Letter to the Editor: Speck on Politics in Alexandria
David Speck says there's no greater challenge to Alexandria's future than its ability to grow from within without jeopardizing the quality of life.
To the Editor:
I read with great interest the thoughtful letter recently co-authored by Gant Redmon about the state of politics and governance in Alexandria. Although it has been more than 17 years since I changed parties, I was a beneficiary of his efforts so when I write to offer an alternative perspective to Gant’s concerns about the dominance of the Democratic Party in Alexandria it in no way lessens my respect for him or my genuine friendship with him.
A law of physics is that nature abhors a vacuum; politics is no different and the fact that it is mostly Democrats in elected office may have less to do with Democratic domination and more to do with Republican abdication. For the benefit of newcomers to Alexandria (i.e., less than 30 years), it was not so long ago—1981 to be precise—when the City of Alexandria had more elected Republicans than any city in Virginia. Noteworthy, also, is that in two City Council races during that time period, the Council was within 200 votes of a Republican majority.
Far more significant is that Alexandria’s genuinely competitive two-party politics was not the result of some seismic ideological shift; but had much more to do with candidates running for office (and getting elected) who were long-time, deeply-rooted, involved citizens, happened to have an “R” after their name, and embraced a moderate political philosophy that went down easy with voters. Sadly, the word “moderate” attached to a member of today’s Republican Party has now become something of an insult, but those were the kind of people who got elected.
The decline of elected Republicans is also not the result of some big change in the ideology of the electorate, but more from the just practical consequences of life—people move, change jobs, get married—and decide not to run for re-election for no other reason than they did not have to. To the Republican Party’s discredit (and to the Democratic Party’s gain) in Alexandria, with a few exceptions the caliber of candidates declined and the voters responded accordingly, and the fact that there will not be a full slate of Republicans running for Council and no Republican candidate for Mayor should be embarrassing to that party. Statistically there may be more residents of Alexandria who consider themselves Democrats, but the talent pool of Republicans in this city is large, as well, and every election should be challenged.
Back in the 1980s when politics became competitive, the first thing both parties emphasized was to always have full City Council slates of six candidates—run as a team, stand for something and encourage the voters to think about the candidates collectively. Gaming the system by running one or two candidates and encouraging voters to “plunk” speaks volumes to the failure of the Republican Party in Alexandria and is deeply disappointing to anyone who values two-party politics.
It took a long time for politics to become competitive in Alexandria; it did not take that long for it to decline; and it will not get better by wishing for it. Races should be challenged and incumbents should never think they have a seat for life. The voters decide who should serve and the fundamental ingredient of that decision is choices.
At every level of government—local, state, and national—the goal of both parties is to elect their own. If the situation in Alexandria were reversed, there would be just as many people griping about things as there are now, but that should not be to the detriment of the party in power. Simply stated, the success of the Democratic Party in Alexandria is a measure of strong candidates serving effectively, and that will continue until someone or something offers a better message for Alexandria’s future.
Importantly, the key functions of government—public safety, public works, public health and public education—are being managed well. The City of Alexandria runs efficiently, looks good, and responds to those in need as well as any community in America, if not better. For many reasons, public education continues to be a struggle and everyone (not just the politicians!) in Alexandria, regardless of whether one is a parent or not, needs to make a renewed commitment to restoring our school system to what it once was: the envy of the region.
At the local level, the one measure of performance that is universally comparable is the independent financial rating of the city’s debt, and Alexandria has the highest (AAA) that can be given. That rating is the measure of the city’s underlying financial strength, competence of management and ability to finance its ongoing needs. As a practical matter, a top bond rating means that it costs less to borrow money (i.e., issue bonds), which redounds to the benefit of the taxpayers, and that raises the final observation about the state of things in Alexandria.
The ability of the city to continue to run well and look good; to build new schools, fire stations, police facilities; pave roads, repair sidewalks; pay for the people who pick up trash, teach our kids, come quickly when we are sick or injured, protect us in our homes; and meet needs ongoing and unknown is not free and it is not going to get less expensive over time.
Whether it is the waterfront development, Potomac Yard or the Beauregard Small Area Plan, there will be no greater challenge to the city’s future than its ability to grow from within without jeopardizing the quality of life that makes people want to live and work here in the first place. Meeting those challenges can be painful, but they cannot be ignored and there are no “do-overs” once a decision has been implemented. The beauty of Alexandria’s open government is occasionally its liability—that everyone has a say and no one’s opinion is unheard.
When I read comments complaining that the Council does not listen, I know that more often than not it is about not agreeing rather than not listening, and as I have said occasionally about serving in local government, “If someone is not mad at you all the time, you are just not doing your job."
So, I end this piece as it began with an acknowledgement to Gant Redmon for raising important issues about Alexandria—its governance and its politics. I may not agree with his conclusions, but I am grateful that he is making us all think.
David G. Speck