Each morning for more than three decades, Ed Semonian (D) has walked from his Old Town home to his job as Alexandria’s clerk of the Circuit Court, where he maintains the court’s records.
Since he was elected to the position in 1979, he has not faced a challenger in this Democratic Party stronghold.
Now 77 and running for what would probably be his last eight-year term, he has an opponent: Chris Marston (R), who has ties to the Republican establishment and was treasurer for the 2009-10 congressional campaign of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).
The race is the talk of the courthouse and a closely watched contest for a generally low-profile position. The area’s GOP leaders see the seat as a potential further foothold for their party in a deep-blue city.
Semonian is knocking on doors for the first time in years, determined to prevail on Nov. 8. He wants to maintain his longtime stewardship of a position that largely entails keeping real estate, probate and court documents, making them publicly accessible and issuing marriage licenses. He manages a 21-person staff and makes $128,000 a year.
“People say to me, ‘Why don’t you retire?’ ” Semonian said. “They don’t understand that working here is a rewarding experience. I am able to do something positive. You go home feeling good.”
Marston, 37, is a lawyer who was an assistant secretary in the Education Department under President George W. Bush and chairman of the Alexandria Republican City Committee from 2004 until last year.
Marston was treasurer for Bachmann from 2009 until last year. His wife, Michelle, the congresswoman’s former chief of staff, is credited with curating Bachmann’s image as she exploded onto the national political scene.
Marston said he is running for clerk of the court because he wants to be part of “citizen-centered government.”
“I don’t imagine I’m going to save the world or establish any big policy changes,” Marston said. “But that’s the reason I want to do it. It is involved directly in citizen service.”
The emergence of a challenger means Semonian is faced with selling himself, and, for the first time in decades, raising money. Even though he is the longtime incumbent, insiders say, he does not have the widespread name recognition that would help him in an election that is expected to have low voter turnout because it is not a presidential election cycle. (In 2003, about 19 percent of registered Alexandria voters went to the polls.)
“Ed is a very, very modest man who doesn’t like to impose himself on people,” said Semonian’s campaign manager, Susan Kellom.
Marston is the only Republican running for citywide office in Alexandria. Tom Fulton, chairman of the Alexandria Republican City Committee, said Marston is highly qualified and calls the race important for the Alexandria GOP.
“This is a way of building party identity,” Fulton said. “Galvanizing Republicans.”
Both campaigns have been marked by fundraisers, meet-and-greets and glad-handing at public events. When they are out campaigning, the candidates say, conversations often veer into explaining the job, which few realize is an elected position.
“The most often asked question on the campaign trail is ‘What does the clerk do?’ ” Marston said.
Semonian, a lawyer and banker by training, said he has kept the office humming smoothly and technologically up to date over the past 31 years.
“We’re geared for providing service to the public,” he said. “We get people in and out, and we get them what they need.”
The office accepted only paper documents in 1979, and Semonian guided the transition to an electronic system in 1984. There was another upgrade in 2003. Semonian said he would like to improve technology further to make filing documents easier, but tight budgets have gotten in the way.
“We just don’t have the money,” Semonian said of his office, which has an annual budget of about $1.6 million.
Semonian got a boost several weeks ago when TV personality Willard Scott showed up at a fundraiser. The two are buddies from George Washington High School in Alexandria. Semonian graduated from George Washington University in 1955 and George Washington Law School in 1960.
He became a partner in the law firm of Clarke, Richard, Moncure & Whitehead, then got involved in banking, becoming a senior vice president and head of the Northern Virginia regional trust department of United Virginia Bankshares. Since 1969, he has been on the board of directors of the Alexandria Sanitation Authority, serving for a time as chairman.
Semonian has collected endorsements from many elected Democrats, including Alexandria Mayor William D. Euelle, Sheriff Dana Lawhorne, Commonwealth’s Attorney S. Randolph Sengel, council member Rob Krupicka and Vice Mayor Kerry J. Donley.
Marston is being endorsed by Republicans including Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and Alexandria Council members Frank H. Fannon IV and Alicia R. Hughes.
Marston owns a company that performs financial compliance for campaigns. He says he wants to focus on customer service and bringing electronic upgrades to the clerk’s office that would let people use the Internet to file lawsuits or file a trade name for a business.
“Now you have to mail it in or go in yourself,” Marston said.
Marston, who grew up in Michigan, has lived in Alexandria since 1997. He received his undergraduate degree from Dartmouth in 1996 and his law degree at Georgetown University Law Center in 2003.
While working at the Education Department, his responsibilities included managing records and the office of hearings and appeals, skills he says would be helpful as clerk. He also is secretary of the Library of Virginia Foundation. Marston served on the Library of Virginia’s board from 1998 to 2006.
He said he has not heard any complaints about Semonian but wants a chance to try his ideas for improving the office.
“He’s a nice man who has worked hard,” Marston said. “I think it’s important voters have a choice.”