by Andrea Cwieka
John Taylor Chapman is not your typical politician. Growing up, his family struggled with homelessness. In high school, he bailed on his own student government election speech. In college, he was ready to be a social worker. But after graduating from St. Olaf College in Minnesota, the Alexandria native made it back to Virginia ready to teach and eventually made his way onto the City Council. Last summer, Chapman became a true triple threat, starting his own business giving tours highlighting African-American history in his Alexandria hometown.
Did see yourself in politics early on? No. When I first got home from college, I did my job, whatever it was at the time, and then came home and, frankly, played video games for the rest of the day. I was very good at “Madden” and “Halo” at the time. I never had any thoughts or dreams early on about being in politics.
What is something you didn’t expect about being the council? I’m still surprised, even though it’s my second term, by the amount of people that actually know me. Going to the grocery store and someone stopping me to tell me about something that’s going on still surprises me. After I first got elected, I was out on a date and someone rolled up to our table and just started talking to me. I was like, “What is this?”
What is your biggest current challenge? Even though I don’t love being stopped on the street corner, I do want every Alexandrian to feel like they have somebody on the council that they can talk to. One of my biggest challenges is, how do we do that? How do we reach every single person in the city? It’s a lofty goal, but I think it’s something that really needs to be the goal of a lot of people in office.
On the business venture: Last May, I started Manumission Tour Co. to really focus on African-American heritage in Alexandria. I think that, outside of running for City Council, has been something that has meant the most to me. I don’t think we’ve had the private industries pay attention enough to African-American history we have in this city.
Next big goal: Personally, it’s getting married. On council, I think the next big goal is really getting the community on board with some of the newer initiatives that we have [like the BID.]
How do you have time for all this? I don’t know. I don’t really sleep. My fiancé gets on me about that.
Personality in high school: Oh, man. I was a big nerd. And I was fine with that. I had my little group of friends, and we did whatever we did as nerds, and that was that.
First experience in politics: One of my first political experiences was senior year. There was an open election for student government. I threw my name out there to run. So when they had a big convocation, everyone would come up and say their speech. It was me and one or two other people. So they called my name, and I didn’t even speak or anything. Just was like, “Nevermind.” If you had told me then that I would be a council member now, I would’ve laughed at you.
What made you run for city council? I really felt passionate about young people. When I first ran, I looked at the makeup of the council, and to me it felt like they needed someone with an education background and youth experience. The other reason that I ran was because I wanted to see council members who knew stakeholders in the community. I had long been involved in city boards and commissions, and with some of the nonprofits. Some of the early announcers who were running weren’t folks that had really been in Alexandria for too long.
Something most people don’t know about you: I get a tattoo after every election I win of something related to the campaign theme. I have one for my first election, which is “I came, I saw, I conquered” in Latin. I haven’t gotten my second one yet.
If I had an extra $1 million: I would pay off my house and my car, make sure I was debt free and start a book scholarship at my grandmother’s church, Ebenezer Baptist. She was a big influencer in terms of education there. I would probably buy another house in Alexandria, even though I do live in the greatest neighborhood, Taylor Run.
Favorite Alexandria restaurant: This is about to get me into trouble, because all of Alexandria’s restaurants are my favorite. One of my favorites is Pork Barrel BBQ. I go in Mai Thai in Old Town all the time as well. One of my life goals is to get on the wall of The Warehouse. That’s when I’ll know I’ve made it.
Latest TV show you binged: I recently had to catch up on “Suits.” There are very few shows that really talk deeply about relationships between men, and “Suits” does. The friendships or competition between men is a big thing in the whole series, so it’s always a very touching thing for me because I grew up without a father.
John Taylor Chapman
Councilman, Alexandria City Council; community use program specialist, Fairfax County Public Schools; founder, Manumission Tour Co.
Education: Bachelor’s in social studies education, St. Olaf College
Family: Fiancé Monika
First job: It was over at Hoyts Cinema in Potomac Yards. My mom literally dragged me to the movie theater and made me sit there for hours until they gave me a job. I worked as box office staff there.