To the Editor:

In the toxic political climate that seems to be so pervasive these days, binary elections are often framed by supporters and opponents of candidates and issues as choices between good and evil.  Thank goodness that in Alexandria the campaign for Mayor is anything but that.  When it comes to commitment to public service and a passion for this community, there is not an inch of daylight between Justin Wilson and Allison Silberberg and all voters, regardless of whom they intend to vote for, are the beneficiaries.  Where their paths diverge is an understanding of the issues that impact our future, an ability to address them in meaningful ways, a recognition of the financial pressures confronting our city, and the leadership skills to tackle those issues.

It is likely that the Democratic primary on June 12th will be the determinative final election, and although I am a partisan, that is unfortunate because I have always believed that competitive two-party elections make for better outcomes.  But I also note that in the 40 or so years that I have been involved in or observing City Council, even when it was a genuinely bipartisan body, I never remember a single issue, not one, that was decided on a partisan vote. Notwithstanding that, the primary election is the reality of the moment, and Alexandrians will truly have a binary choice for Mayor. 

My decision to support Vice Mayor Justin Wilson is a function of what he does and what he does not do as he prepares to lead the City Council.  Notable, also, is to acknowledge the actual, legal role of Mayor.  The Mayor is a member of the Council with one of 7 votes.  The Mayor is not the CEO of the city; that’s the City Manager’s job. The Mayor presides over the Council, is viewed as the nominal representative of the city, and becomes the first among equals when sitting on the dais.  The Mayor has no other constitutional duties or unilateral authority, so as nice as it may be to attend all the openings and events, the “just showing up” part of the job has little to do with the actual work of the Council.  Simply stated, the first duty of the office is to be a leader; not by virtue of title, but as a consequence of knowledge, skill, and rectitude.  And being Mayor is not a job or a career, but one of many (most?) of the elected officials who participate in the governance, history and tradition of the Commonwealth of Virginia as citizen-legislators.   

As anyone who has attended or watched City Council meetings will attest, it is often the case that the beauty and occasional curse of local government are the smaller, neighborhood issues that can inflame or energize the citizenry.  It is tempting to try to find solutions and make decisions that feel expedient and responsive at that moment. But leadership is not always telling people what they want to hear, it is trying to listen to the arguments, getting the facts and making decisions that follow the law.  So, here is something I learned over the years:  Not agreeing is not the same thing as not listening.  I have not always agreed with votes that Justin has cast, but my respect for him comes from knowing that his approach to making a decision is driven by facts, common sense judgment, and a willingness to strive for compromise when possible.

So, here is something else that I have noticed over the past 3 years with this Council:  6-1 (or 1-6) votes have become something of a Rorschach.  Some see Allison’s dissenting votes as a badge of courage, and admire her for that.  I see the opposite.  There is nothing wrong with anyone on Council being an occasional dissenter, but as a routine M.O. I find it lacking.  Legislative bodies that are effective are always looking for common ground, for compromise and tradeoffs to reach a resolution – not necessarily one that everyone likes completely, but one that tries to recognize different goals and conclusions.  If one feels strongly about an issue, you lobby, persuade, cajole, and compromise to get consensus.  In other words, YOU LEAD.

I see Justin Wilson doing that, because he always has.

A criticism of this Council, though, is that the “6” of 6-1 votes are just voting in lockstep.  I think that is a disservice to the Council and reflects a lack of understanding about the process. One of the reasons that political decisions are not going to be made by computer (at least not in my lifetime) is that people are making them—with different perspectives, history, ideas, experiences and conclusions.  When a vote ends up 6-1, it doesn’t mean it was wired, but it does mean that a lot of work went on behind the scenes to reach consensus—not in secret (that’s illegal), but conversations, debate and dialogue between members to find common ground.  In my book, that is good politics.

My final distinction in our binary choice may be a little “inside baseball,” but it is about the budget.  Every year, when the Council convenes for its final adoption of the budget, there are two votes:  the tax rate, and the actual budget—the thick document that details what and where our tax dollars are to be spent.  It is, in its own way, a story.  A story about our priorities, goals, objectives and services.  A vote against the tax rate is unusual, but not unheard of.  A vote against the budget is so unusual I cannot recall the last time it happened.  Budget adoption always has disagreements—amendments are offered, additions and deletions are argued, but in the end, you vote for the budget, and when Allison voted no last year, it was, in my opinion, an abdication of one of the singularly most important functions of a City Council.  It becomes a recorded vote against everything that we, as a city, expect – public safety, public health, public education, public works, culture and beauty – all the things that make this city special. So to be blunt, you cannot campaign that you’re for it if you voted against it. 

And to go full wonky, the rate of spending in the city is growing faster than the rate of revenue growth, and that has been the case for the past 10 years. You cannot operate that way in your personal life, and the city cannot, either.  Justin Wilson gets that, and long-term solutions will not come by wishing for them.

I am voting for Justin Wilson for Mayor because I believe him to be the kind of leader Council needs to confront the issues we know and the ones we don’t.  I am also voting for incumbents Will Bailey, John Chapman, Del Pepper, Paul Smedberg, and newcomers (to Council, but not to serving this city), Elizabeth Bennett-Parker and Dak Hardwick – all of whom show the judgment, wisdom, experience and commitment to serve us well, now and in the future.

If you have read this far, I want to close with a very old quote that speaks to what I always hope from those who take on the responsibility of serving and governing: “There is only one way to avoid criticism: Do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” Aristotle.

David G. Speck
Former member of the Alexandria City Council and Virginia House of Delegates