News & Politics

Alexandria Mayoral Candidate’s Enthusiastic Sign Placement Draws Complaints

A city ordinance prohibits political signs in public right of ways. Steven Peterson says he now has permission for all his campaign signs.

Photograph by Andrew Beaujon.

The infinitesimal portion of social media that focuses on politics in Alexandria, Virginia, has been abuzz over Steven Peterson’s campaign signs. People who don’t appear to be fans of the mayoral candidate have posted on Bluesky that they’ve called the city’s 311 customer service line to complain about Peterson signs in public right of ways—a category that under Virginia law includes places “that are available for general travel by the public,” like medians, tree boxes, and so forth.

As it happens, Alexandria’s Zoning Ordinance Section 9-104 c (1) bans all signs from public right of ways. The ordinance followed a 2015 United States Supreme Court decision in the case Reed v. Town of Gilbert, which held that municipalities could not impose content-based restrictions on signage. Alexandria had to that point banned most signs, but not political signs, from public right of ways. Rather than invite an unsightly, sign-cluttered landscape or costly litigation by trying to allow political signs some of the time, the city opted to ban all such displays from right of ways. Signs on private property, like those often seen in the front yards of houses, are just fine.

Why are people up in arms about Peterson’s signs? An interview the first-time candidate did with ALXnow appears to have inspired some of the animus. The self-described “semi-retired” real estate developer—who operates a George Washington-themed Airbnb in Old Town and whose family business, Peterson Companies, developed National Harbor and Downtown Silver Spring among many other marquee projects—is running as a Democrat and said he planned to make crime a major part of his agenda, accused current Mayor Justin Wilson of running the city “like a dictatorship,” and anticipated attacks that he was actually a Republican, which he denies.

“They’re gonna take their shots at me and say, ‘He’s a Republican, he’s a rich developer,’” Peterson told ALXnow reporter James Cullum. “I don’t think Republican or Democrat, whether it’s crime, affordable housing and smart growth, whether it’s responsible land use.”

Joe Fray, a lawyer who lives in Alexandria’s Rosemont neighborhood, says he called 311 about two Peterson signs that he spotted on a jog down Mount Vernon Avenue Tuesday. The city removed one in front of the Purple Goose children’s boutique but didn’t touch another at a gas station because it’s on private property. City spokesperson Ebony C. Fleming confirms in an e-mail that a “few 311 complaints were received by our Planning & Zoning team” and that that department’s staff called Peterson “to let him know campaign signs are not permitted on public property.” The candidate, Fleming says, “agreed to remove the signs in those locations.”

Photographs by Cameron Beaujon

Washingtonian drove around Del Ray and Arlandria Tuesday evening and spotted numerous Peterson signs near several businesses, few of which answered phone calls or agreed to talk about whether they authorized signs. A manager at the AutoZone on Mount Vernon said the auto parts emporium didn’t request or okay a sign that straddles the line between its building and the entry to the Birchmere’s parking lot.

Reached by phone, Peterson says, “There is not a sign out there that I didn’t get permission for.” There were a couple of signs in tree wells, he says, but after his phone call with the city—which he stresses, “They were very cool about it”—he pledges “I won’t do that anymore.” Washingtonian asked about the signs in Arlandria, and he says he has permission for them all. People calling about some of the signs are “pinching hairs,” he says, and are likely political opponents who may be looking to mess with him because consider him to be a Republican. He says he placed the signs himself: “I’m a hard-working candidate,” Peterson says.

Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute,, and Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.