The June 12 Democratic primary election in Alexandria should clear up one issue: Whether voters are angry about development decisions or supportive of the choices the City Council has made over the past year.
The race, which features 14 candidates running for six seats, has focused largely on three controversies: the city’s waterfront plan, which will allow more dense development on several lots along the Potomac; the Beauregard area redevelopment, which will raze 2,500 apartments and replace them with mostly higher-cost housing; and fear of gentrification in Arlandria, a neighborhood near the Arlington border, where a big new apartment building may prompt rents to rise and other property owners to redevelop.
At the three candidate forums so far, some of the challengers and the two Democratic incumbents have defended the City Council’s decisions, pointing out how the city has negotiated for additions to its affordable housing, improved transportation and infrastructure needs.
But some of the challengers have accused city officials of listening more closely to developers than to citizens.
The Beauregard redevelopment “is an economic issue and we need to deal with it with economic solutions,” said Justin Wilson, 33, a former council member seeking to return to the post. “We do not have [affordable housing] supply, and when supply is limited, prices go up.”
“When we don’t have enough affordable housing stock, we can’t afford to bulldoze what we have,” said Sammie Moshenberg, 61, a longtime civic activist making her first run for office. “Our city is fast becoming an enclave of the elite. . . . We are rushing these developments in too fast without proper consideration.”
Among the 14 candidates, seven are new to electoral politics, although locals mayrecognize most names. Incumbents Redella “Del” Pepper and Paul Smedberg are running for reelection; Wilson and Timothy Lovain, who’s focused on smart growth and traffic, are former council members; Arthur E. Peabody is a School Board member and civil rights lawyer who says traffic is a top concern; Donna L. Fossum, a planning commissioner, helped formulate the Beauregard plan as leader of a stakeholders group; John Taylor Chapman, local NAACP president and a third-generation Alexandrian who grew up in public housing; Boyd Walker was a leader of a waterfront plan opposition group; Victoria Menjivar has been a leader in the Hispanic community; and Allison Silberberg leads the Economic Opportunities Commission.
Sean T. Holihan, 31, who works for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, was the early leader in fundraising and has stood out as a progressive willing to challenge others. Melissa Feld, 41, a Canadian immigrant and naturalized U.S. citizen, pitches herself as a “new voice” with children in local schools. Michael Hepburn, 29, also a relative newcomer, has focused on creating “pathways to success” for schoolchildren.
“This is not an insiders game anymore,” said Dak Hardwick, chair of the local Democratic Committee, which plans a final candidate forum on Monday at 7 p.m. at George Washington Middle School. “The field is diverse in all sense of the word. We are doing our level best to make this as open and accessible as possible.”
For many decades, the local Democratic Party chose its candidates at a “firehouse caucus,” where voters had to appear at a single location, declare their party affiliation and cast their vote.
But this year, the primary will be held in all 26 polling places around the city from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., which is expected to increase turnout. Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) is also facing a primary challenger in Bruce B. Shuttleworth, which could boost interest in the balloting. Voters will also encounter new voting machines, which will scan completed ballots into a computer.
The six Democrats chosen June 12 will face three Republican candidates (Bob Wood and incumbents Frank Fannon IV and Alicia Hughes) and two independents, Glenda Davis and Jermaine Mincey) in the Nov. 6 election. The top six vote-getters will win council seats.
Before voters get to the general election, however, they have to sort through the first round.
Smedberg, 51, and Pepper, 74, voted for the waterfront plan and the Beauregard redevelopment. Smedberg led the mayoral-appointed advisory committee on the waterfront that sought compromise; Pepper was the decisive vote who crafted concessions at the dais that allowed the plan to pass. Earlier, they were leaders in the years-long fight to close the coal-fired GenOn power plant on the north end of Old Town.
Walker, 43, a real estate investor whose mother served on the council, was and is a critic of the waterfront decision. His goal, he said, is to “restore trust” in the council and city government.
Holihan raised his profile during the midwinter waterfront fight in supporting the council. He took a similar stance on the Beauregard redevelopment.
“It sounds really good to say, ‘Fight the machine, vote no,’ ” he said at one of the candidate forums. “But what happens to those residents who don’t have homes when developers build by right?”
Menjivar, 53, said the city has to be tougher with developers who seek to push out low-income tenants.
“Development is good, but we need to be careful about it,” she said. “Enough is enough. We need a City Council whose every act reflects our values.”