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Interview: Port City Publius opens up about Alexandria

For five years Port City Publius has let fly. The anonymous blogger won’t shy from criticizing the superintendent, or blasting “NIMBY” residents who favor changing the leadership of City Council.

Who is this writer? Is Port City Publius more than one person?

Port City Publius wouldn’t answer those specific questions, but the writer opined on a number of Alexandria-centric topics in a recent interview.

ALXnow: You are very funny in your posts. Who are your favorite writers?

Port City Publius: Charlie Pierce is a good example of someone whose writing and worldview has influenced my approach; I definitely have an affinity for the ink-stained wretch set. Caitlin Flanagan writes the way I want to write, though the majority of her takes suck pretty bad. Alexandra Petri, without question. Tressie McMillan Cottom. James Baldwin. Ursula Le Guin. bell hooks. Mel Brooks. Tolkien, except for the Silmarillion which is terrible and anyone who says otherwise is lying to themselves. C. Wright Mills and Arlie Russell Hochschild. All the writers in the Jezebel and Deadspin diaspora remain indispensable. Elizabeth Bruenig often makes me challenge and reassess my priors. I’ve read Jamelle Bouie and Matt Yglesias going back to when they were both at Slate. I think Jason Isbell has a lot of smart things to say.

ALXnow: What inspired you to embark as Port City Publius?

Port City Publius: You know the famous scene from Network, the one where the sweaty guy is shouting about how angry he is? Well that was me five years ago. I finally sat through one too many public meetings where the only testimony was from retirees with incredibly intense outlier opinions about how many buildings built after 1800 should exist (none) how much noise and fun is ok (also none) and how many working-class people could be permitted to try and eke out a life in this city (spoiler: it’s none again). It remains fu**ing wild to me that nearly anyone who wants to run a business in this city has to first put up with some guy named Carl who last worked for OMB in 1987 say that he’d really rather they only be open from 1-3pm on alternate Tuesdays because the shadows cast by business patrons might damage the rare book collection he keeps near the front windows of his home.

I knew from conversations with different groups of friends and sewing circles and tennis partners and drinking buddies that most people around here felt pretty differently about things, but this perspective wasn’t being heard or included in public dialogues because we have, uh, lives and sh**. So I set out to put a voice to that. To establish a counter-narrative to the intensely tedious NIMBY bull**** that had infected the waterfront plan, among other things at that time.

ALXnow: When do you decide to publish? Do you only strike when needed?

Port City Publius: First I ask myself “do I have real work to do this week” at which point the answer is usually yes and nothing gets published. Beyond that, I’m typically looking for something to catalyze my internal barometer of “well that sh** can’t stand.”

ALXnow: What are you going to write about next? Is there a list of topics, or do you shoot from the hip?

Port City Publius: As Gloria Steinem famously said, without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming after all is a form of planning. I’m sorry what was the question again?

ALXnow: What is your political philosophy? Has it changed over the last few years? What prompted that change?

Port City Publius: I think we have an obligation to prevent the immiseration of each and every one of our fellow citizens, and that government intervention is a necessary and crucial part of that. I’d say I generally follow the teachings and live the values that right-wing Christians pretend to believe in: you know, loving your neighbor and taking care of the poor and seeing the worth and potential in every person and whatnot.

To the extent that you can map me onto the political spectrum, I’d fairly describe myself as progressive; but I also think the left/right dichotomy is often reductive, and both mainstream political parties can be pretty lame and show excessive deference to the status quo at the expense of pursuing transformative change.

ALXnow: You like saying ‘Yes’ to development and decry NIMBY’s. Can you spell out the future that you’d like to see realized for the city?

Port City Publius: Used in this context “development” is an essentially useless term that has been effectively weaponized by the modern inheritors of the Know-Nothings. I think we should say yes to a wide variety of things that move this city forward in a manner that benefits a broad constituency of residents and interests, even if the proposed thing looks and feels different and isn’t made of bricks and cobblestone. I would not broadly describe each of these things as “development.” If I built you a gorgeous brand-new public waterfront park, would you call that “development”? If I tear down an over-enrolled and under-maintained elementary school and replace it with a beautiful new building, is that “development”? I think it tremendously sucks that the grumps and busybodies in this city get to describe anything they benefit from as “investment” and anything they think inconveniences them as “development.”

The future I want is one in which we radically reduce the resident veto over the ability to do business here. This is not the goddamn United States Senate, old white men do not have a divine right to filibuster the necessary progress desired by the majority of the populace. I want a future where more people try out the words “sure, why not” rather than their reflexive “well, actually.”

There exists an intense bias toward the preservation of the status quo, even on the part of (especially on the part of) people who otherwise think of themselves as well-meaning. I am reminded of King’s disappointment in the white moderate, and his searing observation that “shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will” and really the point I’m trying to make here is that more of you need to read “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

The future that I want for us is one in which we do things that make us feel uncomfortable because feeling a little uncomfortable is actually ok.

ALXnow: With the most recent primary election, is the city headed in the direction you want?

Port City Publius: I think the seven candidates on the Democratic slate generally seem like well-intentioned, thoughtful people. And I think we can roughly extrapolate that they would govern in a well-intentioned and thoughtful manner. I think it’s hilarious that a dude who worked for Jesse Helms is laboring under the deluded belief that someone who accommodated and enabled a notorious segregationist can get elected here.

But I also think the notion of the city being headed in a particular direction lasts exactly as long as the interval of time between each council public hearing. The people on that dais are complicated, flawed, fallible people — just like each of us. The exercise here is not to bestow upon them some blank cheque mandate to go forth and rule over Pax Alexandria, may the sun never set on our empire. No, we should challenge them and hold them to account and measure their success by the fidelity to which they hew to the shared values they have publicly committed to. This is not baseball. You should not be a fan of one party or another–of one politician or another–and in doing so blindly overlook the ways in which they are failing to live up to the best version of themselves. They are public servants. They are an avatar of our collective will, and we should never lose sight of that.

That all being said: do I think we are headed in a better direction right now than if the candidates mostly running because they thought city council was like a Super HOA had won? Yes. Yes I do think we are headed in a better direction.

ALXnow: The Bring Integrity Back to Alexandria Facebook group lost strength after the primary. None of their candidates made it on the ballot for November. What does that tell you?

Port City Publius: That they probably shouldn’t have kicked so many people out of the group.

No, listen. I sort of mean that. Their thin-skinned pettiness is absolutely the reason they didn’t win anyone around to their point of view. They kicked out so many people! And every one of those people told ten other people (who told ten other people, and so on) what a joke that group was. If you create an environment in which you kick out anyone who doesn’t gleefully parrot the propaganda you’re pushing, what kind of group will you be left with? Please don’t say the modern Republican party. Ok fine I see how I left myself open to that joke. Very good. You’re very clever, we get it.

My point is you can’t persuade anyone if you drive off everyone that doesn’t agree with you. And also that people will see right through your bullsh** when you define “integrity” as “willingness to do the highly specific and sort of weird sh** I want” and constantly flex that definition based on the proximate needs of acting out your irrational hatred of a certain local politician.

ALXnow: Are groups like BIBA merely a new-normal part of local conversations? Or is this a direct result of politics getting turned up 11 notches and Republicans trying to influence things?

Port City Publius: I think this is a great reminder that politics is hard and best not left to sloppy amateurs in an information bubble fixated on issues that most people genuinely don’t give a sh** about.

ALXnow: Aren’t you essentially the same kind of critical voice as BIBA — a resident(s) who has had it with what they perceive to be ridiculous elements in the community? Or is your voice representative of Democratic values and theirs is representative of… something else?

Port City Publius: I don’t see an equivalence. I deploy righteous indignation and world-weary exhaustion as a rhetorical technique in service of advocating for policies and actions that largely benefit people that aren’t me. They think someone paved a road wrong for Suspicious Reasons.

I think if I woke up one morning and decided to dedicate most of my free time to complaining on the internet about all of the ways that I was personally inconvenienced by things meant to improve the lives of people that have less than me, well, I think I’d have to do quite a bit of soul searching about that.

My sincere advice for people in this city–for anyone anywhere really–is to be more selfless. Stop looking for ways that the ordinary progress of the world is secretly a targeted attack on you, personally. Stop looking for reasons to be so upset about everything. Hurl your laptop into a river and live your life, which I need you to understand is really pretty great relative to any global or historic measure.  Facebook and numerous other parts of the modern media ecosystem are intentionally making you upset so they can sell you brain pills and reverse mortgages and whateverthefu** else. You don’t have to play their game. You really don’t.

ALXnow: Are you going to endorse any City Council or School Board candidates? If so, who?

Port City Publius: I think we should abolish the school board and return control of schools to the city. Does that count as an endorsement?

ALXnow: It doesn’t look like you’re anti-establishment. You are often highly critical of the City’s critics by backing Mayor Justin Wilson and city plans and departments. What elements of the current government are you critical of? How are the City manager’s office, police department and school system holding up, for instance?

Port City Publius: I think if we had actively and intentionally set out to have terrible schools leadership during this crisis it would have been utterly indistinguishable from our actual experience. We’ve gotten this far through a mixture of inertia, dumb luck, and the titanic efforts of parents and families and individual teachers and administrators; because it has been astonishingly clear that the superintendent is terrified to make any choice that could ultimately be deemed unsuccessful and have that failure accrue to him and his reputation. He’s the football coach that always punts on 4th and 1 because that’s what convention says and if you follow convention and fu** up, you don’t get blamed, the punter does. This dude is writing a book about educational leadership! A book! That is off the charts Andrew Cuomo energy! I hope the Raleigh Unified School District–or wherever the hell he finds the next rung of the ladder he thinks he’s climbing–hurries up and makes him an offer so our community can get someone with creativity and moral courage into this job. A book. Jesus.

The police seem fine.

ALXnow: You are not always praising local politicians, like former Mayor Silberberg. Are you connected to the @ALXBottle handle? It reads similarly to your style, as you both are highly critical of her.

Port City Publius: Surely you can accept that the sample size of local residents who think the former mayor was a dilettante who never bothered to learn or execute the core competencies of the role she was serving in is an N larger than 1.

Besides, my burner account is a Ron Swanson parody joint. I don’t have time to run another one.

ALXnow: How would you rate Justin Wilson’s performance as mayor?

Port City Publius: 85% Fresh.

ALXnow: Why keep your identity secret? Are you maintaining anonymity as an effort to protect your butler? What happens if you write under your real name? Could you lose your day job?

Port City Publius: I think if my identity came out, most people would think it was unbecoming of a former secretary of state and presidential candidate to write an ongoing series of essays about a city she’s never lived in. Plus I already got in enough trouble for the email server thing, I’m not just going to hand the New York Times another round of bullsh** for Peggy Noonan to freebase, you know what I mean?

ALXnow: When you write, “Port City Publius is committed to seeing Alexandria thrive for generations to come,” what does that mean? What kind of commitment are you talking about? Like, no matter what you won’t move away and will keep writing?

Port City Publius: It means that all of us need to be better about making choices that don’t directly or immediately benefit ourselves; but are instead done in the interest of improving the lives of people we will never know or never meet. We live in a society, man.

ALXnow: Alexandria City Public Schools have been criticized for their handling of the pandemic. While a broad question, how do you think the school system is doing and how would you characterize the effectiveness of their leadership at the upper-staff and elected levels?

Port City Publius: I think I answered this a few questions ago when I called the superintendent a mendacious hack.

ALXnow: What issues are you looking at in your crystal ball affecting the city? Increased taxes? Employee compensation? Affordable housing? Flooding? Development? These seem like perpetual problems that have plagued the city for generations.

Port City Publius: I haven’t seen anyone talking about renaming streets in Old Town so I think I’ll probably tackle that? In all seriousness – everything you list here is really important and are each deserving of substantive dialogue and consideration. And there has been a great deal of that already, on a wide range of forums. One of the reasons that I feel so very lucky to live in this city is to be around so many people who both care about making things better and apply their considerable skills and talents to that task. I’d embrace the chance to add clarity and purpose to the discussion of any of these issues, should my thoughts come together in a way worth sharing. As long as, you know, the Emmys aren’t on or something.

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