In a special election to fill the seat vacated by former Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald’s unexpected May 8 resignation, Democratic newcomer Justin Wilson bested veteran Republican Bill Cleveland — a man who spent 15 years on City Council by a paper-thin margin of 347 votes. During the Democrat’s victory party at Los Tios Grill on Tuesday night, Democratic party officials and campaign volunteers said that Wilson was able to beat Cleveland because of his impressive command of city budget issues and his detailed understanding of transportation infrastructure.
"There’s no doubt that he’s an intelligent man," said Dorathea Peters, captain of the Polk precinct. "I think that begins and ends the explanation of why Justin Wilson won."
The special election offered two contrasting visions of the city’s future: Cleveland opposed red-light cameras, Wilson supported them; Cleveland opposed a proposed smoking ban; Wilson supported it; Cleveland opposed the use of small-area plans in favor a master planning; Wilson supported small-area planning. In the end, "Dr. No," as Cleveland came to be known, won 11 precincts and a majority of the absentee ballots cast. Areas that voted Republican included all of Old Town, several mid-city districts and a handful of key West End precincts such as Cameron Station.
"In Cameron Station, the Virginia Paving plant is very unpopular and there was a lot residual disappointment with council’s decision to let the plant operate day and night, and that helped Cleveland," said Mike Lane, a spokesman for the Cleveland campaign. "Virtually all the Old Town neighborhoods feel that the City Council is not responsive to their concerns, like parking and special-use permits."
Because of the summertime scheduling of the special election, both campaigns emphasized absentee balloting as a path to victory. Of the 862 absentee ballots cast, Cleveland took 528 and Wilson took 328. Yet despite winning 11 precincts in the city, Republican votes in Old Town and the West End were not enough to put Cleveland over the top.
"We need to do better on the West End," admitted John Taylor Chapman, Wilson’s campaign manager as he received election results on his cell phone Tuesday evening. "I think that both the Democrats and the Republicans should take a look at the low participation rate in the West End and ask what we can do to bring them more into the process."
ACCORDING TO ELECTION RESULTS posted on the city registrar’s Web site within an hour of the polls being closed, voters on the West End have some of the lowest participation in the city. St. Martin dePorres Senior Center had 5-percent participation, only 4 percent of voters showed up at Adams Elementary School and Tucker Elementary School logged a 3.5-percent showing. One West End precinct, NoVa Arts Center, logged only 84 votes — a meager 2.5-percent participation rate of the precinct’s 3,425 registered voters.
"Eighty four voters!" exclaimed Dick Hobson, precinct captain of MacArthur, while examining election returns at the Democratic victory party. "The polls were open for 13 hours and they only had 84 voters?"
Areas with higher participation, on the other hand, tended to lean Democratic — a phenomenon that favored Wilson. Precincts with the most participation included George Mason Elementary School at 21 percent participation, Maury Elementary School at 20 percent and Blessed Sacrament at 20 percent. Wilson’s home precinct, Mount Vernon Recreation Center, showed the biggest margin of victory for the Democrat — with Wilson taking a 167-vote lead over the Cleveland.
"That’s about half of the winning margin of victory," noted Democratic strategist Stu Ellis Jr., who managed Councilman Tim Lovain’s winning campaign last year. "It’s safe to say that Mount Vernon Recreation Center put Wilson over the top."
THE VICTORY PARTY was held at Wilson’s favorite restaurant, Los Tios Grill on Mount Vernon Avenue — directly across the street from the Mount Vernon Recreation Center. Democratic volunteers and party officials munched on quesadillas, nachos and fried plantains as a three-piece mariachi band played in the background. Cleveland waited outside to shake hands with Wilson when he arrived at the party, a show of post-campaign unity. Wilson then walked thought a gauntlet of elected Democratic officials before arriving in the backroom of the Del Ray restaurant. Volunteers who had devoted two months of time to the candidate screamed wildly as Wilson raised his arms in victory.
"I’ve been studying the United States Constitution recently, especially that part limiting presidential candidates to people over the age of 35 years of age," said Susan Kellom, chairwoman of the Alexandria Democratic Committee. "I would venture to say that you’re on the road, Justin."
At 28, Wilson will become the youngest member of the City Council. During his victory speech, Wilson joked that Councilman Rob Krupicka will be glad to "finally be the wise old man" at City Hall. A native of Cheverly, Md., Wilson grew up in Springfield, graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and has lived in Alexandria since 2001. Although he has only lived in the city for six years, he amassed an impressive resume that included holding positions such as the chairman of the DASH bus system, a member of the city’s budget advisory committee and an appointee to Virginia’s Committee on Juvenile Justice.
"Anyone who doesn’t think that one vote matters, let them call me," exclaimed Wilson, underscoring the narrow margin of victory. "The reason we won this race is that Democrats have a great brand in this city."
After Wilson concluded his speech, Mayor Bill Euille presented the councilman-elect with a broom festooned with patriotic ribbons. Like the brooms presented to each victorious member of last year’s springtime City Council elections, Wilson’s broom represents the clean sweep Democrats made with the electorate.
"You’re part of the team now," said Euille. "And although we work as a team, each of us will have our own mind and our own thoughts about what’s best for Alexandria."