A standing-room-only crowd crammed into Virginia Union University's Coburn Hall for a first look at a dozen candidates in the early field for the city's mayoral election. The forum, hosted by former Virginia Gov. and Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, and moderated by political analyst Bob Holsworth, saw candidates weigh in on big-picture issues for the upcoming election.
On the stage were City Council President Michelle Mosby, Councilman Jon Baliles, Councilman Chris Hilbert (the lone undeclared candidate in the mix), former councilman Bruce Tyler, former delegate Joe Morrissey, former Venture Richmond executive Jack Berry, community strategist Lillie A. Estes, architect Lawrence Williams, businessman Brad Froman, activists Alan Schintzius and Rick Tatnall, and Richmond Public Schools teacher Chad Ingold.
Below are our five takeaways from the forum.
1. Council incumbents had a rough night. Wilder took the mic early in the forum to ask why the three sitting Richmond City Council representatives on stage did not take more initiative in funding their own priorities, rather than demurring to Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ proposed budget. The question resulted in a contentious back and forth between Wilder and North Side representative Chris Hilbert, who pointed out council must work with the budget the mayor presents to them. West End representative Jon Baliles echoed Hilbert, adding that the City Council allocated an additional $9 million to the schools in last year's budget.
Wilder did not accept Hilbert's explanation. “He proposes it, but you can change it,” he shot back. Hilbert stood his ground through Wilder’s bluster, but the exchange did not reinforce the idea that council had effectively stood up to the mayor.
Council President Michelle Mosby offered what was possibly the most head-scratching soundbite of the night in her rambling opening statement. “Because I’m a Google queen, I Google all night long trying to find out what other cities are doing, and how they’re making change in their cities,” she said.
2. Joe Morrissey won’t be shamed out of contention. Of the 12 candidates on stage, the former state delegate seemed the most comfortable in the spotlight, even when it became fixed on his controversial personal life. While discussing how he would support public education as mayor, Morrissey brought up his prior work history as a high school teacher and coach. “I love being engaged with the students,” he said. Laughter swept through the crowd. Morrissey, sensing the joke was on him, ran with it. “Speaking of engagement, I’m engaged to be married to Myrna on June 11,” he said, before launching back into his spiel. Holsworth said afterward that Morrissey’s performance throughout the night solidified his status as a “genuine contender” in the race.
3. We know the ‘what.’ We need the ‘how.’ Clean up City Hall’s finances. Fix the schools. Improve infrastructure. Candidates repeated these would be their top priorities if elected. How they will accomplish those goals will be the best way to distinguish candidates moving forward. To be fair, the forum may not have been the place to lay out a nuanced platform, but as the campaign season heats up, the ‘how’ is going to set contenders apart from pretenders.
4. Baseball staying on the Boulevard? Nearly all candidates said they supported keeping minor league baseball on the city-owned property on North Boulevard, where the Diamond currently sits. Even Jack Berry, one of the loudest supporters of the city’s now-defunct plan to build a new stadium in Shockoe Bottom, said he supported keeping the Flying Squirrels on the Boulevard. Mosby said she would need “more information” before taking a position on the matter. The crowd booed her response.
5. Moment of the night. During the rapid-fire round, candidates were asked whether they support certain high-profile projects or where they fall on perennial Richmond debates. Think baseball on the Boulevard, Bus Rapid Transit or the Redskins’ Training Camp. Candidates were also asked whether they would support removing Confederate monuments from Monument Avenue. Two – Estes and Morrissey – said they did support removing the monuments. The most memorable answer to the question came from the last person to answer it, Richmond Public Schools teacher Chad Ingold. His response? “Bring your own hammer.”