As the 499 paper ballots were hand counted for a third time in the cafeteria of Minnie Howard Ninth Grade Center, one pile of ballots seemed much larger than the other two. Republicans quietly milled about the room until the counting was done, cracking the inevitable jokes about "hanging chads" and "discerning the will of the voters" as committee leaders double-checked their math. When the final tally was scrawled in black Sharpie, it became clear to the Alexandria City Republican Committee leaders that one candidate had taken a decisive lead in the two-hour canvass — former Vice Mayor Bill Cleveland. When asked for a comment on his victory, Cleveland used his familiar catchphrase.
"Fantastic!" Cleveland said as Republicans cheered his victory in the parking lot.
The former vice mayor’s return to politics represents a challenge for Democrats, who currently hold all the elective offices in city government. Cleveland is a candidate with a proven track record of receiving electoral support, twice receiving the title of vice mayor as the result of garnering more votes than any other member of City Council. Democrats have already launched a campaign against the former vice mayor, attacking his record on City Council and as well as his losing races for mayor in 2003 and sheriff in 2005.
"This is someone who’s lost every head-to-head race he’s ever run," said former Councilman David Speck at Democratic hopeful Justin Wilson’s kickoff party last week. "And he cast more anti-budget votes than any other member of council."
A NATIVE OF PITTSBURGH, Cleveland graduated from Schenley High School in 1968. Soon afterward, he was drafted into the Army and deployed to Vietnam. From December 1968 to December 1969, Cleveland was stationed near the Mekong Delta. He’s now a member of the American Legion, and his memories of Vietnam are still a vivid recollection.
"Everyday was like the Fourth of July," said Cleveland. "Bombs were going off all the time."
By the time he returned to the United States the steel mills in Pittsburgh had shut their doors, so Cleveland came to Alexandria to live with relatives. He took positions working security for George Washington University and Northern Virginia Community College before landing a job with the Capitol Police in 1974. In the late 1970s, he worked with neighbors and police officers to create a neighborhood watch program for Warwick Village.
"We cut crime 98.8 percent in one year," he said. "It was a concept, and we worked to make it happen."
Cleveland launched his political career in 1988 with a race for City Council. In 1991 and 2000, he received more votes than any other council candidate — a distinction that earned him the spot of vice mayor. Yet he struggled to translate his popularity on council into winning campaigns for mayor and sheriff. In 2003, Democrat Bill Euille received 10,427 votes for mayor while Cleveland garnered 8,234. In 2005, Democrat Dana Lawhorne took 19,445 ballots for sheriff while Cleveland took only 13,945. Yet Republicans say they hope to use the quick calendar of the special election in their favor.
"One key part of our strategy was to get an early start," said Chris Marston, chairman of the Alexandria Republican City Committee. "We have 10 days to talk about our candidate before the Democrats have their nominee. In a quick election like this, 10 days is an important head start."
ON MANY ISSUES, Cleveland said that he is not yet ready to form an opinion. On the controversial matter of Jones Point Park, for example, he said he wanted to hear from residents before making a decision. Yet on other topics, Cleveland returned to the kind of positions that were familiar to him during his years on City Council. Casting himself as a "fiscal conservative," Cleveland said that he disagreed with the City Council’s recent decision to raise the tax rate in violation of the target members set for themselves last year.
"If I set a target for myself, I’m going to accomplish it," he said. "My word is my bond."
Cleveland said he would be critical of the Mayor Euille’s proposed use of the city’s zoning ordinance to force bars and restaurants to ban smoking, saying that he felt it discriminated against smokers. He said that he would not turn down campaign contributions from developers, although he added that he would not allow the money to influence his vote. Referring to his work with the Untouchables, a group to help at-risk youth, Cleveland said that he hoped to focus his campaign on the welfare of children.
"I know budgets. I know planning. And I know the Old and Historic District," said Cleveland after being informed of his victory Tuesday night. "Now it’s about going door to door and explaining that to voters."
With the July 17 special election fast approaching, Republicans are eager to get a head start on the Democrats, who won’t choose their candidate until June 9. Now that Cleveland has beat out GOP rivals Pat Troy and Lisa Miller, the party regulars hope to frame their candidate as the most experienced in the field — one who frequently voted against budgets in an effort to battle the strain of growing property tax bills.
"Both Democrats and Republicans will be challenged to get their votes out," said Bernie Schultz, who ran as a Republican candidate for City Council last year. "Because a lot of people take summer vacations, absentee ballots will be crucial in this election."