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American magazine



Old Town New Mayor

By Mike Unger

Allison Silberberg

“I don’t think we’ve met before. Hi, I’m Allison.”

The new mayor of one of America’s most revered historic towns has just walked into the second-floor suite that houses her office in Alexandria, Virginia’s stately city hall. Before she even removes her coat or pours a cup of coffee to warm up from the February chill, she spots a city employee and extends her arm. Thomas, a worker in the mail services department, meets her hand with his, and the two chat for a moment about the recent blizzard from which the city is still digging out.

People call Allison Silberberg, SIS-CAS/BA ’84, a lot things these days: Madam Mayor, Mayor Silberberg, Her Honor. But true to her Texas roots and genuine politician-for-the-people approach, she prefers folks simply use Allison.

“For me, it’s an incredible honor to be sitting here,” she says from behind the large, dark wooden desk in the spacious office she’s occupied for less than a month. Save for a few office supplies and a stack of business cards it’s basically barren, as are the walls that have been freshly painted white.

“We have inherited this jewel, and everything that I am focused on is about what’s in the best interest of our beloved historic city, and what’s in the best interest for generations to come. I take it very seriously. I pinch myself all the time.”

Who can blame her? It’s been a whirlwind year for the 53-year-old Silberberg, who in June used a careful-and-thoughtful-growth platform to defeat the standing mayor, William Euille, in the Democratic primary by a scant 312 votes. Five months later she cruised to a much more comfortable win over the four-term incumbent, who mounted a write-in campaign. She attended “new mayor’s school” at Harvard University and in January was one of 10 mayors invited to the White House to meet with senior administration officials in advance of the United States Conference of Mayors. In between, this lifelong tennis player tore her Achilles tendon on the court, a serious injury from which she is still rehabbing. Still, it wasn’t enough to keep her on the sidelines; she ditched heels for sneakers and crutches and kept moving down the campaign trail.

“You have to have enthusiasm about life,” Silberberg says, her voice brimming with it. “That’s the way I’ve always been. I don’t know any other way.”

Dinnertime conversation at the Silberberg household in Dallas, Texas, where Allison was born and raised, usually centered on the political issues of the day.

"If you didn’t know what was going on, you were left in the dust,” she says. “I often watched Walter Cronkite with my parents. I’ve been a history and news junkie since I was a little kid.”

One of Silberberg’s earliest memories is stuffing envelopes for Adlene Harrison, a legendary Lone Star politician who in 1976 became the first woman and the first Jewish person to serve as Dallas’s mayor. Silberberg’s mother, Barbara, also had a long history of public service, including working as the Dallas campaign manager for former Texas governor Ann Richards. It’s no wonder then that Silberberg became managing editor of her high school newspaper, the Hillcrest Hurricane, and that when it came time to go to college, she headed to Washington.

At AU she earned degrees in international studies and history, but took classes in philosophy and Shakespearean acting as well.

She always stood out as ethical, authentic, down-to-earth with a quirky laugh that is infectious,” says her friend Luby Ismail, SIS/BA ’84.

Silberberg also served as president of the AU College Democrats and interned for the late Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, an experience she calls an “honor.” It’s a word she uses often, and not casually.

After graduating, she was one of a handful of students accepted into UCLA’s prestigious School of Theater, Film and Television, where she interned for renowned film director Sydney Pollock while earning a master’s degree in playwriting. She went on to write an episode of the TV show Mama’s Family before deciding to move back east to combine her writing and public policy interests.

But where to live? She wanted to be near the water, and easy access to the Kennedy Center was a must. After considering Annapolis, Georgetown, and Capitol Hill, in 1989 she chose Alexandria.

She’s never left.

“It has a sense of community, and its history has always fascinated me,” Silberberg says of the 267-year-old city of about 150,000. “I just had an instinct about it.”

A communications consultant and writer who’s authored several books, including Visionaries In Our Midst: People who are Changing our World, which spent time at No. 1 on Amazon’s philanthropy and charity best-seller list, Silberberg dived into local politics, working with the Alexandria Democratic Committee and the Democratic National Committee, and serving for eight years on Alexandria’s Economic Opportunities Commission. In 2011 she wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post advocating for a compromise regarding the city’s waterfront development plan. The piece attracted a lot of attention, and got her thinking about running for office.

“I was just a citizen reaching out,” she says. “Our beloved city was kind of in the middle of this debate. I thought we ought to be very careful about how we develop.”

As the top vote-getter in the 2012 city council race, she became vice mayor, a post in which she sometimes clashed with then-Mayor Euille. Using a grassroots campaign that highlighted her desire for smart, measured growth, four years later she unseated him.

“I believe the city of Alexandria needs someone like Allison to completely change the dialogue with citizens and build greater trust in government,” says Eileen Cassidy Rivera, SIS/BA ’85, Kogod/MBA ’90, a longtime friend of Silberberg’s and a fellow Alexandria resident. “She invests a lot of time in getting to know people, and surrounds herself with experts with the wisdom, experience, and perspectives on issues she cares about.” 

Those include ethics and transparency in government. One of Silberberg’s first proposals—beefing up the city’s ethics standards—was passed by the council in January, but not exactly in the form she envisioned. Still, she says the measure is a good step forward in her quest to transform Alexandria into a national leader in the matter.

Increasing the city’s tree canopy from about 33 percent to 40 also is a priority.

“I know that Allison will succeed because she perseveres,” says Suzanne Skillings, a SIS undergraduate counselor who has known Silberberg since she first advised her in 1981. “Allison is all about people. She listens to people and thinks about what she hears, and she works hard. I think she has her own clear vision for the city, but will always take the views and needs of others into account.”

A month into a job she repeatedly describes as an “honor”—there’s that word again—Silberberg already has navigated perhaps the greatest political obstacle any mayor can. Beginning January 23, a storm dubbed “Snowzilla” dumped 22 inches of snow on Alexandria—50 percent more than the city usually sees all winter. Along with the city manager and department heads, Silberberg oversaw an operation of 80 snowplow crews and dozens of other city workers who worked around the clock for days.

“There are some things that we’re going to tweak a little bit, and we’re certainly taking input from the public, and we’re going to do an after-action review, but I think considering the amount of snow, my hat is off to the crews and the staff,” says Silberberg, adding that she was extremely proud of residents who checked on elderly neighbors and cleared snow from fire hydrants. “It was a huge team effort.

“All of us are temporary stewards of this national treasure called Alexandria.”