For the last two weeks, five Democratic candidates have been knocking on doors, calling potential voters and trying to win a place on the ballot in the July 17 special election to fill the seat created by the unexpected resignation of former Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald last month. The five hopefuls met for a final forum on Tuesday night, with each candidate vying to distinguish himself from the other four. During one of the "lightning rounds," differences between the candidates became starkly clear when they were asked what their first act in office would be.
Mark Feldheim said he would implement the recommendations of the mayor’s Economic Sustainability Work Group. Lennie Harris said he would gather civic associations to find out what their concerns were. Jim Lay offered to act as a facilitator between warring School Board members if they would promise to take the money they would have otherwise spent on a facilitator and direct it toward pay and benefits for teachers. Boyd Walker said he would set a budget target and stick to it. And Justin Wilson said he would look for budget savings by questioning the need for projects on the city’s capital-improvement list.
Now it’s time for the voters to decide which of these perspectives they want as the newest voice at City Hall.
The most pointed exchange of Tuesday evening’s event revealed a stark contrast between candidates on the role that developers play in financing campaigns. Walker, who ran former Macdonald’s 2005 campaign, has repeatedly pledged that he would not take money from developers during the campaign and challenged the other candidates to follow suit. Describing the practice as "unethical," Walker asked how candidates could hope to retain a sense of independence after pocketing donations from those with business interests before City Council.
"Money does not equal votes," said Lay, adding that he would not recuse himself from votes concerning contributors. "There has to be a clear and concrete wall between fundraising and decision making."
"City Council members are not influence by a few dollars here and a few dollars there," interjected Feldheim. "So I don’t think it’s an issue at all."
"This is an important message to me," said Wilson, adding that he worked with the Alexandria delegation in Richmond to close a campaign finance disclosure loophole. "I think voters should judge me by my record on this issue."
BUDGET ISSUES took the spotlight for most of the debate, with candidates trying to claim their own ground on money matters. Because property tax bills have doubled over the past six years, the issue of city spending has been a hot topic at City Hall for the past several years. During one exchange, each candidate was asked what budget item they would cut from the budget if they had to. The answers were a window into the priorities of each individual.
Feldheim said he would remove the $700,000 contingency fund for "National Harbor related issues," a line item he said was vague and unfocused. Harris declined to suggest an item he would cut. Lay said he would remove the $7.5 million capital-improvement project for the Charles Houston Recreation Center, suggesting that the money could be better used to increase pay and benefits for teachers. Walker said he would seek to eliminate the $4.7 million the city plans to spend on the All-City Sports Facility. Wilson said he would advocate doing away with the Alexandria Housing Development Corporation, a city-created nonprofit that he said has been unable to preserve any affordable housing since its creation several years ago.
With former Vice Mayor Bill Cleveland on the Republican ticket, the issue of fiscal restraint is certain to be a major topic of conversation during the general election campaign after this weekend’s caucus. During his 15 years on City Council, Cleveland cast many votes against the budget and was often critical of spending items. Voters who attended Tuesday’s forum received a glimpse of how each of the candidates would attempt to face down Cleveland.
Feldheim said his strategy to beat Cleveland was to present a better vision than the Republican, whom he said would offer an independent vote with little or no action to back it up. Harris said he thought Cleveland was a "non-entity," and beating him wouldn’t require much of an effort for him. Lay said that his position as a "thoughtful contrarian" was more likely to beat Cleveland than Wilson’s candidacy. Walker said that he would revive many of the techniques he employed in Macdonald’s 2006 campaign, which received more votes than any other candidate for City Council. Wilson said he would cast the distinction between the two as generational, with Cleveland representing the past and his campaign representing the future.
THE UNUSUAL SUMMER election season will challenge all the candidates to get their voters to the polls, and each campaign has its own strategy to forge a path to victory. Wilson’s campaign manager said that his campaign strategy is based on demographics. Groups that the Wilson campaign is targeting include young female voters, those who have lived in Alexandria more than six years and voters who have children.
"Our strategy is to focus on likely caucus voters," said Todd Ruopp, Wilson’s campaign manager. "So we’ve created an algorithm to find out who those people are."
Walker’s supporters say that much of his strategy is based on geography, employing certain neighborhoods that are upset about recent decisions of the City Council. He hopes to get support in Yates Garden, where many residents are angry about a plan to build sports fields north of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. He has been seeking support in Parker Gray, where several residents are upset about development in their neighborhood. Ultimately, Walker supporters hope to pick up hundreds of votes from Cameron Station residents who oppose the recent decision to extend the hours of a West End asphalt plant — one that Walker said he will work to shut down.
"In the last caucus, only 19 Cameron Station voters cast a ballot," said Art Impastato, a member of the Cameron Station Civic Association who is supporting Walker. "I’ve been using that number to embarrass residents and get them to the polls."
Lay’s strategy is largely based on the successful campaign of Del. David Englin (D-45), who beat out a crowded field of Democratic opponents in 2005 — ironically including Lay himself. The 2005 Englin campaign took grassroots politics to a new level in the city by staging a massive ground-level operation in which an army of supporters knocked on doors and took to the telephones. Shayna Englin, wife of the delegate, is managing Lay’s campaign and employing many of the same strategies to elect her one-time rival for the House of Delegates to a seat on City Council.
"We have been working the phones and identifying voters who are undecided, leaning or yeses. Over time, the yeses have grown," said Englin. "I think we have enough yeses to win."