Alexandria’s mayoral and council candidates gathered for the first time under one roof ahead of the June 12 Democratic primary and November general election.
Tenants and Workers United, Alexandria’s NAACP chapter and Grassroots Alexandria hosted the event at Cora Kelly Elementary School on May 18.
The crowded panel included both mayoral candidates, 11 of the 12 Democratic council candidates, Republican candidate Kevin Dunne and two newly declared candidates: Republican Michael Clinkscale and Independent Mark Shiffer.
Chris Hubbard did not attend the forum because he was at a conference in Savannah, Georgia. Hubbard’s wife, Jackie, read his opening and closing statements, but did not participate in the question-and-answer portion of the evening.
The forum was structured as a series of four 30-second timed response questions and eight yes-or-no lightning round questions. The meat of the forum was sandwiched between 90-second opening and closing statements from each candidate.
When moderators asked the candidates a question about defending and supporting immigrants, all Democratic candidates erred on the side of equal treatment.
Canek Aguirre said he’d work to ensure everyone had driver’s licenses, a sentiment echoed by several other candidates.
John Chapman suggested a threefold approach to supporting immigrants: making it easier for immigrants to acquire driver’s licenses, ensuring legal resources are available and improving accessibility to city services.
Mo Seifeldein said he’d work with the sheriff’s office and police department to ensure both documented and undocumented Alexandrians are protected from unlawful seizure. Del Pepper said she supported protecting both documented and undocumented residents.
“They are part of our community,” Pepper said. “I think the best thing that we can do is … to vote for people who agree with that kind of view on the local level, the state level and the national level. That’s where it counts.”
Dunne and Shiffer said immigration was not an issue that should be addressed by local authorities.
“Local resources should solve local problems,” Shiffer said.
Clinkscale said immigrants should take the steps to obtain legal residence or leave.
On the much-discussed topic of affordable housing, incumbent city council members reiterated the views they’ve expressed on the dais in past months.
Challenger Amy Jackson said she supported affordable housing and was happy the meals tax had passed, but did not support dedicated funding in the future.
“If we dedicate funding to affordable housing, we’re going to have to dedicate funding to education, open spaces and it goes on and on and on and when we’re in the face of an emergency, we won’t have the money,” she said.
Hardwick also expressed an objection to dedicated funding because he said it limited funding for affordable housing to $4.75 million and created a ceiling rather than a floor.
Moderators then asked candidates about police data transparency.
“I support releasing police data transparency on arrests and stops,” Elizabeth Bennett-Parker said. “However, these issues come at the end of an arrest or stop, and we also need to address the beginning by making sure we’re constantly monitoring and evaluating our racial sensitivity and bias training.”
Willie Bailey it was important that city council, as a body, held the police department accountable and gathered information to build trust with the community.
Paul Smedberg said the city has invested in software and technology to help get to the level of transparency the residents would like to see.
Robert Ray did not address data transparency and, instead, said his biggest concern with Alexandria’s police force was bringing their salaries up to a competitive level with surrounding jurisdictions.
Perhaps one of the most telling questions of the forum was, “If you had to champion just one cause, what would it be?”
Mayor Allison Silberberg, Pepper, Chapman and Bailey said they would focus on affordable housing.
Vice Mayor Justin Wilson, Jackson and Hardwick said they’d choose causes related to education. Wilson and Jackson both emphasized the importance of funding early childhood education, while Hardwick said he’d focus on ending deferrals to renovate George Mason, Douglas MacArthur and Cora Kelly elementary schools.
Smedberg said he’d focus on transit and multimodal transportation, Seifeldein said he would prioritize quality of life and Ray said he would work toward community impact on city government policy. Matt Feely said he’d champion ending the bad relationship between federal law and municipalities, Dunne said financial responsibility, Bennett-Parker said modernizing the city’s zoning and permitting processes and Aguirre said police transparency.
Shiffer, the newly declared independent candidate, said he’d focus on the budget and the city’s 10-year CIP. The newly declared Republican candidate, Clinkscale, said he would promote apprenticeship programs for citizens in fields such as plumbing, carpentry and masonry.
After the open-ended period, the forum shifted to an eight-question lightning round that elicited several unpopular opinions among the candidate pool.
Feely was the only candidate to say that armed school resource officers should be placed in the city’s elementary schools.
“It’s not arming teachers; that’s a resource officer,” Feely said in defense of his response.
Kevin Dunne was the only one to express views against eliminating discrimination toward the LGBTQ community. He answered “no” to two questions: whether he supported adding “gender identity” as a protected class in the city’s non-discrimination ordinance and whether he would direct the Office of Human Rights to fully pursue cases of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Dunne, along with Clinkscale, also disagreed with all of the other candidates on increasing funding so that all children can attend preschool, creating a more comprehensive displacement plan for residents impacted by upcoming development projects and establishing funding to support pending applications for DACA and temporary protected status recipients.
The next debate for mayoral candidates takes place May 30. The Alexandria Democratic Committee will host Silberberg and Wilson at George Washington Middle School at 7 p.m.