By Carla Branch
When Kerry Donley was elected Alexandria vice mayor in 2009, most of the electorate lauded his return to public office. His decision not to run for re-election in 2012 came as a surprise and was a disappointment to many. Just before his last City Council meeting on Dec. 15, he sat down with alexandrianews.org to look back on his long career in public service and talk about what the future might hold for him.
“While I am not ruling out a bid for elected office sometime in the future, I need to take care of my health now because that’s the most important thing,” Donley said.
While undergoing a routine medical check-up late last year, doctors found that Donley’s blood pressure was dangerously high. They prescribed medication, suggested he eat healthier food and told him to reduce the stress in his life. That’s when he decided not to run for re-election.
“I am feeling fine and doing very well but I need to continue to take care of myself,” Donley said.
He was first elected to City Council in 1988 but his interest in politics began much earlier. “I grew up in a very politically involved home,” Donley said. “My whole family was very involved in South Dakota politics. That’s what brought us to the Washington, DC area in the 1960s when my father became George McGovern’s chief of staff.”
When Donley went to college at Marquette University, he got involved in Wisconsin politics. “I always thought I would go to law school,” he said. “I don’t know that I always wanted to be a politician but I knew I would always be involved in politics in some manner.”
After college, Donley returned to Alexandria and volunteered to work on local campaigns. “The first campaign I really got involved in was Beverly Beidler’s campaign for the Virginia State senate in 1983,” Donley said. “I also worked on some other local campaigns and because of that involvement, several people asked me to consider running for City Council. I ran in 1988 and won.”
He served on Council until 1995 and became mayor when Patsy Ticer left that office for a seat in the Virginia State senate. He was re-elected in 1997 and again in 2000. In 2003, he decided not to run again. He was elected Chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia and, in 2005, accepted the position of athletic director at T. C. Williams High School.
“I loved my job at T. C. and probably would have stayed there had I not decided to run for office again,” Donley said. “I couldn’t do that while I was a school system employee.
“I really enjoyed working with the kids every day and attending all of the sporting events. Many of them stay in touch and often ask me for advice about running for office,” Donley said.
What advice does he give them? “I tell them that they must first make certain that their family is supported and that their employer is supported as well,” Donley said. “Virginia has always had citizen legislators who have other jobs and that is as it should be and is true to Jeffersonian democracy. If your family and your employer are supported, I encourage any young person with an interest in public life to get involved whether that means running for office, volunteering to help on a political campaign or in some other way. It has been very rewarding for me,” Donley said.
Donley has been a participant in most of the significant decisions that have changed Alexandria’s landscape over the past 25 years. “We oversaw the development of Potomac Yard, brought the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office to Alexandria, worked on a settlement with the federal government over the construction of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge, did what we could to mitigate the impact of the BRAC-133 facility, passed a plan that will guide the development of the waterfront, passed a master plan for development in the Beauregard corridor and saw the closing of the Mirant, now GenOn power plant. We have also been part of the redevelopment of much of the City’s public housing,” Donley said.
There is more to do and budgets are going to be tight for the foreseeable future. “The City must focus on economic development,” Donley said. “Our last major commercial development was the Patent and Trademark Office and that was more than a decade ago. We must work hard to retain large employers such as the Institute for Defense Analyses and try to bring other such employers to Alexandria. Finding a tenant for the Victory Center is a priority.
“Also, the next Council is going to need to look for savings. This is not a time to create new programs but to focus on government’s core mission, which is to provide public education, public safety and infrastructure. Everything should be examined to determine if there are more efficient ways of doing the government’s business,” Donley said.
Although he is leaving elected office, he is going to remain involved. “I want to continue to be involved in bringing a Metro station to Potomac Yard and some other economic development matters,” Donley said. “I am also considering applying for some Boards such as the Sanitation Authority Board or maybe the ARHA Board,” Donley said.
He will also continue working at his job with Virginia Commerce Bank. “Working for a community bank has been very rewarding also,” he said. “I get to be directly involved in helping individuals and businesses in a variety of ways. I am very fortunate to have such a supportive employer.”