Say goodbye to bipartisan government at Alexandria City Hall.
Last week, the city’s two elected Republicans stepped down as an all-Democratic City Council assumed the reins of power. Circuit Court Clerk Ed Semonian performed the official duty, as members stood straight-backed and pledged to support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Virginia. The newly inaugurated cast includes two returning characters, two former stars and two newcomers. Democrats vowed that the one-party rule would not necessarily lead to an era of unanimous agreement.
“I think we should feel free to express our differences of opinion up on the dais,” said Tim Lovain, who returned to office this year after being ousted in 2009. “We have a very political city, and they kind of like to see the sausage being made.”
The last City Council campaign featured heated debates about everything from the size and scale of development to how much city residents should be taxed. The Democratic primary featured two opposing factions in the party, one that was critical of the recent direction and another that supported it. Most of the critics lost, except author and activist Allison Silberberg. She opposed the controversial waterfront plan, arguing that it lacked a core vision for the city’s future.
“First we must have a core vision of who we are and then a plan rather than the other way around,” said Silberberg. “To me, that core vision begins with thinking about what’s best for generations to come.”
THE FORMAL CEREMONY at T.C. Williams High School featured a little bit of pomp and circumstance as well as a few revealing moments. Some newly inaugurated members spoke of their childhoods. Others spoke of their parents and ancestors. Newly elected member John Taylor Chapman compared the civic process to a scene from a romantic comedy.
“There’s a scene from the movie ‘Hitch,’ where Will Smith, who is a matchmaker, is teaching his client how to deliver the first kiss,” said Chapman. “He said that you have to go 90 percent, and the other person has to come 10 percent.”
If elected officials will come 90 percent of the way, Chapman said, constituents must come the other 10 percent. That was an amorous theme Democratic Mayor Bill Euille reiterated later, underscoring the partnership between the elected and the governed. Euille said that all-Democratic City Council members form an engaging group, and that he expects big things in the next three years.
“This is a talented, smart, grounded, fun-loving, visionary and accessible team with independent voices for a common purpose,” said Euille, “making Alexandria the best.”
MANY OF THE DIVISIONS that were recurring dramas at City Hall will cease to become sticking points. Even though Silberberg opposed the waterfront plan, for example, a supermajority of members expressed support for the redevelopment plan during the campaign. And with Republicans Frank Fannon and Alicia Hughes not around to oppose funding for large-scale investments in transit, the debates will lack the at-times emotional clashes between Fannon, Hughes and incumbent Councilman Paul Smedberg.
“We have to be mindful of the fact that we are a regional partner,” said Smedberg. “We can’t operate in a vacuum, and we can’t decide things particularly in the area of transportation just within our borders.”
All of the newly inaugurated members thanked their campaign volunteers and family members, although returning member Justin Wilson acknowledged that it wasn’t an easy decision. He said after announcing his campaign last year, he began questioning whether or not he wanted to return to a job that he won in a special election and then lost two years later.
Did I make the wrong decision?” Wilson said he asked himself one sleepless night. “I have to admit that for about a week, I was a little possessed with this thought that I had made the wrong decision to get back into this.”
WHATEVER THEIR REASONS running, members of the new City Council announced that the coming term would see a full slate of important decisions. Aside from the waterfront plan and other major redevelopment issues, council members will struggle with how to protect and preserve a dwindling stockpile of affordable housing units. Members said they would focus on everything from environmental stewardship to increasing transparency. After longtime Councilwoman Del Pepper outlined an extensive list of bullet points, the mayor cut her off for exceeding the time limit.
“You’ve over,” Euille cracked with a smile.
“Are you timing this?” asked Pepper. “Do you see this? This is what I have to put up with.”