Lou Cook, chairman of the Alexandria School Board, wants to be mayor of her city. She is a voluble woman with a sharp wit, and many people believe she might have become the first Republican mayor of the largely Democratic city.
But when Alexandria voters go to the polls next Tuesday they won't find Cook's name, or that of any other Republican mayoral candidate, on the ballot. After taking a hard look at Virginia's conflict-of-interest law, particularly at what it requires from the spouses of elected officials, Cook and some other Republicans decided that the price of serving is too high.
"If my husband were dealing dope, the law would treat me more fairly," Cook said, explaining her decision not to run in a year viewed as favorable for Republicans.
The Virginia conflict-of-interest law, although widely viewed as ineffective on many points, is stringent on what it expects of spouses, she said.
"I am held responsible for his business, although I have nothing to do with it," Cook pointed out.
Her husband George is president of Colonial Parking Inc., which operates about 120 parking garages in the area. If Lou Cook became mayor of Alexandria, Virginia state law would require her to refrain from voting on any issue that potentially involved Colonial Parking.
"I have no idea who he does business with," said Cook. "He doesn't even know all the time. I have no problem declaring the interests I do have. I do that now on the school board, but this would prevent me from voting on almost any real estate transaction involving the City of Alexandria."
Cook said that many of the people with whom her husband does business are developers who own a lot of property.
"Last week, George found out a guy he has dealt with for a long time owns an apartment house in Alexandria," she said. "If that man had come in and asked for a zoning variance I would have voted on it, not knowing he had a relationship with George. That would be a conflict."
Cook is not the first Alexandria political figure to run into problems with the state's conflict-of-interest law. Last year, James P. Moran, now an independent candidate for mayor, was forced to resign from the City Council after pleading no contest to findings by a special prosecutor that he had a business relationship with a developer who was trying to negotiate a land deal with the city.
Last month, citizens complained that Democrat Patricia S. Ticer, a real estate agent, initiated a City Council vote for a change in zoning regulations that facilitated the sale by the firm she works for of a pre-Civil War building in Old Town. She has denied any wrongdoing.
The way the law is structured, anyone who has a significant economic interest in a business that deals with the city -- defined as $10,000 or 3 percent of the firm's equity -- is subject to the provisions of the law.
This stipulation, which effects most directly those who have significant economic interests in the city, was enough to discourage several Republican mayoral candidates, including council members Robert L. Calhoun and Carlyle C. Ring Jr.
"We never went nearly far enough on disclosure," said Wiley F. Mitchell, Jr. (R-Alexandria), a state senator who helped to write some of the legislation.
"But because Lou relies on George's income, should she be intimidated from running for mayor? I'm absolutely sure that what we have done here has severely hurt our abilities to attract good people to public office."
"These laws are tough, but they are workable," declared Richard Mendelson, deputy commonwealth's attorney, who handles most of the city's conflict-of-interest decisions. "If the mayor's spouse stands to benefit from his interest in 'XYZ Construction Co., ' then I think the voters of this city have the right to know about it."
"Tough rules are fine," said Cook. "I'm all for them. But you should at least be in a position to comply with them honestly. I saw what Geraldine Ferraro went through last year. For me, it's not worth it."