Mysterious election placards from Unite Here union baffle residents

Mysterious election placards from Unite Here union baffle residents
The placard was paid for and distributed by Unite Here, a union with no office or known unionized workplaces in Alexandria. (Photo/Denise Dunbar)

By Alexander Fernandez and Denise Dunbar | Alexandria Journalism Project

For several weeks, residents across Alexandria have been opening their front doors to find placards on the knobs endorsing a slate of seven candidates for mayor and City Council. Strangers have been sighted going door-to-door placing the placards in neighborhoods ranging from Old Town to Seminary Ridge.

Fine print at the bottom of the handsome navy blue door hanger identifies Workers Vote and as funders for the placards, which endorse the slate of current Councilor Alyia Gaskins for mayor, current Councilors Canek Aguirre, Sarah Bagley, John Taylor Chapman and Kirk McPike for reelection, and first-time Council candidates Abdel Elnoubi and Jesse O’Connell.

The process Unite Here used to select their slate is unclear, as all
seven unendorsed candidates say they were not contacted by the
union or its PAC. (Denise Dunbar)

Questions that have been asked across the city and on social media about these placards – and their unknown distributors – include, “Why is a union with no office or presence in Alexandria trying to influence our local election?” and “How did they arrive at this particular slate?”

On Monday, a resident, who requested anonymity out of concern for safety, said she saw two people distributing the placards in the “Scroggins Road area” and decided to try and answer those questions. Despite having signs for current Vice Mayor Amy Jackson – one of two opponents of Gaskins – in her yard, the resident approached one of the two people distributing the material to try and find out what was going on.

“I just happened to be working from home today and some people came to my house canvassing with that very doorknocker,” the resident said. “Normally, I wouldn’t answer the door, but I went outside and I said, ‘Can I help you?’ They said, ‘Well, we see all of your Amy Jackson signs,’ and I said, ‘Yes, I’m an Amy supporter, but I’m very curious.’”

The resident asked the workers if they were paid to distribute the door knockers, and a man who identified himself as “Anthony” said yes. Anthony then made a statement that left the resident’s jaw on the ground: that the UniteHere political action committee endorsed Gaskins for mayor, and it was then Gaskins herself who chose the Council candidates to be endorsed, not the PAC.

“Alyia chose the slate she wanted to run with. They didn’t say why the PAC let her do that. I was so shocked I didn’t ask,” the resident said. “I asked him, ‘Why didn’t they speak to all the candidates?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ So Alyia chose her slate and they ignored everyone else.”

Gaskins pushed back forcefully in an interview against the notion that she had selected the slate of endorsed candidates.

“I want to be very clear that I did not provide recommendations, guidance, consultation, any sort of information related to the other slate of candidates that were endorsed by Unite Here,” Gaskins said.

Gaskins reiterated that it was the union and not she who had selected the slate on the placard.

“Whether it is Unite Here or any of the other organizations that have given endorsements throughout this election season and/or other election seasons, they’ve given them based on pure values and on the candidates that they think represent that,” Gaskins said.

Benjy Cannon, the listed contact for media relations on the Unite Here Local 25 Now website, emphasized in an emailed response that the endorsed candidates were chosen by the union.

“Our members chose the candidates they thought would be the most supportive of economic justice and racial equity,” Cannon wrote.

Cannon stressed that Gaskins was not involved in the selection of the slate on the placard.

“Alyia Gaskins was not involved in the selection process for any of the Council candidates,” Cannon said in the email.

Mayor Justin Wilson, in a texted response, also stated that he was not involved in selecting the slate of candidates. Unite Here is one of the unions that represents workers at Wilson’s employer, Amtrak.

“Why would I recommend a slate of Council candidates to Councilwoman Gaskins?” Wilson texted. “I have endorsed my Council colleagues who are seeking reelection and I have not issued any other endorsements.”

Alexandria Times reporters asked the five candidates for City Council and the two other mayoral candidates that were not endorsed by Unite Here and Workers Vote if they had been contacted by the union or PAC during this election cycle.

Every single one of the five non-endorsed candidates for City Council and the two non-endorsed mayoral candidates were emphatic that they had not spoken with, or been contacted by, Unite Here, Workers Vote or any affiliated union or PAC.

“No they did not [contact me],” Kevin Harris, candidate for City Council, said in an email. “I was lost when I saw the door hangers as I was doing my lit drops. I immediately called my campaign manager wondering how we missed their endorsement. I thought my track record of work in our city was perfectly aligned with them.”

Harris insisted that he was not contacted by the union.

“ … we didn’t speak with them. It’s an odd situation,” Harris said.

Traffic and Parking Board Chair James Lewis, a candidate for City Council, concurred he had not been contacted by Unite Here or Workers Vote.

“I was not interviewed nor was I given a questionnaire to complete,” Lewis said, though he stressed that he has received the support of other labor unions. “I have completed the process and won the endorsements of NoVA Labor, IAFF Local 2141, IBEW Local 26 and Eastern Mid-Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters.”

Similarly, former School Board Vice Chair Jacinta Greene, Jonathan Huskey and Charlotte Scherer, all candidates for City Council, said they have not been contacted by Unite Here or Workers Vote.

“I can confirm that I have never been approached or contacted by them or any of their representatives,” Scherer said.

Additionally, the two other mayoral candidates, Vice Mayor Amy Jackson and Steven Peterson, said they have had no communication with Unite Here or any affiliated organization.

“Short answer, ‘no’ [I have not been contacted,]” Vice Mayor Amy Jackson said in an email. “Although I am a pro-labor candidate and have proven that on Council and was a member of a teachers’ union.”

Jackson called the involvement by Unite Here “highly inappropriate but not surprising.”

“This advertisement is endorsing a slate of seven from an unknown entity that is using outside money … to buy this election with a slate that was single-handedly chosen by my opponent,” Jackson said.

Martha Peterson answered for her husband Steven, who is recovering from facial injuries suffered in a recent fall.

“No they have not [reached out],” Martha Peterson said. “Seems like a rigged political process that they don’t reach out to Steven. Totally unfair in my opinion.”

Despite the fact that all seven non-endorsed candidates said they were not contacted by Unite Here, Cannon said the opposite in an email: union representatives had indeed spoken with at least some of the other candidates.

“UNITE HERE met with numerous candidates, including several that we did not endorse. Some candidates did not respond,” Cannon said.

The Times asked Cannon to elaborate on this assertion by naming which candidates the union spoke with but did not endorse.

Cannon responded but did not name the unendorsed candidates the union spoke with. He instead sent the following statement: “We stand by our process. We have hundreds of Alexandria residents who decided which candidates they most trusted to champion the issues of economic and racial equity.”

The Times asked Cannon to describe the process that the hundreds of Alexandria residents participated in to select the slate, but he did not respond by the Times’ press time.

Caitlyn Meisner and Wafir Salih of the Alexandria Times also contributed to this story.