Gaskins, Jackson try to draw distinctions at mayoral debate

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Gaskins, Jackson try to draw distinctions at mayoral debate
From left to right: Councilor Alyia Gaskins, Vice Mayor Amy Jackson and moderator Teo Armus at mayoral debate Tuesday night. (Photo/Caitlyn Meisner)
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By Caitlyn Meisner | cmeisner@alextimes.com

The Alexandria Democratic Committee hosted a mayoral debate Tuesday night at Alexandria City High School that featured just two of the three candidates for mayor – Vice Mayor Amy Jackson and Councilor Alyia Gaskins – because former developer Steven Peterson was injured and unable to attend. 

Throughout the evening, from opening statements to closing remarks, Jackson emphasized Alexandria’s schools above all else, while Gaskins repeatedly displayed her mastery of policy details. 

The debate officially started at 7:11 p.m., 11 minutes after its scheduled start time. It was moderated by The Washington Post’s Teo Armus, a reporter on the Metro desk who covers Northern Virginia. Sandy Marks, the ADC chair, gave a brief speech before the candidates spoke. 

Other dignitaries were also in attendance, including Mayor Justin Wilson and former Mayor Allison Silberberg, along with Councilors John Taylor Chapman and Canek Aguirre. 

Jackson started with her opening statement after winning a coin toss. Throughout the debate, she emphasized her status as the “hometown girl” in the race and responded to many questions through the prism of what’s best for Alexandria City Public Schools. 

“We need to keep our eye on the prize as we are fully funding other aspects of Alexandria, but also our public safety and our infrastructure and our affordability,” Jackson said. “We want to make sure that our quality of life is never left for granted. We cannot leave that on the cutting room floor.” 

Gaskins pushed back a bit on Jackson’s emphasis on hometowns in her elevator pitch for mayor. She focused primarily on her dedication to the details and meeting the diverse needs of Alexandria. 

“There’s two things in life none of us can control: where and when you’re born. The only thing we can control is what we do with the time that we’ve been given,” Gaskins said. “… I am running for mayor now because while we’ve made great progress, there’s still much to do.” 

The first question asked which priorities each candidate will ensure are paid for in the fiscal year 2026 budget package if elected. Jackson started first, stating schools and public safety are her No. 1 priorities. 

“With our schools being modernized, we’re trying to get [our kids] to the next step of life,” Jackson said. “We’ve learned a lot from COVID[-19]. A lot of kids did not have available Wi-Fi in order to be home and have technology for their classwork.” 

Gaskins stated a balanced budget was necessary to “meet the diverse needs of our community.” 

“In future budgets, I will be just as committed to (making) sure that we are funding our schools, that we are investing in affordable housing and public safety, as well as continuing the investments we need to address our ongoing flooding challenges,” Gaskins said. 

Another question was asking each candidate how they will work with the General Assembly and the next governor to ensure Alexandria doesn’t draw the “short straw.” 

“We are partners, of course, with our School Board and our educators, we are partners with any collective bargaining units to go and fly the flag and make sure our voice is heard – not just for our students, but for our families – that they need to be in on this conversation and go to Richmond,” Jackson said. 

“For me, it is not just schools. I want to make sure that Alexandria doesn’t draw the short straw on any issue,” Gaskins said, drawing herself in contrast with Jackson, which was rare in the debate. “First and foremost, it’s leveraging our legislative package, which is informed by each and every one of you to make sure that we are putting in policies and principles in place so that when we go down to Richmond, it’s very clear Alexandria’s agenda.” 

Both candidates were also questioned on their strategies for balancing the city’s revenue between commercial and residential real estate taxes while developing the economy and protecting existing neighborhoods in light of the now-dead arena proposal in Potomac Yard. 

“We need a citywide economic development strategy, one that leverages not only [the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership,] but our Planning & Zoning, our code enforcement, the whole of city government,” Gaskins said. “We have to have a better relationship with the state. There are things that we want to do in Alexandria, and we can’t do it because every time, we have to say, ‘Mother, may I?’” 

“I do feel that I was in the right by coming out [against the arena] early. I think the numbers, infrastructure and a lot of other quality of life issues were not guaranteed with that arena,” Jackson said. “Moving forward, we need an entertainment district there that will help with the 82% residential tax base and make sure we have more commercial tax base coming in because that land was always supposed to be developed.” 

The debate also hit on other relevant issues in Alexandria, including affordable housing, transportation, Zoning for Housing, small businesses, ward systems, school safety and maintaining the character of Old Town. 

“As an Alexandrian and running for mayor in her own hometown, it’s been a privilege to be with you here this evening,” Jackson said in her closing remarks. “I would hope that my campaign shows a great strength and momentum that everyone is seeing. … I’m listening to the people. We are out there knocking on doors. Please, please come with me on my journey.” 

“In terms of tonight, we’ve talked a lot about many different issues from transportation to schools, to many of the issues of today. None of us though, can predict what will be the issues of tomorrow,” Gaskins said in her closing remarks. “What I hope that I have showed you in my leadership is that I am somebody who will always show up. I’m somebody who’s going to do the hard, nitty gritty work of government that is required to move forward the policies and the system changes that you are asking us for.” 

The debate was interrupted, right before the closing remarks, by pro-Palestinian demonstrators calling for action on a cease-fire resolution. 

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