The mayor was struggling with the right word. Was it irony? No, he decided. It wasn’t ironic. He paused a beat before settling on the word “fitting.”
“It’s fitting that that mayor and vice mayor are both natives of Alexandria,” said Mayor Bill Euille during last week’s installation ceremony.
The unanimous vote for Andrew Macdonald to be the city’s next vice mayor capped weeks of rumor about the role of tradition and the politics of polarization. Macdonald’s willingness to buck the system and his reputation for individuality prompted speculation that he might not end up with enough votes to become vice mayor — a title that is traditionally awarded to the member of council who received the most votes during city elections. The the will of the voters was fittingly expressed as the city clerk slid the “vice mayor” panel under Macdonald’s name tag.
“We must preserve our historic buildings,” said newly elected Vice Mayor Macdonald during the ceremony. “And we don’t’ need more townhouses along the waterfront.”
On issue after issue, Macdonald has been the odd man out — casting a protest vote against last year’s budget, supporting raises for council members and opposing the demolition of two 92-year-old buildings in the 1500 block of King Street. When the mayor didn’t congratulate Macdonald for becoming vice mayor during the Democrats’ election night party, rumors began.
The rumors were fueled by long simmering divisions that sometimes spilled out into the open — like the October letter to the editor that appeared late last year in the Alexandria Gazette Packet criticizing Macdonald for his opposition to demolition of the 92-year-old buildings. The letter was signed by Mayor Euille, Councilman Rob Krupicka, Councilman Paul Smedberg, Planning Commission Chairman Eric Wagner, Planning Commission Vice Chairman John Komoroske and Planning Commissioner Donna Fossum.
“We invite Mr. Macdonald and others interested in historic preservation to help us expand the Old and Historic District in Old town to add new buildings to the 100-year-old building list and to explore other changes to the city’s legal tools to help us preserve important historic buildings and counteract any efforts to tear them down,” the group wrote. “These and other proactive solutions will have a larger impact on historic preservation and community character than quixotic battles against property owners that were exercising their legal rights.”
The public reproach was a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes tension that exists between Macdonald and other members of the City Council. Now that he is the city’s second-ranking elected official, Macdonald will face the challenge of finding a way to overcome the lingering divisions if he wants to accomplish his goals.
“We can and should rehabilitate older buildings,” Macdonald said after being voted vice mayor by his colleagues. “They are what give us a sense of place.”
THE INSTALLATION CEREMONY, which was held at Episcopal High School, combined ceremonial formality with campaign-style speeches. Each member took the microphone to announce priorities and set out an agenda for the next three years.
Mayor Euille thanked his campaign staff, who worked hard even though he was unopposed. He said that his top priorities for the coming term would be to increase affordable housing options, reduce the city’s reliance on property taxes and advocate for improved physical fitness.
“We get things done not by criticizing each other but by working together,” Euille said. “I believe that service to humanity is the highest calling.”
Vice Mayor Macdonald said he would like to see preservation of the city’s “railroad history” as well as expanded revitalization efforts in the Parker-Gray neighborhood. He advocated for the creation of a maritime history museum, and said that he would like to see the asphalt plant near Cameron Station shut down. He said that he was honored to become the city’s next vice mayor — although he admitted that filling Del Pepper’s shoes would not be easy.
“I’m not sure that I can go to every event as faithfully as the vice mayor,” Macdonald said.
“I take attendance,” Pepper shot back, prompting laughter in the audience.
Councilwoman Pepper talked about her father, who was a member of the Omaha City Council and the Nebraska Senate. She said that his inspiration guided her interest in public service — a spirit that drives her yearslong effort to close the Mirant power plant, create a new Metro stop at Potomac Yard and advocate for the interests of the city’s west end.
“I see traffic congestion as the number one problem,” Pepper said. “And it’s getting worse.”
Councilman Rob Krupicka quoted George Washington and Harry Truman, deploying their words in an effort to lay out an agenda for his second term on the council. Krupicka said that Alexandria is faced with a number of challenges: rapid growth, tax pressures and “a trend away from affordability.”
“We can face our challenges,” Krupicka said. “Alexandria truly is a laboratory of democracy.”
Councilman Paul Smedberg said that his second term will focus on issues like the Community Pathways Initiative, finding new sources of revenue, exercising fiscal restraint with the city’s budget and formulating a plan for strategic economic development.
“I will continue to push for audits and efficiency reviews,” Smedberg said. “We need a strategy for small business development.”
Councilman Ludwig Gaines quoted George Bernard Shaw on the merits of public service. He encouraged his fellow members of council to use their office to influence young people, mentoring the next generation of leaders in the city. He said that he was “enthusiastically optimistic” about the next three years.
“When the pomp and circumstance of today is over with, the awesome responsibility of governing sets in,” Gaines said. “I will continue to look out for those who are voiceless.”
Newcomer Tim Lovain took the opportunity to introduce himself, speaking about his Swedish heritage and his Coast Guard service. He explained that his dayjob as a transportation lobbyist would bring a unique understanding to the City Council. He also said that his experience on the city’s budget advisory committee would give him an appreciation for the bottom line.
“We can do better,” Lovain said. “Every program in the city needs to tighten its belt. If we do this right, we’ll be able to restrain spending and improve services.”
Outgoing Councilwoman Joyce Woodson — who served two terms at City Hall — offered advice to the next City Council: “Don’t be afraid to ruffle a few feathers,” she said.
“There are groups that threaten to make trouble if you don’t agree,” Woodson said. “But we aren’t here to seek reelection. We’re here to serve.”