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Sizing Up '03 City Elections

Many Agree There is a Lack of Interest and No Real Issues

City Council and School Board elections are just three weeks away. With time running out for voters to make up their minds, residents tried to take stock on where they stood with this year's campaign season and candidates.

"I think people have been preoccupied with the war and the terrorist threat level and just haven’t been as involved as they have been in the past,” said Jack Sullivan, a long time civic activist in Alexandria. “Also, nobody’s really angry about anything. That tends to bring people out. For example, last election, people were mad about the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and about the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office. Some folks thought everyone was going to be mad about the connector this time but that’s pretty much off the table and that election issue has been taken away.”

There are issues, though.

“Yes, there’s traffic and taxes,” said A. Melvin Miller, another long-time civic activist. “But what’s new about that? Also, none of this year’s candidates have proposed doing anything about either of those issues. Most Alexandrians really haven’t been interested in Council or School Board elections, unless they are specifically involved with a candidate or an issue. That’s not really going to change until we change the way we conduct elections in the city.”

Joe Bennett, the president of the Cameron Station Civic Association, is also concerned about citizen participation. “There really don’t seem to be any citywide issues,” he said. “The candidates all say they are neighborhood candidates and most of them really aren’t taking a look at how all of these neighborhood issues are going to effect the entire city,” he said.

Rod Kuckro, the host of Alexandria Forum on Comcast Channel 69, sees voter participation continuing to decline. “I don’t really know why people aren’t interested in the campaign this year,” he said. “I think that Claire Eberwein is the only really viable Republican candidate and that Del Pepper and Joyce Woodson are certainly well known. After that, the rest of the Democrats come out of the Party with the exception of Andrew Macdonald. He may squeak by because of name recognition from running the last time. Our voter turnout has declined every election for the past six elections and I just don’t see that changing.”

HOW DO ALEXANDRIANS campaign? “There are signs in yards and there are mailings,” said V. Rodger Digilio, one of three members of the School Board who has decided not to seek reelection. “People rely on the activists in their neighborhood to give them some guidance about voting and a sign in a yard does that.”

Those yard signs and the public debates are the way in which voters get to know candidates.

“I hope that people aren’t using the forums to make decisions about who to vote for,” said Miller. “How can you make a decision based on a 30-second or one minute response to a question?”

The signs are out but the advertising isn’t in full gear. “I would have expected to see much more advertising in the Gazette and on television and these letters with 200 names of prominent Alexandrians endorsing so and so, but I haven’t really seen much of that,” Kuckro said.

BUT SHOULDN'T there be more interest with three open seats on Council and the election of a new mayor looming?

“You would think so,” Bennett said. “But maybe, after the incumbents, people just don’t know who these other candidates are. As for the mayoral race, Bill Euille is probably the front runner but Bill Cleveland has been doing what he needs to do and is campaigning with a lot of intensity and passion. Both have a lot of long-term support throughout the city.”

There is an independent in the race for major as well, Townsend A. “Van” Van Fleet.

“Based on all of the letters that we have seen in the Gazette since the last election from Mr. Van Fleet, one might expect him to be incendiary,” Sullivan said. “One on one, that just isn’t the case. He speaks very reasonably and can present his views in a very thoughtful manner, whether you agree with them or not.”

Most agree that the three Council incumbents are going to win reelection but none of the six who were intereviewed for this article was willing to go beyond that. As to the mayoral race, most said it was too close to call at this point.

Whatever the results, Digilio had a word of caution for the voters.

“I don’t really believe that there has been a diminution of interest in the campaign since the last election or the one before that,” he said. “This is just the way Alexandria politics works. However, people need to understand that these seven people are going to be running the city for the next three years and the voters need to get to know who they are. After the election, it’s going to be too late to be concerned about who they should have voted for,” said Digilio.