The race to succeed former Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald is in full swing, with only two weeks before Democrats will vote in a daylong caucus to select the party’s candidate. In candidate forums and campaign events, four Democrats have emerged to jockey for position to oppose likely Republican candidate Bill Cleveland in a special election for City Council. A potential fifth candidate — Lennie Harris — announced his interest in waging a campaign this week, although he has yet to file a statement of candidacy with the registrar’s office. So far, Democratic candidates have articulated differences on everything from the influence of developers in city governance to building a Metro station at Potomac Yard.
"I’m hoping that people will realize they need to look at all the candidates," said Macdonald, who has endorsed Boyd Walker, his former campaign manager. "Voters shouldn’t just fall in line with the Democratic Party machine and elect their coronated candidate."
Early in the race, one candidate took the lead by announcing a slate of supporters that included the mayor and all sitting members of City Council. Justin Wilson, an information technology systems engineer with Amtrak, issued the press release less than 24 hours after Macdonald announced his resignation on May 8. The list, now posted on Wilson’s Web site, includes a full complement of Alexandria’s Democrats— everyone from former Mayor Kerry Donley and former Councilman David Speck to Rep. Jim Moran (D-8) and Virginia Senate Minority Leader Richard Saslaw (D-35).
"Is this a done deal for Justin Wilson?" asked Shayna Englin, campaign manager for attorney Jim Lay. "The answer to that question is no."
A recent straw poll of the Alexandria Young Democrats may represent support for the various candidates. After a Sunday night forum in which candidates gave their stump speeches and responded to questions, 10 participating members of the group cast ballots for their preference in the race. Wilson received five votes; Lay received four votes; attorney Mark Feldheim received one vote; and Walker received no support from members of the Alexandria Young Democrats. Although he managed both of Macdonald’s successful campaigns — one of which garnered more votes than any other City Council member — Walker will have to battle the Democratic establishment if he intends to be successful in the June 9 caucus.
"We’re very comfortable being the underdogs in this race," said Tom Parry, Walker’s campaign manager. "Boyd has pledged that his campaign will not take any money from developers, and we believe that sets him apart from the other candidates in this race."
JUSTIN WILSON said that he sees no inherent problem with accepting money from developers, who have a constitutional right to donate under the 1975 Supreme Court case Buckly v. Valeo. As the director of Mayor Bill Euille’s campaign finances last year, Wilson oversaw contributions from developers such as Diamond Properties — the top donor to the mayor’s campaign, which is now building the controversial Monarch building in the Parker Gray neighborhood. Wilson points to his efforts working with Del. Adam Ebbin (D-49) and Sen. Patsy Ticer (D-30) in 2004 to require City Council members to report contributions of more than $500 within five business days during non-election years.
"My record of integrity should speak for itself," said Wilson after a Tuesday night forum. "Voters will be able to see where my contributions come from, and I’m comfortable with that."
Wilson declined to say how he would vote on the mayor’s proposed smoking ban, describing an inquiry on the matter as a hypothetical question. He said that if he were on the City Council, he would ask for an opinion from Virginia’s attorney general on the matter before making a decision. Although he said he was generally supportive of the mayor’s plan to use the zoning authority to force bars and restaurants to ban smoking, he said he was concerned about the cost of potential litigation. On the matter of Virginia Paving, Wilson said he had no comment on the City Council’s four-to-three vote to expand the hours of operation at the West End plant. Yet he did have something to say about the future of the property.
"We need to envision a future without Virginia Paving," said Wilson before his kickoff party Monday night. "Having an asphalt plant next to a Metro station is a huge wasted opportunity."
JIM LAY is a former prosecutor who is now in private practice representing clients such as the city’s police union. In two candidates’ forums held this week, Lay said that he would be able to offer a voice of independence similar to Macdonald’s — one that will champion "the gay man, the black man, the straight man and the postman." One of the issues he hopes to use to distinguish himself from the other candidates is his support for a new Metro station at Potomac Yard.
"It’s not enough to say that the train has already left the station, if you’ll pardon the expression," said Lay before a Tuesday night appearance. "We should work to make it happen."
Lay said that he supports the City Council’s plan to build sports fields north of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in Jones Point Park, although he said that he disagreed with the council’s recent decision to raise the tax rate. He hopes to cast himself as a "thoughtful contrarian" who will not work in a style of backroom consensus that his supporters say was revealed by Wilson’s endorsement list. During a Sunday night forum, Lay said that the city is at a crossroads, and it needs leadership that is willing to have a public discussion of the issues.
"Development is coming," Lay said during a Sunday speech to the Alexandria Young Democrats. "But we’ve got to make sure that it doesn’t impinge on our quality of life and our treasured neighborhoods."
MARK FELDHEIM is an attorney known for his three terms as president of the Old Town Civic Association and his work with the City Council’s budget-advisory committee. In campaign appearances and candidate forums, Feldheim has described himself as someone who will promote what he calls "economic sustainability" — a phrase he said indicates that he thinks the city should "live within its means" by promoting commercial development in the city.
"If we keep building condominiums and townhouses, we’re not going to be able to build our commercial base," said Feldheim before a Tuesday night forum. "Promoting our commercial base is the only way we are going to be able to reduce our reliance on residential property taxes."
Feldheim said that he disagrees with the mayor’s plan to use the zoning ordinance to force bars and restaurants to ban smoking, and that he would vote against it. During a Sunday night appearance, he noted that most city employees can’t afford to live in the city, and he admitted that he probably wouldn’t be able to afford his own house if he had to make the purchase today.
"It is time to ask the right questions, seek truthful answers and take the necessary actions to preserve and improve the quality of life that we seek to maintain," wrote Feldheim in a letter to supporters. "A balanced and reasoned approach is the course the we must set for ourselves."
BOYD WALKER is waging a campaign that presents itself as the logical heir to Macdonald’s tenure on the City Council. He has pledged to disclose all campaign contributions on his Web site — regardless of its amount. Calling the practice of accepting campaign contributions from developers "unethical," Walker hopes to make the influence of developers at City Hall the central issue of the campaign.
"We’re not going to take money from Howard Middleton or Duncan Blair," said Walker, referring to two attorneys who frequently represent developers before City Council. "These are people who have a real economic benefit at stake from decisions made by City Council."
Walker, the son of former City Councilwoman Lois Walker, said he supports the mayor’s proposed smoking ban but opposes the council’s plan to build a sports field north of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in Jones Point. He said that he would advocate revoking Virginia Paving’s special-use permit, saying that the use is incompatible with the nearby Metro station.
"I am the citizen’s candidate," said Walker during a speech at his kickoff party Saturday afternoon. "I want to find creative solutions to the problems confronting our city."