The three candidates running in the hard-fought Democratic primary for Alexandria’s mayor went a full 12 rounds Tuesday night, trading verbal punches over some of the most sore civic bruises in the city’s recent history.
Incumbent Mayor William D. Euille, vice mayor Allison Silberberg and former mayor Kerry Donley, speaking before more than 100 people at the Alexandria Democratic Committee’s debate at Francis Hammond Middle School, battled over who to blame for the decision that let the Defense Department build a high-rise along I-395 at Seminary Road, whether the city moved has fast enough to get a Potomac Yard Metro station underway, and what it will take to improve the city’s finances, among other issues.
Euille, 64, who is facing his first primary challengers since he took office in 2003, defended his tenure during the tough economic times of the past seven years, pointing out that the City Council will vote later this month on whether to endorse one of the choices for the new Metro station. He pointed out that after decades of discussion, a new waterfront plan is in place, and the Old Dominion Boat Club agreed to move from its site at the foot of King Street.
The federal government’s decision to put the 6,400 defense employees at I-395 and Seminary Road in 2008 “would have been better if it didn’t happen, but it did,” Euille said. The Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Act led the Pentagon to look for cheaper space and the Alexandria City Council in 2008 endorsed two sites. The owners of the Seminary Road site won the lease, even though it is far from mass transit and took a lot of land off the tax rolls. This is the second local election in which the BRAC decision has proven to be an issue.
“We are not in the business of telling private property owners what they can do with their own real estate,” Euille said, as audience members who live near the site audibly scoffed.
Donley, 59, following the lead of neighboring Arlington County, urged smart growth focused around Metrorail stops and along transit-ready corridors. He pushed hard on what he described as the city’s need to accelerate its economic development efforts.
He recalled that while he was mayor between 1996 to 2003, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office decided to relocate to Alexandria and now that the National Science Foundation has agreed to move to the same Carlyle neighborhood, the city has a chance to market that area as a science innovation center with Metrorail and Beltway access. The big-box retailers that will be leaving Potomac Yard should be offered interim space in the Eisenhower Avenue area, he argued, in order to keep that retail in the city. He attacked “missed opportunities” of the past decade and decried the declining percentage of city money that is spent for Alexandria schools, the cuts in early-childhood development funds and the opening of a fire station without firefighters.
Silberberg, 51, hammered on her theme of “thoughtful, appropriate development that protects our neighborhoods and quality of life.” She voted against the city’s waterfront plan hree years ago and against a developer’s plan for the old Robinson Terminal South warehouse last month, because she thought the design was not appropriate for Old Town.
Silberberg, who is vice mayor because she was the top vote-getter of all the City Council candidates in the last election, reminded the audience that she was the sole “no” vote several years ago when the city removed a 1 cent tax used to acquire parks and open space, because she thought Alexandria should buy more land.
When the candidates were allowed to question each other, Silberberg said she didn’t know or authorize the posting of a sign that said “Republicans for Silberberg” on a Russell Road lawn. A lifelong Democrat, Silberberg said she asked the homeowners to consider taking it down, but later thought the better of it because she didn’t want to stifle a voter’s free speech.
In Virginia, any registered voter can vote in any primary election, whether or not they are a member of that party.
Silberberg had her defenders in the crowd, because when she tried to blame Donley for the BRAC decision and he noted that she might not know he wasn’t in office at the time because she was “new to the council,” he was booed.
Donley, in turn, asked Euille why West End voters should support him given the “BRAC debacle,” controversy around the Norfolk Southern ethanol shipments and the firefighter-less fire station. Euille noted that he had opposed the ethanol shipments at every turn and the council later this week will budget the money to get the Eisenhower Avenue fire station fully staffed by the end of the year.
This was the second meeting of the Democratic candidates for mayor. The next mayoral debate will be held at 7 p.m. June 2 at the George Washington Middle School. The election is June 9.