As I sit here looking out into the gloaming of American democracy it can be hard to imagine the return of the light. The smothering darkness of authoritarianism and ignorance advances steadily, concealing the brilliance of the Founders that long illuminated a path winding back through generations to an autumn day in Yorktown.
We have discovered, perhaps too late, that this path was not lit by an eternal flame but rather a flickering candle, buffeted by the cruel winds of factionalism and tribal identity. We have learned, perhaps too late, that enlightenment is not self-sustaining but instead endures only through a shared commitment to a common good and common purpose.
Into these dim days the 2017 elections flashed across the landscape, a beacon of the renewal that could yet come. It is fitting that it was here, in the Commonwealth, that we saw an overwhelming and uniform rejection of creeping demagoguery and the embrace of a public dialogue that emphasizes the welfare of all. It is fitting that it was here, in the Commonwealth, that we saw a return to the foundational purpose of the American experiment.
Here in the Commonwealth, we have returned to governing.
In examining the cohort of new public servants heading to Richmond it is easy, and indeed laudable, to talk about their diversity. They are diverse in ideas, diverse in identity, and diverse in their lived experiences. They have voices and perspectives that have too long been absent from the public square—an absence not of accident or disinterest but rather the intentional result of enforced white male hegemony—and our collective voice is now lifted by their inclusion.
But to look only at their diversity misses a profound insight into this election. These candidates ran, first and foremost, on the issues. They ran on traffic congestion and better schools. They ran on health care costs and zoning concerns. They ran on the everyday issues that mattered to their constituents and the promise to go to Richmond with the aim of making these things better, for everyone.
They ran, in other words, on governing.
What does this mean for us here in Alexandria? It means that we can see the emerging contours of our 2018 local elections, a race that already features a contested Democratic primary for mayor and early jockeying for two open seats on Council. This race should, and will, be a referendum on intent to govern. And it could not come any sooner.
The current council, though generally well-meaning, has struggled to maintain a plausible level of function and efficiency. Meetings drag on interminably as trivial matters like brick choice are chewed over with an undeserved gravity and granularity. Meaningful policy decisions, like the future of our primary business district, are avoided and deferred.
This group has had real successes, but when they’ve stumbled it has been in face of genuinely hard choice – yet hard choices abound. Once again, the city needs to close a significant budget gap and we have long since passed the point that cutting a staff position here and trimming a service there will suffice. We must tackle the hard issues like revenue growth and maintenance of public facilities; by doing so, we can address our critical need to generate the revenues required to fund school facilities, build affordable housing, and pay for a full-service government. We can no longer tolerate unprepared mediocrity, quick with empty platitudes about our treasured, historic city yet clueless when it comes to meaningfully addressing the challenges faced by our city.
As we look toward the primary season, and then on to a general election nearly a year from now, will our city, as did our Commonwealth, choose the path of governing? We can be certain that the field of candidates for Mayor, City Council, and School Board will continue to grow. Candidates with varied backgrounds and degrees of experience will step forward. And as these women and men raise their hands to be chosen for service, they’ll ask us to evaluate them on a wide range of criteria.
But as we, the citizens of Alexandria, consider how we make our choices next year we need to ask ourselves who is ready to lead? Who is ready to make hard but necessary choices that are rarely met with universal acclaim? In other words, our single criterion should be this: who is ready to govern? This, more than anything else, must be the guiding principle for our 2018 election.
This choice, even as the shadows lengthen, is still ours. We can choose to sustain the light or we can choose to stand by, indifferent, as it fades.
I choose the light.
– P.C. Publius
November 29, 2017