Alexandria mayoral candidate Steven Peterson is a political newcomer and he’s coming out swinging

Alexandria mayoral candidate Steven Peterson with his wife, Martha (Courtesy photo)

Steven Peterson is like no other Democrat running for office in Alexandria, and he wants to be the mayor.

From his opinions on racial undertones killing the Potomac Yard arena deal to wanting to reverse a slew of zoning reforms approved last year by City Council, one thing is crystal clear: Peterson is unfiltered.

“My father used to tell me ‘Only the lead dog has a good view,'” Peterson said. “I have no interest in becoming a city councilperson. I don’t want to be one of six. I want to be in spheres of influence.”

A newcomer in the small world of Alexandria politics, the “semi-retired” real estate developer decided before Christmas to run against Vice Mayor Amy Jackson and City Council Member Alyia Gaskins in the June 18 Democratic Primary for mayor.

“This is not a stepping stone for me in the future like it might be for Gaskins and Jackson,” Peterson said. “If I believe in something, you might not like my opinion, but you’re gonna know why.”

As for what he wants to accomplish in office, Peterson gave a simple, Reagan-esqe answer.

“I want people to be able to say, I have a better quality of life now than I had three years ago when Peterson started,” he said. “I don’t care if you’re a janitor or a billionaire. Everyone wants a better quality of life.”

Peterson is the son of legendary real estate developer Milton Peterson, founder of Peterson Companies and longtime chair of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority. The family is firmly Republican, and Peterson Companies is one of the largest private developers in the region. The company managed the development of National Harbor, and Steven Peterson, in fact, was the project manager in that particular large-scale development.

“I learned a hell of a lot from the guy,” Peterson said of his father. “He had a big following. He had a big ego, but he also knew how to get the best out of people to come to a consensus.”

He also spent $30,000 on a “polling study” to determine his chances in the election. The phone poll was conducted in March, according to multiple sources.

“After conducting a $30,000 polling study on various issues that involve the city, I was surprised that the issue of crime was not higher on people’s agenda,” Peterson said. “There was somewhat of a feeling as though, ‘Well, if my car wasn’t stolen or I wasn’t personally robbed, it’s not high on my agenda.’ Well, I can assure you that the fact overall crime was up 30% in 2023 and car thefts were up 58% will be a major mandate on my agenda.”

On April 4, the filing deadline date, Peterson submitted the necessary signatures and paperwork to officially run for mayor. Incidentally, he doesn’t want to be identified as a Democrat, or a Republican, despite running in the June 18 Democratic primary. He also says, if elected, he’ll take on the job full-time and donate his salary to the Alexandria Police Foundation.

“I don’t want to be seen as a Republican or a Democrat,” Peterson said. “I want to be seen as a guy who cares about the issues and wants to create solutions based upon the problems.”

Peterson takes pride in having declared himself as the first mayoral candidate to go against the recently failed Potomac Yard arena deal. The “about” page of his campaign website is exclusively devoted to his opposition of the plan to move the Washington Wizards and Capitals from D.C. to Alexandria. He also likes to joke that Jackson followed his lead when he openly opposed the arena.

“Amy Jackson did the Michael Jackson Moonwalk,” he said. “The reason she did the Moonwalk backwards? Maybe it was that Peterson is totally against it. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m reading the tea leaves. I gotta go against it.'”

Peterson says that there were racial undertones at play between Senate Pro Tempore Louise Lucas (D-18), the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Republican Governor Glen Youngkin during the General Assembly’s consideration of the proposal. Lucas effectively killed the House of Delegates’ Potomac Yard arena bill in committee, denying Youngkin the chance to include it in the fiscal year 2025 budget.

According to Peterson, “The undertones of the racial issue with Lucas being the first Black (woman) with power in the State of Virginia, she’s the first one that comes out and says, ‘I’m the first one and I’m not gonna screw this up. I’m not gonna let Youngkin screw this up. I’m not going to be saying, ‘I was the first Black woman in power and I screwed it up. I’m not going to allow that.’ And I respect that decision.”

On the future of the 12-acre Potomac Yard property, Peterson echoed the latest sentiments of landowner JBG Smith CEO Matt Kelly, who recently told the Washington Business Journal that the area could turn into a tech corridor.

“Good real estate is always gonna find a good use eventually, right?” Peterson said. “It’s just not gonna be an arena. You’ve got a nice site that is located right near Metro, less than five miles from the world’s capital. You’re in a pretty good position, and you got companies like Amazon that want to move here. Why? There’s a reason why Virginia Tech put a billion dollars in, because you got good Metro, you got a good infrastructure, you got a quality citizen base for employment.”

Peterson is already anticipating attacks from his new political rivals.

“They’re gonna take their shots at me and say, ‘He’s a Republican, he’s a rich developer,'” Peterson said. “I don’t think Republican or Democrat, whether it’s crime, affordable housing and smart growth, whether it’s responsible land use. We have budgetary issues that we have to address as we move forward.”

Peterson is often accompanied on the campaign trail by his wife, Martha Shaw Peterson, and the pair have seven children. He’s lived in the city for 25 years, during which time he’s been a member of multiple boards, including the boards of St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School, the Inova Alexandria Hospital Foundation, and Middlebury College in Vermont. He also has a degree in liberal arts from Middlebury College.

Peterson wants to reverse last year’s overhaul of zoning ordinances, including Council’s citywide elimination of single family zoning. The zoning reforms were seen by Council as a way to increase affordable residential development in the city.

“They basically took up the Constitution of Virginia and said to hell with it,” Peterson said. “I would go back to the where we were (the city’s previous zoning policies prior to the Council action) and I will talk to about the citizenry about this.”

Peterson says that public distrust of Council has opened an opportunity for his leadership. While he has nothing against City Manager Jim Parajon, he says that Wilson runs the city like a dictator.

“What I’ve ever seen over the last six, eight months is not the way I would run the city,” Peterson said. “As a former developer, I don’t like the way he just comes in and mandates from the top down. There’s not my style, and that’s not what I’m going to do if I’m the mayor, and I think that’s gonna resonate with people.”

Peterson said Parajon seems to be a fiscally disciplined businessman.

“You’re dealing with an $850 million budget,” he said. “You got to spread that money around somewhere and everyone has their hand out, right? And I think that by the mere fact Wilson’s got a big ego, and he runs that city, as I’ve said, like a dictatorship, and he won’t mess around with him (Parajon) too much, which leads me to believe that he’s pretty successful at what he does.”

Still, Peterson echoes the sentiments of other candidates who criticise an imbalance in the city’s tax revenue structure.

“Twenty years ago, 50% of the residential taxes were paying for the budget,” he said. “Now it’s 82% are paying the $850 million budget. That’s not good, smart, responsible government. You just can’t put it on the citizens.”

Three days before filing his candidacy, Peterson emailed ALXnow a statement on his various political positions. That full statement is below the jump.

As I have stated in the past, I am not your typical politician. I am constantly asking the question, “Is your life better off today the it was 3 years ago?”

When I decided to run for mayor, I noted the similarities between being a mayor and a CEO of a company: “Identify problems, and help create solutions.” In addition, “Find the best people to achieve these goals, and get the heck out of their way, and do not micromanage.”

If you do, then you do not trust them.

What I have also discerned is that being a mayor is not the same as being a CEO. A CEO tends to run by mandate, with a top down approach. A mayor is a public servant, and, thus, must help manage the city through transparency and consensus.

Transparency is the key to trust and overall success.

The demise of the arena deal can be debated on multiple fronts moving forward for this “mandate” approach. From a first blush economic perspective, the arena deal presented some intriguing possibilities:

  • Economic tax base diversification for the city
  • A potential mixed use anchor for the approved 8 million ft. of approved uses at Potomac Yards years ago.

But after further reviewing the deal, there was very little transparency and citizen input prior to and after the Monument Group/Governor Younkin/Mayor Wilson press a conference on 12/13/2023.

While there was a mixed bag of apprehension and curiosity, the citizens clearly wanted answers as it related to:

  • Crime potential in surrounding areas
  • Local increased traffic and parking issues
  • Potential metro improvements
  • Potential future financial financial obligations of the citizens of Alexandria and the state of Virginia.

In the citizens’ opinions, these issues were clearly not vetted and spoke out in an assuming manner and a final outcome came out to fruition. The arena will stay put in D.C, with a $515m cash infusion over the next 3 years, with a new 50 year lease.

With all off this stated, Potomac Yards and its surrounding neighborhoods continue to be an extremely desirable location for world class mixed use now and in the coming years ahead, and is only less than 5 miles from our nation’s capital.

A new anchor will emerge eventually, just not a sports arena. The arena deal caught the most attention, but its not necessarily the most important issues facing our city.

Affordable Housing: The solution to affordable housing is not necessarily rent subsidies and ADU mandates. The solution is more about housing and regulatory entitlement relief. The city needs to create a housing model that facilitates a range of housing price points that meet the needs of our thriving yet diverse community.

Student Education: The existing school system is not working. Future educational success is about preparing our students for life and empowering the future generation by demanding that education is on then right path by fostering excellence in every classroom. This is not happening. How are successful cities around the country dealing with this massive issue? Find out the successful programs and Mind Share.

After conducting a $30,000 polling study on various issues that involve the city, I was surprised that the issue of Crime was not higher on people’s agenda. There was somewhat of a feeling as though, ‘Well, if my car wasn’t stolen or I wasn’t personally robbed, it’s not high on my agenda.’ Well, I can assure you that the fact overall crime was up 30% in 2023 and car thefts were up 58% will be a major mandate on my agenda.

If citizens do not feel safe in their community, then they have an over quality of life issue that will always resonate while I am mayor.

Long-term, Smart Growth: 20 years ago, residential tax rates funded 50% of the cities overall budget. Today, residential taxes fund over 80% of the $850m annual budget. These increasing waves are not sustainable and clearly not smart growth and part of responsible government mandates.

Other important issues on Mayor Peterson’s radar:

Single Family rezoning’s: There are better ways to deal with affordable housing, but mandating “no future single family housing”, is not the solution.

Elderly Housing: “ Benchmark Alexandria” is an elderly assistance grant program that currently affects 12 elderly sites throughout the city and lowers the average monthly rental rates from over $6,000 per month, to under $2,000 per month. This successful program needs to be expanded to at least 25-30 facilities over the next three years.

Affordable Daycare/After school services: With so many dual working families, this will be an ongoing issue, but one that is keeping parents out of the workforce because of affordability, and needs to be addressed now.

Bike Lanes: Improving already congested streets, with minimal horizontal expansion capacity is placing future bikes lane expansion in the cross hairs. The existing bike lanes at: King St., North Van Dorn, Pegram and Seminary Rd. continue to conjure heated debate, and there is no easy solution, because cars clearly outnumber bike usage in the city.

After 30 plus years in the business sector I believe it’s the right time to help the City of Alexandria move forward.