former developer, hospice volunteer and 30-year resident of Alexandria began by describing himself as a passionate person.

“[I’m] not a typical politician and [am] unfiltered. … One of my goals is to bring compassion and humility to my role as mayor,” Peterson said.

Peterson offered both praise and criticism of current Mayor Justin Wilson during his remarks. Peterson said there’s a need to bring transparency back to the mayor’s office in Alexandria, but then immediately lauded the mayor.

“Mayor Wilson has navigated the city through some trying times,” Peterson said.

Peterson said ACPS is currently not adequately preparing our city’s students for life after graduation.

“We need to investigate how other municipalities around the country are being successful and mindshare with them,” Peterson said.

Peterson said there was not enough resident input into the arena proposal, but that Potomac Yard is such a prime parcel of real estate that it will “find a home eventually.”

“I think it needs to be a town center. It needs to be an entertainment center,” Peterson said, echoing some of Jackson’s earlier remarks.

Peterson said the Dec. 13, 2023, arena announcement took most city residents by surprise, then again both praised and criticized Wilson.

“While City Council has made mistakes, the Council has taken the lead of Mayor Wilson in not creating its own agenda, while listening to the citizens is the most important trait I think. There has been a lack of transparency, which has led to a lack of trust,” Peterson said.

Peterson emphasized problems with crime in Alexandria, saying that the most important facet of being happy is to feel safe. He said increasing the police budget would be a top priority for him as mayor.

“But with the crime rate up 30%, car thefts up 58% in 2023, we can’t state that our city is a safe haven,” Peterson said.

Peterson said that Del Ray sidewalks and Old Town flooding are ongoing problems that need to be dealt with in the capital improvement program budget.

“So pick a timeframe, say the next three to five years, where these issues will be dealt with incrementally,” Peter-son said.

Alyia Gaskins

Gaskins, who said she was raised by a single mother, praised the community aspect of the Del Ray neighborhood.

“This is my home,” Gaskins said.

Gaskins recited a list of accomplishments from her two-plus years on Council, including expanding the summer youth employment program, accelerating investments in infrastructure and flooding and creating the new Office of Climate Action.

“I have led the charge to increase our dedicated funding for affordable housing,” Gaskins said.

She also touted her background in public health, urban planning and munici-pal finance.

“I know that our challenges can become opportunities with the right leadership,” Gas-kins said.

Gaskins emphasized her responsiveness to resident input in her decision-making process as a Councilor.

“I’m most proud of my reputation on Council as someone who is responsive and who acts on what she hears,” Gaskins said.

Gaskins pledged to go into the community and get resident input as mayor, then create action plans that will be posted on the city website so residents can see what the city is working on.

“And you can hold us accountable for delivering,” she said.

Gaskins said that even though the arena proposal – on which she did not take a stand before it was abandoned by Monumental Sports & Entertainment CEO Ted Leonsis – did not proceed, she views the economic development of Potomac Yard as critical to the future of Alexandria.

“The way it was rolled out was a huge mistake,” Gaskins said. “[Residents] lost trust not only in the process but in their elected officials. And when we lose your trust, we have failed.”