For years, Justin Wilson was seen as a bright young star of Alexandria politics, full of energy and fluent in technology, willing to delve deeply into the details of local politics, land-use policy and transportation debates.
Now he is preparing to become mayor, after ousting a one-term incumbent in a bitter Democratic primary. And he finds himself one of the more experienced hands on a seven-member, all-Democratic City Council that, in 2019, will be decidedly younger and more diverse than it has been in modern memory.
“I go into the role of an older statesman,” Wilson, 39, said with a self-conscious laugh.
It’s an opportune moment for this native of the DMV, whose first political job was as a 15-year-old page in Richmond. Big infrastructure issues loom over the small historic city, from the pressure to get the Potomac Yard Metro station open and operating in the next three years, as Amazon ramps up its new headquarters nearby, to the nearly half-billion-dollar sewer replacement project in Old Town.
Wilson, a runner who usually racks up 25 miles a week when he’s not training for a marathon, plans a fast start after he’s sworn in Jan. 2.
“I don’t think we have a choice,” he said.
He is known for being impatient on the dais, engineering a limit on the council’s public comment period after the soapbox sessions doubled, and sometimes annoying constituents by posting on Facebook and Twitter, emailing, and texting during council meetings.
After a few heated online exchanges prompted criticism during the primary, Wilson cut back on the multitasking, to some extent. But he is still quick to respond to residents’ questions and complaints at other times.
“I never want anyone to say they didn’t hear from me, they don’t know where I stand, they don’t know how I arrived at a decision, I did not respond,” Wilson said. “That could be the worst thing somebody could say, that I did not respond.”
Wilson learned that public conflict is not necessarily bad in 2009, when he lost his bid for a second term on the council, just after he and other lawmakers agreed to raise property taxes. Following some soul-searching, and conversations with constituents, he concluded that voters thought the council was in lockstep because so few differences were made public. And they didn’t like it.
“The public,” he said, “wants to see elected officials hashing things out.”
After again winning a seat on the council in 2012, Wilson became much more open about political disagreements. He was reelected in 2015 as vice chair, having won more votes than any other non-mayoral candidate.
The same election elevated Allison Silberberg (D), who is as cautious as Wilson is quick-acting, from vice mayor to mayor. She and Wilson clashed frequently — over the need for an ethics policy, how to deal with development when neighbors object and who should take credit for the council’s accomplishments.
Wilson decided to run for mayor himself. In June he defeated Silberberg in the Democratic primary by six percentage points.
He was unopposed in November’s general election and won 93 percent of the vote, a tally that his critics say proves that not everyone is thrilled. More than 4,000 voters — out of 51,750 — cast write-in ballots. Of those, more than a third wrote some version of Silberberg’s name.
At a council meeting in mid-December, Silberberg’s last, their feud remained apparent. She recommended that the incoming council stiffen the ethics policy, which she had introduced immediately upon becoming mayor. Wilson had watered it down, saying it was too broadly drawn.
Her proposal was met with a deep silence before the council moved on.
“I want to make sure we stay on the path of making decisions,” Wilson said in an interview. “I think we need to have a council that is decisive, that tackles issues, hears out the community, incorporates community input and then makes a decision and executes it. Some of our challenges in the past have been our inability to make the final decision and move forward.”
He said one of his top priorities as mayor will be scouring the budget for money for infrastructure repairs at aging school buildings, fire stations and elsewhere.
“Two decades of neglect of these facilities is catching up with us,” Wilson said.
Born in the old Prince George’s General Hospital in Cheverly and raised in the District, Wilson is the son of an African American father and Caucasian mother. His parents divorced when he was young, and he was raised by his mother in Fairfax County.
He graduated from Springfield High School and then from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. In addition to his political office, which is officially part-time, Wilson works for Amtrak as senior director of vendor and contract management.
One of his first political mentors was Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.). They met in 1993, when Beyer was running for lieutenant governor and Wilson, age 13, was handing out literature on his behalf at a Fairfax precinct at 6 a.m.
A little more than a year later, Beyer hired him as one of his pages in Richmond. He says Wilson — whom he describes as a “wonderful” council member, always able to provide an effective counterpoint — stood out even then.
Beyer called Wilson’s monthly email newsletters “legendary.” He writes, in sometimes excruciating detail, about budgets, policy debates, traffic and parking — with links to documents and videos. In civic-minded, information-obsessed Alexandria, almost 9,000 people subscribe.
But not everyone is equally enthusiastic — especially the slow-growth advocates in Alexandria who are some of Silberberg’s biggest supporters.
“His skills are in management, knowing the budget and the mechanics of how government works. He’s not a people person,” said Boyd Walker, who worked with Silberberg when they both opposed the city’s waterfront plan in 2011 and 2012. “If he has the ambition to move beyond his base, he’s going to have to talk to people who are not his supporters.”
Wilson’s attention to data and detail can sometimes backfire. Eleven years ago, when his wife, Alex Crawford-Batt, was pregnant with their second child, their doctor told them to go to the hospital when contractions came regularly every five minutes for an hour.
Wilson carefully timed his wife’s bursts of pain, but couldn’t detect a regular pattern, until Crawford-Batt insisted that six minutes apart was close enough.
Lena, their daughter, arrived on the front seat of their Toyota Highlander as they were stuck at a notoriously long stoplight at the intersection of Braddock Road, King Street and Quaker Lane.
Wilson said his wife has since identified three errors he made that morning: not conveying enough urgency to his mother-in-law, whom they needed to come over to watch their son while they were gone; taking “a 30-second shower” before they left; and not listening when she told him “there’s no way we’ll make it to the hospital and we shouldn’t even try.”
“I thought if we tried, we’d have a chance to make it,” Wilson said.