Gus Lamond worked the streets of Alexandria yesterday, grabbing hands and talking about winning. When asked how he thought he was doing, the Republican candidate for City Council would reply with a single word: "Optimistic."
In the past, optimism didn't come easily to Republicans in the largely Democratic city. But, with only two weeks left before Alexandria's voters go to the polls, many politicians are saying that for the first time in the city's history Democrats are in danger of losing control of the City Council on May 7.
"If not now, when?" said the city's Republican state senator, Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. "I think we have a solid chance to pick up at least one -- maybe two -- seats on the council this year. People are looking for new leadership."
Democrats long have controlled the Alexandria City Hall, but they now are deadlocked with the GOP, each holding three City Council seats. That split allows Mayor Charles E. Beatley, a Democrat, to cast the council's seventh -- and decisive -- vote.
This year there are 14 candidates seeking the six council seats and Beatley is facing two challengers.
According to a poll to be released today by Beatley opponent James P. Moran, 40 percent of Alexandria's voters agree that "there seems to be a lack of leadership on the City Council." Moran, who has been sharply critical of the mayor, his former patron, commissioned the poll before he announced his independent candidacy.
The perceived weakening of the Democratic party in Alexandria comes only two months after a special grand jury exonerated Director of Public Safety Charles T. Strobel of charges that he prematurely halted a police drug investigation. Throughout the inquiry Beatley and City Councilman Donald Casey, a fellow Democrat, were highly critical of Strobel.
"I assume some people are going to hit me for it," said Casey, a patent attorney. "But I'll win and I don't think we will see a Republican majority this year."
Neighborhood debates among the candidates seem to indicate that the Strobel investigation has faded as an issue, but other major issues remain.
"I represent something you haven't seen lately in this town," said William G. Cleveland, the first black ever to run as a Republican for the City Council. "I am a leader."
Cleveland, and the other Republican candidates, cite Alexandria's high tax rate as the city's biggest barrier to prosperity and development. The city's tax rate is higher than neighboring Arlington and Fairfax counties, and Republicans have charged that the rate is pushing middle-class residents out of the city and discouraging businesses from moving in.
Beatley, who is also being challenged by John D. Williams 3rd, a fiscal conservative running as an independent, has been criticized for spending too much on the waterfront development, and a new bus system, while ignoring programs with broader appeal.
"You have to work hard to keep middle-class people here," said Carlyle C. Ring Jr. a Republican council member seeking reelection. "That means good schools and affordable housing."
While Republican candidates stress the need to encourage development and lower taxes, some Democratic candidates have said they would pay less attention to Old Town and more to the West End.
"If you are black and you live in the West End the issue in this race is whether you are going to be here in five years," said Lynwood G. Campbell Jr., a black who is running as an independent. "We spend a lot of time and money on getting the tourists to come to Old Town, but not very much on keeping our residents here. Every cute new shop means one less solid citizen."