Depending on how one looks at it, Vice Mayor Justin Wilson’s campaign for
mayor has been going on for nearly two days or nearly two years. While Wilson’s official mayoral campaign kicked off with an announcement on Nov. 13, the conflict between fellow Democrats Wilson and Mayor Allison Silberberg has been visible since immediately after Silberberg took office. In 2018, that conflict comes to a head as Wilson challenges Silberberg for the mayorship of Alexandria.
In Alexandria, the mayor is the head of the City Council and manages discussion, but in many respects is a largely symbolic position. For Wilson, it’s a position that represents what kind of future the city is working towards.
“There is additional leadership required in this city,” said Wilson. “The mayor sets the tone. Mayoral leadership is necessary to make the big decisions. The choice next year will be resting on our laurels [or] driving progressive change.”
Wilson says one of the biggest challenges facing the city is the lack of sustainable revenue growth. Wilson says the city has to focus on economic growth and investment into city infrastructure.
Frank Shafroth, director of the Center for State and Local Leadership at George Mason University, said in an email that Wilson had built a support base through constant accessibility.
“He seems to be available — and listening — to Alexandrians at all hours; when he is not, he is reporting to us on his perspective and positions on key issues affecting our city’s future — both providing us his insights, and vision of the future for Alexandria — and seeking perspectives and input,” said Shafroth. “Part of all that listening means he has a sense not just of community, but also where his colleagues on the council are: a critical part of leadership in the nation’s cities is forging coalitions — building partnerships. Because, unlike many cities, Alexandria does not have a strong mayor form of governance, the special talent of molding consensus is one of painstaking patience, understanding, and commitment.”
Silberberg rebuffed criticism that her term as mayor has been one of resting on laurels.
“We’re only a year and 10 months into my term, resting on laurels doesn’t apply to me,” said Silberberg.
Silberberg said those two years have been extremely busy for Alexandria, with the city moving forward on Ramsey Homes redevelopment and the West End and Patrick Henry school projects. One of the biggest crises to face Alexandria over the last year was the state-mandated long-term control plan for Old Town’s combined sewer system.
The accomplishments Silberberg said was most proud of over the last few years were initiatives that weren’t flashy or highly visible, but made substantial quality of life improvements. Silberberg noted the stepping up of repaving across the city, increased tree canopy, and more speed enforcement being done by the Alexandria police as substantial improvements over the last few years.
Silberberg was elected to the City Council in 2012 as vice mayor, then won the Democratic primary for mayor in 2015 over former Mayor Kerry Donley and incumbent Mayor William Euille. Euille attempted to run a write-in campaign against Silberberg in the general election but lost.
Silberberg pointed to the ethics initiative begun very shortly after her election as one of her successes. While Silberberg admitted that the final result wasn’t all that she’d hoped it would be, she said it laid the groundwork for future progress in city transparency. The council approved an ethics pledge and code of conduct, Silberberg’s suggestion of an ethics advisory commission was rejected in one of the early conflicts between the mayor and opposition on the City Council led by Wilson. At the time, Wilson said the ethics commission was redundant. Clashes continued over Ramsey Homes with Wilson’s proposal to limit public comment at the start of the City Council meeting to 12 speakers.
As the mayoral campaign kicks off, Shafroth says much of the discussions about the future of the city will focus around meeting the city’s array of fiscal challenges. Shafroth says the regional discussion on how to pay for the Metro system will likely be at the forefront of that discussion, as well as care accessibility for the city’s aging population and the ever-increasing costs of Alexandria schools. The city will not only have to reckon with where the money is spent, but how revenue is generated.
“In the Age of Amazon, more and more shopping centers have become endangered species: that means empty storefronts, lost economic development, lost jobs, and reduced commercial property taxes,” said Shafroth. “What can our city do?”
The city’s Democratic primary will be held on June 12, 2018.