Allison Silberberg wants her old job back. From 2016 to 2019, she served as mayor of Alexandria until losing re-election to her vice mayor, Justin Wilson. Now the two are set for a rematch in the June 8 Democratic primary, bringing with them competing visions for the city of 160,000.
Silberberg submitted her candidate application just the day before the filing deadline of March 25. That was after announcing in January that she would not run.
“It’s rare for people to declare, definitively, that they’re not running for something, and then to turn around and say, oh yeah, actually, I’m going to run,” said Michael Pope, who has reported on the city’s elections for the Alexandria Gazette Packet and Northern Virginia Magazine.
Until Silberberg entered the race, Wilson, 42, was set to be unopposed in the primary. With effectively no Republican opposition, he was a shoe-in to be re-elected.
Pope said Silberberg brings a constituency with her, and this 2021 election is the best time to dislodge Wilson from the mayor’s office.
“The people that don’t like the mayor and don’t like his issues view Silberberg as someone who can take him on,” Pope said. “Anytime you’re going to knock off an incumbent, your best shot is that first election, right? So if Wilson is ever going to be successfully challenged, this is the year to do it.”
In an interview, Silberberg said she initially chose not to run as she was “confident that another candidate would step forward to challenge the incumbent.”
In February, it appeared that candidate would be Alexandria city council member Mo Seifeldein, who Silberberg said was “someone who shared many of my values and vision” and could “carry forth the mantle that I had set forth previously.” But Seifeldein dropped out of the race about two weeks after announcing his candidacy.
“And that left the incumbent mayor with no opponent to question his current policies,” Silberberg said. “I got in this race a week ago because I wanted to build upon my accomplishments and also to make sure that there’s a steady hand at this crucial time.”
Silberberg said Wilson is “committed to out-of-scale over-building.” She opposes removing trees as part of the city’s stream restoration projects at Taylor, Lucky and Strawberry runs. And she wants to reverse the city’s 2019 renovation of Seminary Road, in which one section was reduced from four lanes to two with added bike lanes.
Silberberg said Wilson has a “huge temper” and is dismissive of critics or anyone who challenges him on an issue.
“That’s what [Wilson does], lies and distortions and bullying. That’s their M.O. And I think that people are tired of it. And I’m here to bring a steady hand back to our city and move us forward.”
Wilson, for his part, has kept his peace when it comes to Silberberg. But before a Democratic straw poll on Monday, he said, “I am running for another term as your mayor because I believe that by investing in our children, investing in our infrastructure and growing our local economy, Alexandria cannot only survive after this pandemic, but thrive.”
In the unscientific poll, Wilson emerged with 56.2 percent of the votes over Silberberg’s 43.8 percent, according to news outlets.
Silberberg, 58, attends services at Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria and Temple Sinai in Washington.
Her first taste of elected office came in 2012 when she was elected to the Alexandria City Council. Because she was the council’s top vote getter, she also became vice mayor.
In 2015, Silberberg ran for mayor in a three-way primary and won by 318 votes against four-term incumbent William Euille. Former mayor Kerry Donley came in third. That fall, Silberberg won in the general election.
“That really shook up the applecart because both Donley and Euille were candidates of the establishment,” said Denise Dunbar, publisher and executive editor of the Alexandria Times. “And Allison was much more a candidate of people who were not happy with the direction of the city.”
Dunbar described Silberberg as a “change agent,” a new face who wanted to take Alexandria in a different direction. Silberberg, both as mayor and vice mayor, often cast either the lone or a minority vote in opposition to the rest of the council.
“So she wasn’t able to accomplish a lot of her agenda because she was often the lone voice up there,” Dunbar said.
Pope described Silberberg as the council’s “chief separatist.”
In 2018, Silberberg ran for re-election against Wilson, who had served three non-consecutive terms on the council. The race between the two was “close,” according to Dunbar. Silberberg lost the primary by 1,259 votes.
But Dunbar said the situation is different in this rematch as a number of groups have formed in recent years out of discontent with the local government. Dunbar said there’s a “natural constituency” that could be formed out of these people.
“Allison is sort of the face in the political vehicle for a lot of people who are not happy with the direction of the city,” Dunbar said. “All of these groups thought that they weren’t going to have a standard-bearer in this election, so now they do.”
Those bike lanes rankle. In 2019, residents created an anti-bike lane Facebook group, called Bring Integrity Back to Alexandria! Today it has 2,300 members.
“I can’t underestimate how nuts this made people in that part of Alexandria,” Pope said of the bike lanes. “It’s not like the bike lanes are universally hated. There are many people who love the bike lanes and use them, but there are also lots of people who hate the bike lanes and see the bike lanes as Justin Wilson’s approach to growth and development.”
Pope said the construction around Seminary Road is emblematic of how Silberberg and Wilson differ. Wilson is seen as an “urbanist,” someone who supports adding bike lanes, expanding mass transit and instituting parking maximums on construction projects. Silberberg, on the other hand, is seen as the “anti-mayor,” someone who supports parking minimums and preserving nature.
The next election “could dramatically change the direction of the city,” Dunbar said.
Who will clinch the nomination is anyone’s guess. “It’s truly a toss-up. [Wilson] has the benefit of the incumbency and of being backed by city leadership, and [Silberberg] has the momentum of all of these people who were upset,” Dunbar said. “And it probably boils down to whoever can more effectively turn out their voters on Election Day.”