by CHRISTOPHER ZIMMERMAN, for the Sun Gazette
Former Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman, whose time in office coincided with the last few years on the County Board of the late Albert Eisenberg, recently penned a remembrance of his colleague, pointing to a number of key areas where he made a difference.
The Eisenberg Question. Al was good at bringing clarity to complex policy issues. In private meetings or at the Board dais, and especially during work sessions, he would often cut through confusion by asking “What problem are you trying to solve?” This had a lasting impression on his younger colleagues; we learned the lesson well. In the years after he left the Board in 1999, on many occasions one of us would say, “It’s time for the Eisenberg Question.”
Housing. Since the late 1990s Arlington has had the most aggressive affordable-housing policy in the region. But it wasn’t always that way.
For a variety of reasons, Arlington never had a housing authority, and so lacked the legacy of public housing of most area jurisdictions. For all the shortcomings of public housing, it did represent an asset for places like Alexandria, a reservoir of affordable stock. Arlington was without that stock as Metro was coming along in the 1980s.
Preserving affordability for low- and moderate-income households meant starting from zero. Many people contributed to what became Arlington’s program, which by 2010 had about 15 percent of the County’s rental stock as legally-committed affordable housing, but the driving force in the early days and after was Al Eisenberg, who was both knowledgeable and passionate on the issue. He pushed the Board, and the County, to go farther than many were comfortable with, long before there was a broadly recognized housing crisis.
From his earliest days on the Board, everyone knew Al would go to the mat on housing, and that made it possible for Arlington to make significant strides, and become a leader in an area it had previously trailed.
In his last chairmanship, in the aftermath of the Arna Valley crisis, he created a commission to strengthen the County’s commitment, put himself on it, and continued to lead it even after he stepped down from the Board to take a post in the Clinton Administration.
Color blindness. Presentations before the Board frequently involve maps and diagrams that are color coded, from the General Land Use Plan to individual site plans brought forward for development approvals.
From time to time, some applicant responding to Al’s questions would try to answer by saying something like, “it’s the areas in green.” Al would smile politely, and say, “Sorry, they all look the same to me.” Then there would be a hurried effort to fully explain without reference to colors on the page.
I always thought Al’s sensitivity to matters involving disabilities was at least partly due to his very personal awareness that people have varying degrees of ability and disability, some of which are not visible or apparent.
A student of history. I’m sure many who knew Al will have had the thought that, had he not gone into public policy, he might most naturally have been a history professor.
Al was well known as a serious, if amateur, historian, especially about the American Civil War. He amassed an incredible collection of items and documents, which made his study a veritable museum.
Of course, lots of people have hobbies and collect memorabilia. But Al’s interest in these things came from a very deep sense of history, and that informed his work as a public official.
He had an acute feeling for the significance of decision making by people in positions of trust on the lives of ordinary folk, and that fueled the seriousness with which he approached his own responsibilities as an elected official.