by A Siegel
Fairfax County Democratic voters face — for the first time in decades — a real choice as to their nominee for Chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. It isn’t just that there are four candidates seeking our support, but that a reasonable person paying even superficial attention to the race should be able to articulate reasons to vote for (or not vote for) each of the four. This is a good situation for voters, and a reason why I have thought long and hard before coming out with a public endorsement in this race. After consideration of many factors (see discussion below), the choice has become clear to me:
Fairfax County Board of Supervisors
- Put a thoughtful, passionate, inquisitive, ethical, and highly competent person as the adjudicator between and leader of the county’s supervisors, multiple entities, and professional staff(s);
- Leverage grassroots activism into political leadership, providing a new path for openness and engagement between Fairfax County’s citizens and its government;
- Show that Fairfax County voters believe that the county (and its government) is falling short of what it can and should be for its citizens across critical arenas (equity, environmental, …); and,
- Provide a strong statement (in the face of the governor’s, Lt. Governor’s, and Attorney General’s problematic situations) about the role of women and people of color as leaders of the Democratic Party and of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Thinking about this moment
What matters at this moment? What are some factors to consider?
- Fairfax County is one of the wealthiest, most educated, and largest counties in the nation. It regularly scores high in U.S. county rankings (for example, #13 in U.S. News December 2018). The fact is, there are a plethora of reasons why people choose to live here. Of course, the situation isn’t perfect by any means, with, for example, issues (beyond TRAFFIC, TRAFFIC, TRAFFIC) as to: equity across its citizens and communities; environmental stewardship; and other arenas. A core question: are things truly great in Fairfax and with Fairfax governance, and does the County’s government require simply some minor tweaks, or is Fairfax County government falling short of what it can (and must) be?
- With respect to many hard-working (often highly) competent people in Fairfax County government, this voter falls in the second category — with reasons to believe that county governance is “muddling through” and failing to seize a leadership position on key issues that its resources (human capital of citizens, wealth base, corporate/business community) could enable and which our situation requires. As someone else eloquently put it:
“The county has been managed for years with stability that has crowded out vision and imagination, an emphasis on process that has stifled bold initiatives. … the county remains stuck in an endless cycle that never solves problems [n]or fully meets the needs of vulnerable county residents.”
- For instance, while the county government has recently (finally) made advances related to clean energy, Fairfax is failing to adequately understand and address climate crisis risks and opportunities that result from decisions to invest seriously in climate solutions. Simply put, Fairfax is muddling through and falling behind when it should be leading.
- The U.S. political system is, to put it politely, under strain. Some seem to believe that Trump is an aberration, with institutions guaranteeing our republic’s health, while there is a strong case to be made that we hover on the edge of authoritarianism and the end of our experiment in democracy.
- This Democratic voter sees the second and respects/supports those who have engaged strongly (through for example, grassroots activism) to help turn the tide and put the nation back on a path toward a healthier future.
- Near the top of Fairfax County Supervisors’ roles and responsibilities is land-use decision-making. A question to ask: are the Supervisors in service to developers or to citizens?
- For this voter, developers have, for too long, had too much of a voice in county governance (like Dominion Energy has with Virginia politics) – and this should change.
- Virginia made national news for too many wrong reasons earlier this year, with Northam’s “blackface photos” scandal, and with credible sexual assault accusations against Justin Fairfax. In the face of such ignominy, does the race and gender of the Fairfax County Board Chair matter?
- While generally striving to avoid “identity politics” in deciding who to support in Democratic primaries, the fact is that Northam, Fairfax and (sigh) Herring have collectively put a cloud over Virginia politics (nationally and internationally). Amid other considerations, a question to ask: all else considered, which candidate would provide the strongest statement and symbol in counterpoint to Northam and Fairfax?
Thinking through these questions and issues were core to my decision to endorse Alicia Plerhoples.
Some thoughts as to each candidate
Again, to reemphasize, one can articulate reasons to support each of the four candidates and, honestly, I gave serious consideration to each of them.
Jeff McKay has been a hard working staff member and Supervisor. By all accounts, he is a competent man who is “ready” to run the Board from day one. In debates, he has provided the clearest “elevator speech” articulation as to “why Jeff McKay”: taking credit for Fairfax County doing well, and asserting that he has the agenda for the “nudges” to make Fairfax even better.
While that “nudges” agenda is, as per above, not mine, there is a more troubling issue. McKay is quite close to and entangled with developers well beyond simply an issue of campaign financing, as exemplified by the issues with his purchase of his home from a developer friend. While unconvinced that this involved a(n explicit) quid pro quo or otherwise illegal acts, McKay’s behavior in the home purchase process (keeping it secret; having an “off-the-market sale,” etc …) raises questions about understanding substantive issues related to elected officials’ relationships (business and otherwise) with key influence groups. When challenged by an anonymously circulated documentation of his home purchase strongly suggesting (one step short of directly accusing) criminal activity, McKay didn’t emerge with memos or records about discussions with the County’s lawyers clearing his moves that would have indicated an understanding of the tricky legal and ethical issues of close business activity with developers. This situation makes me wonder: Does Jeff McKay understand the importance of living up to the spirit (and not just the letter) of the law?
Ryan McElveen has admirably served on the Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) Board which, to be clear, is an under-compensated and all-too-often stressful (think about dealing with parents infuriated about a school boundary change) position to hold. Thus, a thank you to Ryan (and most other School Board members) for his willingness to devote so much time and energy to what is too often a thankless task. Based on my interactions with him, he is more than ‘“Mr. Snow Day,” but is thoughtful, decent, and concerned about/focused on issues of import.
I had the opportunity to serve about seven years on a School Board advisory committee. While this does not represent the vast majority of FCPS’s dedicated and competent staff, this position (sadly) gave a window on situations where FCPS professional staff undermined School Board directions, dissembled about options, deceived about situations, and even (yes, even documented in writing at least one time) outright lied to that committee and even School Board members attending meetings. Regretfully, even while private conversations confirmed understanding of this, the School Board, including Ryan McElveen, failed to hold these (errant … hopefully) staff to account nor acted to rectify the problems. This is the key role for the School Board — and Supervisors.
Tim Chapman is a successful developer of low-income housing and served on (and as Chair of) Virginia Housing and Development Authority (VHDA) Board. My acquaintances in this world speak highly of him, telling me that Chapman has made his fortune by being a quality player in his ‘niche’ of the ecosystem in providing housing across the economic spectrum. Chapman’s very business, however, is of concern. Would electing a developer Chair put the fox in charge of the henhouse?
While recent news about Chapman’s arrest record has some concerned, far more serious is his failure of the “Jim Webb test.” Tim Chapman has given a lot of money to political candidates over the years. While most has gone to Democratic Party candidates (searching databases back to 1999 shows $266k for D candidates and $56k to Rs), he maxed out for Barbara Comstock (R) in 2016, gave the max to Scott Taylor (R) less than a year ago, and…seriously … donated $15,000 to crazy Ken Cuccinelli (R) in 2013! With three other passionate and engaged Democratic candidates, does the Democratic Party really wish to nominate someone who has been so “#bothsides” in his political contributions?
Alicia Plerhoples is a Georgetown Law Professor who truly represents the greatest of the American dream. Growing up, her (strong, resilient, supportive) family had financial challenges, including home eviction. From this situation, with academic achievement and student loans, Alicia went to the pinnacle of the American educational system: Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. She taught at Stanford, before taking the position at Georgetown and choosing (as so many of us have) to become a Fairfax County resident (and voter).
I have had the chance to get to know Alicia through her role in the creation of and leadership of Virginia Democracy Forward — a booming grassroots Democratic group that has helped numerous Democratic candidates in Virginia (and elsewhere) with boots on the ground canvassing, fundraising, post-card writing, and so much else. Thoughtful, substantive, learning, caring, considerate, passionate, ethical … someone who I simply respect and am proud to have as an acquaintance. Thus, to be clear, the endorsement is in part due to that personal knowledge and acquaintance.
As to the questions and issues above, Alicia Plerhoples:
- Sees Fairfax County falling short of what it can — and should — be. She offers a progressive vision for positive change to help make Fairfax County a true leader;
- Helped create a strong grassroots activism group and knows how to foster greater civic engagement to boost our democratic institutions in the face of Trump; and
- Has refused to take developer money and has practiced real-estate law — she won’t be beholden to developers and has the background to ask hard(er) questions of staff and project developers.
Finally, by electing Alicia Plerhoples, Fairfax County Democratic Party voters can not only get an intelligent, passionate, ethical County Chair ready to provide engaged oversight of our (generally very high quality, dedicated) County staff, but also provide an implicit rejection of the situation with statewide elected officials, and a strong statement about the role of women and people of color in political leadership. The importance of such a statement becomes clearer when one considers stories such as this one, about the Washington Post‘s failure to endorse a single woman as the (male) Virginia editorial page editor madesexist remarks about women. On June 11, I encourage everyone to send a message that this type of attitude is unacceptable – by voting for Alicia Plerhoples for Fairfax County Board Chair!