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First District Councilman Jon Baliles (right) talks with Kevin Wagenseil while knocking on doors in the Byrd Park neighborhood. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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Richmonder Tommy Davis greets mayoral candidate Jon Baliles (right), as he makes a pitch for votes in the Byrd Park neighborhood. (Photo by Jay Paul)
Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of Friday profiles on the eight candidates in the Richmond mayoral race.
The typically sedate Jon Baliles lets out a boyish shriek of excitement as he approaches the porch on the shady side of Rosewood Avenue. “Oh, that’s hysterical!” says the West End representative on Richmond City Council, pointing to the sign hanging from the front door. On it, Yoda from “Star Wars” wears a Santa hat and proclaims, “Welcome you are.”
Baliles is draped in a sweat-drenched white polo, sporting navy shorts with a water bottle tucked in the pocket and worn Timberland boots. He is 45 minutes into a balmy Sunday afternoon of door knocking in Byrd Park when he comes across this sight. He snaps a photo of the sign for his Instagram followers, taps his index finger against the wood three times and readies his spiel.
Out pops Kevin Wagenseil. Baliles learns he is a 30-year-old Virginia Commonwealth University student who has lived in the city for 12 years. The candidate explains he is running for Richmond mayor and launches into his pitch. “We need somebody down at City Hall with experience and judgment to get the city turned around,” Baliles says. “There’s a lot of cool stuff in Richmond, but there’s some stuff at the local government level that needs fixing. We’ll start with the schools and get the financial reporting straight. I think I’m the guy.”
During the five-minute exchange, Wagenseil nods along with as much enthusiasm as a millennial who finds a local elected official on his doorstep can manage. He asks when the election will be held, and whether he can call the councilman if he ever has a problem. Baliles scrawls his cell number with a Sharpie on the piece of campaign literature he gives to Wagenseil, shakes his hand and heads on his way.
In all, Baliles visits several dozen homes in two hours of pounding the pavement in the neighborhood. He meets many young transplants (“Mayor, huh? Doesn’t seem like an easy job in this city”) and elderly African-Americans (“You kin to the older Baliles?”). The demographic mix makes the 5th District one of the city’s most diverse and, crucially, the kind of place in which Baliles must establish a foothold if he wants to be the city’s next mayor.
An insurance salesman and son of a former Virginia governor, the 45-year-old is laid back, if not bland. He speaks quietly in near monotone and says he prefers to listen. His self-assessment: “I’m not flashy, I’m not exotic. Some would call me low-key, boring – whatever. But I think people understand I say what I’m going to do and do what I’m going to say.”
In 2012, he won his council seat by 20 votes from fellow mayoral candidate Bruce Tyler. Prior to his foray into politics, he worked in City Hall under former and current mayors L. Douglas Wilder and Dwight C. Jones and spent a decade on the Museum District Association board.
Karen Headley, who succeeded Baliles as president of the neighborhood association, says he is an approachable leader who considers not only what’s in the best interest of the district, but the city as a whole before rendering a decision. Headley credits the councilman for challenging the administration, citing his role in stopping Jones’ Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium proposal back in 2014. “I feel like if he wouldn’t have been asking questions, it would have been pushed through, voted through, or decisions would have been made and I would have had no idea,” she says.
Blocking the stadium deal is Baliles’ most significant political accomplishment. It also gives him ammunition against three of his opponents – former Venture Richmond executive Jack Berry, City Council President Michelle Mosby and Tyler – who publicly supported the plan at the time.
On council and as a mayoral candidate, Baliles has criticized the current administration’s decision making and what he characterizes as its unwillingness to collaborate with the city’s nine-member legislative body. If elected, he says, one of his top priorities is holding town halls in each council district during the first three months of his term to hear residents’ concerns and begin rebuilding trust he believes has eroded in local government during the Jones administration (other candidates have made a similar pledge).
Parker Agelasto, who serves on council with Baliles, says the city’s next mayor would benefit from having firsthand experience of how the administration can better work with council. Baliles has that perspective, he says, so does Mosby. “You need somebody who’s been there,” Agelasto says. “You need somebody who has been at City Hall on a regular basis to know what some of the issues are and to really begin working on them.”
Baliles’ pitch to voters hinges, in large part, on his knowledge of the inner-workings of City Hall, but it’s unclear whether painting himself as an insider will translate to support for his candidacy, says Bob Holsworth, a veteran political consultant.
“In some ways, he may be better off pitching that he was one of the early leaders of the movement to identify RVA as an appealing hip culture in terms of the recreational opportunities, the food scene and the kind of things that have taken off far better than the government has,” Holsworth says. Baliles wrote about Richmond from 2004 to 2009 on his blog, River City Rapids, and he co-founded the RVA Street Art Festival.
Baliles’ best shot of winning the election is making it to a run-off, Holsworth says. To do so, he must be one of the top two vote-getters citywide, a proposition he could swing if he runs up his margins in key districts north of the James (1st and 2nd) and siphons votes south of the river in the Westover Hills-anchored 4th District, as well as the 5th District, Holsworth says.
To date, Baliles has reported raising about $70,000, far less than the Democratic establishment’s candidate of choice, Levar Stoney, or Berry, the business community’s darling. His opponents’ coffers don’t make him doubt his chances, he says, adding, “I don’t need to buy a résumé.”
“People want somebody they can trust and somebody they believe is going to do what’s right,” Baliles says. “I may be naïve in believing that, but I’ve got a better ear to the ground as to the heartbeat of the city than any of the other candidates.”