Ed Semonian was at home, so to speak, surrounded by 19th century deeds and wills in plastic containers stacked up to his waist. The 86-year-old smoothly walked into the conference room adjoining his office in the Alexandria Courthouse, looking about the same as when he was reelected to his fifth term as clerk of Circuit Court eight years ago. That’s right. At the end of this year, Ed Semonian will have been clerk of the court for 40 years.
“The whole job has changed,” Semonian told The Zebra. “If you go back 40 years ago the city was much smaller than it is today, the office was very different, the personnel were different, the machinery we use now was nonexistent. I used to keep all the books and records by hand, kept all the employee records and payrolls by hand.”
Semonian’s desk is also piled with stacks of paper – merely a preview of the work that his successor will have to manage, including hundreds of other tasks, a 22-person staff and a near-constant stream of impatient lawyers and folks requiring all sorts of paperwork from the front office. He said he briefly toyed with the idea of sticking around for another eight-years, but decided to step aside and retire in style as a newly married man with a private office in Old Town. He’ll also have more time to indulge in a favorite pastime of reading murder mysteries.
“To do this job you’ve got to be patient. You have to like people and be able to manage them,” he said. “I didn’t intend to be here for 40 years, but it was a comfortable thing for me and people kept asking for me to come back.”
Semonian, who got married last year to Lorrie Semonian, has lived in Alexandria most of his life. He was born in the District, attended what is now Jefferson-Houston Elemantary School, graduated from George Washington High School and received his bachelor’s and law degrees from The George Washington University. He practiced law in Alexandria for more than a decade and then took a turn to banking for a few years before running for the clerk position in 1979. He was only opposed in one reelection campaign – in 2011 – and still received two-thirds of the votes.
Two Candidates and an Open Seat
There are two Democratic candidates vying to be the nominee in this year’s June 11 primary – Alexandria residents attorney Greg Parks and Deputy Circuit Court Clerk Ben Ortiz. The winner of the primary is widely regarded as a shoe-in for the Nov. 5 election.
Parks, who is also married to Commonwealth’s Attorney David Lord, has the endorsement of a number of high-profile Alexandria Democrats, including Del. Mark Levine (D-45), Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne, Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter and City Councilors Amy Jackson, Mo Seifeldein and Canek Aguirre.
“I particularly value Greg’s commitment to helping non-professional people navigate our complex legal system,” Levine said in his endorsement. “Greg’s progressive values fuel his determination to make sure the clerk of the court serves everyone in the community, whether they use the court once in a decade or every single day. Greg is smart, fair, detail-oriented, and a hard worker. I’m proud to endorse him for clerk.”
Ortiz, who has worked in the clerk’s office for the last 15 years, has one endorsement so far – Ed Semonian.
“I endorse Ben Ortiz because I am confident that he will transition expeditiously to clerk of court and apply his experience and knowledge to meet the needs of the office, the court and more importantly to the city, its residents and the general public,” Semonian wrote in his official endorsement.
The winning candidate will have to also oversee the transition of 20 years of records to the Supreme Court of Virginia, following the lead of more than 100 other clerk offices from around the Commonwealth.
Meet Greg Parks
It’s been a busy 2019 so far for the 52-year-old Parks. The Nebraska native retired after 23 years as an attorney with the federal government, got married and became a full-time candidate for public office. His campaign is focused on improving citizen services and making tech upgrades, including high definition cameras and screens in courtrooms for witnesses to appear remotely.
“Those kinds of technologies can really bring efficiency and transparency to an office, and I did this in the office that I that I just came from,” Parks said. “Witnesses don’t necessarily have to travel all the way here and spend all that money and time. They can appear remotely and you still get the case to go forward. It makes it cheaper for everybody, and the effectiveness that this kind of technology brings to litigation eases the burden on the court system.”
For the last eight years, Parks was chief counsel for the Civilian Board of Contract Appeals and worked with a team of judges to settle disputes between the federal government and private contractors. He was previously an attorney with the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the General Services Administration. He’s a former Congressional fellow at the Brooking Institution and was selected by the White House in 2003 to help plan the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security after the 9/11 attacks. Parks received his law degree from American University in 1993 and a Master of Laws degree last year from the George Washington University. Since moving to Alexandria in 2013, he’s been an active member of the Alexandria Democratic Committee, the Economic Opportunities Commission, the Human Rights Commission and City Council’s Budget and Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee.
“I’m ready for my next challenge. I want to be a public servant who is actually doing things to help the community and make it better,” Parks said. “This is a very important job, and I have been very honored by these people who I respect, who have shown support to me in their endorsements.”
Parks wants to create a public survey for feedback on improvements to the office and to connect the clerk’s office with a program to provide pro bono lawyers to people who can’t afford counsel.
“Every time someone visits the clerk’s office it’s usually for something important,” he said. ”If you have a loved one who dies, that’s where you do the probate. You need efficient, friendly, competent service for the citizens. The office handles so many big moments in your life – if you’re getting divorced, if you’re getting married, even buying or selling your house… Specifically, I’d like to make citizen service a part of the staff evaluation, where if you give outstanding service then that’s recognized and rewarded. And another way is to make sure that the staff has the correct training, and not just in their own jobs narrowly, but are also cross trained in other areas of the office.”
Meet Ben Ortiz
Ben Ortiz has worked 15 years under Semonian at the clerk’s office. The 40-year-old was born in New York and raised in Puerto Rico. He moved to Alexandria in 2002 to work at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from the University of Puerto Rico. Ortiz worked at PTO for a year-and-a-half and then started work as an entry level records employee at the clerk’s office. He was a courtroom clerk for a number of years before being promoted as chief deputy clerk eight years ago.
Ortiz is currently responsible for the supervision of probate matters and three divisions – the front office, land records and court support.
“That I was able to continue to grow professionally within the office has a lot to do with my decision to run,” Ortiz said. “I don’t like to be stagnant. I could easily say, ‘Well, you know what? Mr. Semonian’s going to retire and good for him. I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing. I’ve been doing it for a while and I’m good at it.’ I’m not like that. I have to continue to grow, I have to continue to push myself to tap into my own potential.”
Ortizes’ goals for the office are continuing to offer professional and efficient service, utilizing tech for court record maintenance and keeping an open dialogue with the various offices in the courthouse to determine what the public needs.
“The office for right now, how it stands it works,” Ortiz said. “We’ve been able to provide the city residents and the general public with what they need, and within the next term we’re just going to improve on that. We’re just looking to improve on what we have to make it even easier for the lawyers, for the pro se litigants – those people who represent themselves and make it easier for them to file their paperwork.”
Ortiz said that he is not a micromanager, and that his passion is to help people.
“I’ve never envisioned myself in this position to be called politician,” he said. “I love this job because I wake up in the morning and ask, ‘Who can I help today?’ I believe in the staff. I can go out to any one of them and ask for something by tomorrow and I’ll get it in an hour. My leadership is about getting them to try to tap into their potential.”
Ortiz, who is single and has no children, said his career in the office sets him apart as a candidate.
“The knowledge someone like me has, the experience going through the different roles within the office is what this office needs,” he said. “It takes a knowledge of what this office needs in terms of resources, in terms of the equipment, it takes the knowledge of looking at the different codes, sections and statutes that we have to abide by in terms of running this office because everything is per Virginia law. It also means knowing where everything is and who to talk to as well, because at the end of the day it’s just resolving what people like the citizens of the city or the general public need, or any attorneys that come in or law enforcement. So, that’s what’s needed here.”
The Democratic primary is June 11.