2024 Mayor Profile: Steven Peterson

2024 Mayor Profile: Steven Peterson

By Caitlyn Meisner | cmeisner@alextimes.com

Steven Peterson’s late entry into the mayor’s race has shaken up the Democratic primary as the former real estate developer hopes to help Alexandria reach its potential.

“When I saw that Mayor [Justin] Wilson wasn’t running again, I started to ask myself: Has this city reached its potential? Have the citizens reached their potential?” Peterson said, recalling his December 2023 contemplation.

A resident of the city for more than 30 years, Peterson has seen this city change firsthand. But, he doesn’t believe all the change has im-proved Alexandria.

“Is this city better off than it was three years ago?” Peterson also questioned when he pondered a run for mayor. “Some people will say ‘yes,’ and lots of people will say, ‘We have been deemed a success.’ And I don’t disagree with that … but at the same time, I don’t think we’ve reached our potential.”

He’s a Fairfax County man born and raised, thanks in large part to his father, Milton Peterson, who founded a well-known real estate company. Peterson Companies is responsible for major developments in the DMV area, including National Harbor in Prince George’s County, Md.

“[My father] was really good at asking 20 people’s opinions and he listened to them, then he formed his own opinion,” Peterson said. “But he didn’t just say, ‘Here’s what I think and I’m the smartest guy in the room.’ I want to hear what everybody’s issues are, and then I’m going to create my own [opinion].”

Steven Peterson grew up about a mile from George Mason University with his parents, Milt and Carolyn, and his three older siblings, Lauren, Ron and Rick. Ron has been the chief operating officer of Peterson Companies since 2018. Rick is chairman of the investment board at the company.

Peterson attended Middlebury College, a small liberal arts institution in Middlebury, Vt. – his parents’ alma mater – where he received a bachelor’s degree in geography and urban development. He also played both football and lacrosse at the collegiate level.

“It was a good fit for me,” Peterson said. “I got the best of both worlds because … I love to ski and I love to be in the outdoors.”

He returned to Northern Virginia upon graduation in 1988 and started working for his father’s company soon after. Peterson rose through the ranks in the real estate world, eventually becoming president of Peterson Companies, but has not been affiliated with the company since 2014. Peterson primarily developed residential lots and investigated other development opportunities, according to a 2016 article on his family.

Peterson lives with his wife of 12 years, Martha, with their four dogs in Old Town. They have a blended family of seven children and just welcomed their first grandchild.

Questions have been raised about Peterson’s statement of economic interests form, which all candidates for office in Virginia must fill out, on which he stated that no one in his household has income or assets worth more than $5,000 – despite the fact that the Petersons own a large home on Duke Street with an annual tax bill of at least $30,000, based on the City of Alexandria’s assessed value of the property.

Martha Peterson clarified this seeming discrepancy to the Times, stating that her husband receives income through a family trust. She said his attorneys advised that he did not need to report this income and the couple does not own any additional property.

Peterson is running as a Democrat, but his father was a prominent Republican in Fairfax County; he said he has come to his own conclusions on politics.

“My family and some friends are not donating to my campaign because I’m a Democrat,” he said. “But that’s OK. I get to do what’s right for Martha and me and the city. I’m going to run as a Democrat because I’m a Democrat.”

Since embedding himself in Alexandria more than 30 years ago, Peterson has served on several boards, including St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes board of governors for 16 years, where he was vice chair for 10 years, and the Middlebury College board for 15 years.

Currently, Peterson has been serving on the Washington Airports Task Force board for 14 years and the Inova Alexandria Foundation’s board for seven years.

And he hopes to use this experience to his advantage in the role as mayor, rather than as a City Councilor. He said he had no interest in City Council.

“I don’t want to discount what the City Council people do, but I think my role is better suited as a mayor in helping setting direction with the City Council,” Peterson said. “… I’m not a career politician. This is not a stepping stone for me to get to the next level.”

Some residents have questioned whether Peterson is running to help Councilor Alyia Gaskins win the primary race against Vice Mayor Amy Jackson.

“That’s laughable and absurd,” Peterson said of the claims. “What incentives are there for me? I’m not going to waste time responding further to this question. It had no grounds and makes no sense.”

He added that this run for mayor was for specific reasons.

“I think there’s issues over the next three to six years that I can address based upon my past,” Peterson said. “Land use is a huge issue that I’m really comfortable with and I don’t necessarily think the other Council people are right.”

Peterson has been campaigning as someone who will only approve “smart development” and look at the big picture for the city.

“I was a developer, but I know what good development is and bad development is,” he said. “I know what smart development is … and over the next three years, I’m going to be going after that type of developer [that is not reasonable].”

He used the 301 N. Fairfax St. development – a redevelopment project approved in January to change a 1970s office building to a 48-unit residential, multi-family building – as an example of bad development.

“If you’re going to convert at increased density, it has to be mixed-use,” Peterson said. “The Planning Commission let it go through as all residential, the town council at the mayor’s direction let it go through at 100% residential and double the floor area ratio. That’s just not smart growth.”

He also said he wants to lower the crime rate and proposed potentially increasing the manpower of the Alexandria Police Department if that was the right solution.

“The present 300-person police force is presently carrying too much of the burden through overtime and limited increases in police staffing to the existing police force,” his campaign website reads on the topic. “An increase in the existing budget is the near-term answer, but addressing the police affordable housing issue also needs to be a focus.”

As for affordable housing, Peterson said he wants to “move the needle” on the stock in the city, and eliminating single-family home zoning in the city is not the way to do that.

“You can’t sit there and say, ‘Oh, we’re going to get rid of single-family houses.’ OK, there’s a way to address affordable housing, but just mandating [that] … it’s just not fair and that’s just not the way you do it,” he said.

Peterson also said he believes the mayor should be focusing on the “big picture” rather than the minutiae of a city.

“The mayor’s job is to stay at 50,000 feet,” he said. “And the big pictures are, should we be building a new school? … Sidewalks, those need to be dealt with. But that’s not what a mayor and a City Council [do]. They need to approve a budget that says, ‘We’re going going to put a million dollars in for sidewalks to deal with the issue.’”

He said the mayor needs to identify problems, create solutions and utilize the right people in the city – either the fire or police chief or chair of the School Board – to help achieve those solutions.

“Find the right people and get the heck out of their way and let them do their job,” Peterson said. “And don’t micromanage because if you [do], you don’t trust them.”

And, as mayor, he wants to improve transparency and lead the city from the bottom up, unlike Wilson, he said.

“All I’m saying is that he has an agenda and I think that he runs this city from the top down,” Peterson said. “He puts his mandate on the City Council and for the most part, they just fall in line. … I’m going to get citizen input and I might not listen to everything they say, but at least I’m going to listen to what their concerns are.”

Peterson said he wants to create more transparency, which is an avenue to build trust with the rest of the city.

“I don’t care if that’s with your wife, with your kids or with your dog,” he said. “It’s transparency [then] they trust you. I don’t think that there’s a trust factor between the citizens and the City Council [or] mayor because they haven’t asked for [citizen] input because they run it from the top down.”

In addition to transparency, Peterson wants to focus on lowering the residential tax burden and base the city’s budget on commercial taxes. In City Manager Jim Parajon’s fiscal year 2025 budget proposal, residential taxes made up nearly 37% of the city’s revenue source while commercial property taxes made up nearly 22%.

“You can’t just be putting that on the citizens, and you got to change the needle on bringing the tax base back through the commercial,” Peterson said.

His main message is: your voice matters. Peterson wants the voices of every citizen to be heard.

“I want to hear what the citizens have to say. Our city, your voice,” he said.