As one of the founders of Nextel, Mark Warner likes to tell people that he is perhaps the only public official who doesn’t mind if a few cell phones ring while he is speaking. This was put to the test last week at the Mark Hilton, as the former governor gave the keynote address at Mayor Bill Euille’s third annual Unity Breakfast. The ringtones were incessant: One sounded like the standard Verizon default; another was a thumping disco tune. Yet he seemed not to notice as he delivered a campaign-style speech about health care, changing demographics and the unique nature of Alexandria.
“It’s big enough to be cosmopolitan, but it’s still the kind of place where you can walk down the street and recognize your friends and neighbors,” Warner said. “And it’s the kind of place where people recognize that we’re all in this together.”
Warner has been an Alexandria neighbor since 1986, and his local identification prompted much speculation about how his potential campaign for president might resonate in his hometown. He dashed those hopes in October with an announcement that he will not run for president in 2008. Since then, he said, his cell phone hasn’t been as active — although he admits to having “a campaign or two in my future.”
“After three weeks of schlepping around my teenage daughters, suddenly Iowa and New Hampshire are looking pretty good,” said Warner. “But it was the hardest decision of my life.”
THE DECISION not to throw his metaphorical hat in the presidential ring was cast in terms of Warner’s commitment to his sense of family. The national campaign trail is notoriously haphazard, and Warner didn’t think the timing was right. So he publicly pulled out of the race with an appearance in Richmond, realigning the field for a moderate Democratic candidate during the upcoming primary season.
The theme of family was a resonate one for Warner during the Unity Breakfast, which took place the day before Thanksgiving. His speech laid out a series of demographic challenges that will confront Americans as the Baby Boomers enter retirement and an ever-increasing aging population. And the former governor knew how to use a colorful example to make his point effective.
“You think you enjoy Jim Moran now?” Warner asked, poking fun at the congressman who was just elected to his ninth term. “Just think about Jim Moran as a cranky old man.”
He personalized the issue by speaking about his own experience with aging parents telling the assembled crowd in the basement ballroom at the Mark Hilton that his mother suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, and that she hadn’t spoken for five years. He described his father as “stubborn as a mule,” dedicated to tending to his wife instead of allowing her to be cared for in an institution.
“My dad wants to do it his own way,” said Warner. “He considers it his job.”
WARNER EMPLOYED a handful of demographic statistics to drive home the issue, calling the growing number of people over the age of 65 as a “radical transformation” of society. He described the demographic as the fastest growing population of people on the Internet, and he plugged a nonprofit organization he helped create to build an online clearinghouse for seniors and their extended families. He said that group’s site — seniornavigator.com — provides free information about the health and aging resources available to Virginians.
“We need to think differently about health care in this country,” said Warner. “This is critical to our future no matter what age we are.”
According to the United States Bureau of Census, the first decade of the 21st century will see the over-65 population grow 14 percent. Then, according to government predictions, the demographic will double in size between 2010 and 2030 as the Baby Boomers become senior citizens. Warner said that the solution was a universal system of health-care delivery, although he said that he opposes the kind of “single-payer” financing mechanism used by programs such as Medicare. He said that even though he was a successful capitalist, he understands the moral necessity to address growing rates of childhood obesity in Southside Virginia.
“We won’t be able to solve this problem if we are all divided,” said Warner. “The whole country needs a Unity Breakfast like this.”
AFTER THE GOVERNOR’S SPEECH, Mayor Euille took to the stage. He thanked the students of Ramsay Elementary School, who furnished the event with handmade Thanksgiving-inspired centerpieces of construction paper and crayon. He acknowledged all the people who helped put the event together, and he implored everyone present to remember the needy during the holidays.
“Remember that 25 million Americans won’t have anything to eat tomorrow,” said Euille, a native Alexandrian who grew up in public housing units in the northeast section of Old Town. “I think the best time to hold an event like this is at Thanksgiving.”
Euille said that the point of the Unity Breakfast was to bring together a wide swath of the City’s diverse population, an extension of the “One Alexandria” campaign theme he launched in 2003 and used again during his unopposed reelection in 2006. Melvin Miller, chairman of the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority, said that he thought Euille had transformed the concept into reality during his tenure as mayor.
“The first time I heard ‘One Alexandria,’ I thought it was a pretty catchy slogan,” said Miller. “Now I know that it’s a product of his growing up in Alexandria.”