Voters who participate in next week’s special election will face a stark choice when they enter the polling booth on Tuesday. Former Vice Mayor Bill Cleveland is the Republican on the ballot, trumpeting his 15 years of experience on the City Council, his independence from the all-Democratic incumbent members and his history of opposing budgets he describes as wasteful. Democrat Justin Wilson has cast himself as a thoughtful and hard-working newcomer to city politics, calling for improved public transportation and high-density development near Metro stations.
In appearances around the city and a series of campaign forums, several key distinctions have emerged between the two candidates. Cleveland opposes red-light cameras; Wilson supports them. Cleveland prefers citywide master plans; Wilson supports increased use of small-area planning. Cleveland opposes moving city elections from May to November; Wilson supports a proposal to consolidate the races in an effort to increase participation. Cleveland opposes the city’s proposal to use its zoning authority to force bars and restaurants to eliminate smoking; Wilson supports the plan, although he said he would like to review an opinion from the commonwealth’s attorney general before voting for it.
Even their stump speeches had a diametrically opposed appeal during a Monday night debate at George Mason Elementary School.
"I am beholden to no one," said Cleveland, pointing out that his opponent has been endorsed by all City Council incumbents. "I’ve heard it said that we need to come to a consensus on things before we do things, but I don’t think that’s in the best interest of our city."
"This is not a City Council that is in lockstep," said Wilson, responding to an allegation that the City Council was a "rubber stamp." "There is vigorous debate on a number of issues."
MONDAY’S FORUM gave both candidates an opportunity to shore up their campaigns, creating a final impression for voters before Election Day. The event was hosted by the North Ridge Civic Association, and board member Bill Clayton acted as moderator. One of the most revealing moments of the debate came when Clayton gave each candidate an opportunity to ask his opponent a question. Wilson’s question concerned the use of "tax-increment financing" to spur development in the Landmark Mall area. The proposal — known as a TIF — would use potential future gains in tax revenue to finance current improvements.
"Yes, I would support the use of a TIF," responded Cleveland. "We need to do everything in our power to revitalize that area."
When Clayton gave Cleveland an opportunity to ask Wilson a question, he declined.
"I have no questions for Mr. Wilson," said Cleveland. "I think he’s a nice young man."
Asked how the city could cut spending, Wilson suggested that the schools could do a better job coordinating services with the city government. Cleveland described a recent decision to set $700,000 aside in a fund balance to prepare for National Harbor as a mistake. After the debate, Cleveland’s comments about Maryland’s National Harbor development prompted a response from several members of the audience.
"Why short change our response to National Harbor?" asked Ellen Pickering, a former member of City Council and a longtime advocate for open space on the waterfront. "This is coming, and we have got to be prepared."
One of the biggest issues of contention between the two candidates was how the best planning could be accomplished in the city. Cleveland supported a "master plan" approach that he said would coordinate different neighborhoods to build a cohesive community. Wilson supports a "small-area plan" approach that he said gives neighbors a greater opportunity to influence the outcome.
"With small area planning process, we have seen too much of an influence from strong civic associations," said Maria Wildes, a Parkfairfax condominium owner.
"Look how wonderful the crosswalks are on the Del Ray side of Mount Vernon Avenue, then notice how the Arlandria side ones are not as nice. That’s small-area planning for you."