Ringing in the New Year also means ringing in Alexandria’s marathon campaign season.
To date, there are 12 Democratic candidates and at least five Republican candidates for six City Council seats; three mayoral candidates for one job and an untold number of School Board candidates just waiting to announce.
Between now and Feb. 1, Democratic and Republican candidates for City Council will speak at public forums in hopes of getting themselves nominated by their respective party caucuses.
After the parties have chosen their six candidates on Feb. 1, there will be literature, debates and candidate forums at which these Council hopefuls can take their vision of Alexandria to the public.
To help the public along, there will be endorsements by various organizations such as civic associations and political action committees. The newest of these is Alexandrians for Sensible Growth. The group came together to rally opposition to a connector between Eisenhower Avenue and Duke Street and who now plan to get involved in the electoral process.
Alexandrians for Sensible Growth is an organization of five concerned citizens who care about their community and who are committed to ensuring that Alexandria’s future will be strong. According to their literature, these five individuals have been community activists for more than 70 years collectively. They want to ensure that Alexandria is a city that truly serves all of its citizens regardless of their economic background or what neighborhood they live in.
The organizational statement highlights a number of challenges that are facing the city over the next few years, including automobile traffic, scarcity of open space, lack of affordable land for schools.
“These challenges," according to literature, "are further exacerbated by a governmental decision making process and culture that does not recognize, value, or reach out to the tremendous resources, viewpoints and talents of its citizenry; continues to solve long-term problems with out-of-date solutions; diminishes the legitimate concerns of residents for their neighborhoods and disrespects differing points of view; subordinates Alexandria’s needs for the interest of the region; lacks new thinking and energy to meet Alexandria’s challenges; and continues to approve traditional development projects that provide the revenue but does not further the vision that Alexandria needs.”
THE GROUP INCLUDES Ginny Hines Parry, Carmen Silva Gonzales, Katy Cannady, Frank Putzu and Linda Couture. The group asked Council candidates to respond to a questionnaire and based on those responses, will endorse candidates in the party caucuses and then for the general election, without regard to party affiliation. The first set of endorsements will be announced early this month.
Should candidates respond to such questionnaires and what is the role of political action committees in Alexandria’s local political landscape? Mayor Kerry J. Donley filled out at least 10 questionnaires during his last campaign.
“I do think that it is a candidate’s responsibility to respond to these questionnaires,” he said. “Even if you don’t really want to. Once you have said that you want to hold public office, you have said that you want to tell the public about your vision. To do this, you must be willing to engage in a dialogue with members of the public — that means responding to questionnaires.”
Most Council candidates agree with Donley and will complete questionnaires and return them. All of the candidates who have filed responded to ASG's lengthy survey.
Councilwoman Claire Eberwein has served one term on City Council and is running for reelection. She was one of the Council members who responded to the ASG questionnaire.
"I am concerned about whether there will be anything akin to true impartiality in their evaluation of responses,” Eberwein said. “At least two members of the five person group have already written letters to newspapers criticizing some candidates while singing the praises of others. I prefer to communicate my views to the voters directly, unfiltered by any group. My decision to respond was made only upon receiving assurances, this past Saturday, that the answers of all candidates would be posted, unedited, on their web site next to the responses of whomever they choose to endorse."
Councilman David G. Speck is not seeking another term on Council. He has been involved in politics for more than 20 years. “There is very little history of political action committees playing any significant role in local elections,” he said. “For the most part, these groups have tended to form around single issues and most people believe that City Council members should be elected based on their ability to represent the entire city on a broad range of issues,” he said.
Donley agreed with Speck. “Any public official who makes absolute statements about never doing something is likely to regret it because, after the election, circumstances may well arise that require a different response. One good example of that is the no car tax people. That three word slogan that got a number of people elected has a direct bearing on the state’s current budget crisis.”
Former Councilman Lonnie Rich was one of the leaders of a successful political action committee in Alexandria. Alexandrians for Better Community Schools (ABC) was formed to encourage individuals to run for School Board in 1994. The goal was to make the School Board truly nonpartisan and to encourage new people to get involved. ABC supported six candidates in that election and four of them won.
“There is definitely a place for political action committees in local politics,” Rich said. “People certainly have the right to both freedom of speech and the freedom to associate with whoever they please. The more people that get involved in the process, the better the dialogue.”
RICH IS ONE of those candidates, however, who learned about absolute pledges. He ran for City Council, pledging that there would be no more than six million square feet of development at Potomac Yard. He even voted against the proposal to have nine million square feet of development there, the only Council member to oppose that proposal. Finally, though, he voted for what was ultimately approved, 12 million square feet of development. He did so to defeat the other proposed use of Potomac Yard, a new stadium for the Redskins.
Nancy LaValle Perkins, the former director of the Alexandria United Way, has been involved in Alexandria politics for more than three decades. She remembers another successful political action committee. It was called VERA – Virginians for the Equal Rights Amendment. It was formed by a group of Democratic Party insiders who worked hard to defeat longtime Delegate Jim Thompson who was slated to be Speaker of the House in 1977, but who adamantly opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. VERA found a Republican candidate, Gary Meyers, who supported the ERA and helped him to defeat Thompson.
“They were effective because the ERA had a lot of local support and a lot of national support,” LaValle Perkins said. “However, that was an unusual set of circumstances. Generally speaking, I get very concerned about candidates who promise that they will never do something. I want to elect someone whose judgment is sound enough to make good decisions no matter what circumstances arise.”
FORMER CITY MANAGER Vola Lawson watched VERA, ABC and is now interested in ASG. “The impact of political action committees on local elections is debatable,” she said. “Historically, they have not really been much of a factor here.”
Speck had some advice for voters. “The best way to know what a candidate stands for is to attend some of the forums and debates,” he said. “This is a very unusual election because there are three open seats on Council and, for the first time since 1976, an incumbent is not running for mayor. Unless things have changed dramatically in the very recent past and a large number of discontented voters have moved into the city, Alexandrians have been quite able to select City Council members and a mayor without having the candidates’ views filtered by other people.”