Fairfax City residents will vote Tuesday in a municipal election that will help close the door on a dark, embarrassing chapter for their small Northern Virginia community.
The three City Council members running for mayor — Eleanor D. Schmidt, Michael J. DeMarco and David L. Meyer — believe that their home town must rebuild its image after last summer’s arrest of then-Mayor R. Scott Silverthorne in a sordid meth-for-sex scheme.
As they’ve campaigned through the community of strip malls and Colonial-style homes, each has vowed to be a steady leader who will work to restore the city’s integrity while guiding its 24,000 residents through problems with traffic and aging commercial corridors.
“Getting some stability back in the mayor’s office is going to be really important,” said DeMarco, 56. “We’ve been focusing our attention on activities that we really shouldn’t have to focus on, as opposed to the issues at hand, which are economic growth, affordable housing and so forth.”
Silverthorne, 51, is scheduled to appear before a Fairfax County judge the day after the election to face a felony charge of distribution of methamphetamine and a misdemeanor charge of possession of drug paraphernalia.
Prosecutors said the longtime mayor agreed to give an undercover officer two grams of crystal methamphetamine in exchange for an orgy with other men at a Tysons Corner hotel.
“Television comedians are making fun of Fairfax coast to coast,” Fairfax resident Matt Baird, 50, told the City Council during a public meeting in late December. “Friends of mine in Los Angeles are calling me up saying, ‘Hey — what’s going on in Fairfax City?’ I think you need to do a positive P.R. move.”
During the six months since Silverthorne’s arrest made international headlines, city leaders have quietly worked to patch up the damage done inside City Hall. The council appointed an interim mayor, Steven C. Stombres, to help push through projects that needed city approvals and assure leaders in surrounding jurisdictions that Fairfax City was in good hands.
“What the job called for was a no-nonsense approach to just get the job done and provide stability in a time of transition,” said Stombres, who had been a chief of staff to former House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) and who now works at a Washington lobbying firm.
Stombres, who served on the City Council between 2008 and 2014, will step down once a new mayor is sworn in.
The nonpartisan mayoral race has focused mostly on economic development and traffic congestion in Fairfax, which sits just off Interstate 66 nearly 20 miles west of Washington, D.C.
DeMarco, a former senior executive for the ExxonMobil oil company, has campaigned on a smart-growth platform, urging voters to embrace the idea of more mixed-use developments where residents can walk to restaurants and stores and drive less frequently. He has been vocal about creating strategies for long-term growth, arguing that Fairfax needs to do more to attract young professionals as older residents reach retirement age.
“The neighboring jurisdictions are in competition with us,” DeMarco said, referring to the luxury apartments, restaurants and boutique stores that have revived Arlington County’s Ballston neighborhood and the Mosaic District in Fairfax County. “If we don’t provide the same types of places for people to live and enjoy, I think we’re going to die on the vine.”
Schmidt, who works as an executive vice president at Cardinal Bank, argues for more measured growth, noting that rush-hour traffic is already miserable in some sections of the city. With 1,000 new apartments and townhouses slated to be built over the next four years, it could get a lot worse.
“We don’t know how that is going to impact traffic yet. We don’t know how that will impact schools,” said Schmidt, 56. “Looking at future approvals, we need to be very cautious and balanced.”
Meyer, a former senior executive at the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is focused on redeveloping some long-idle parcels — in particular, the vacant Fairfax Circle strip mall, a community eyesore frequented by homeless men and women.
Plans for a new shopping center stalled several years ago.
“It’s a terrible sight to see when you first enter the city,” said Meyer, 65. “The absolute first order of business of our new council will be to jump-start that project.”
Meyer also argues for more affordable housing for elderly residents who are at risk of being priced out of the city where they have lived for decades. “They would like to stay in Fairfax,” Meyer said. “I believe that the city should get serious about having some high-quality senior housing.”
With Silverthorne’s legal problems as a backdrop, the level of interest in this election seems higher than previous mayoral elections.
A recent candidates forum had a standing-room-only crowd, and the audience inside the Old Town Hall listened intently as candidates debated development and whether it makes sense to “re-brand” their community as “Fairfax City” instead of “The City of Fairfax.”
Silverthorne, who has not returned calls from reporters or posted on social media since his arrest, has not weighed in on the election or endorsed any of the candidates.
The city has not yet scheduled a special election to replace whichever council member wins the mayor’s seat.