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Lawrence E. Williams Sr. campaigns along Brookland Park Boulevard on Richmond's North Side. (Photo by: Jay Paul)
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Mayoral candidate Lawrence E. Williams Sr. posts a flier at the Nomad Deli on Brookland Park Boulevard. (Photo by: Jay Paul)
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of Friday profiles on the eight candidates in the Richmond mayoral race.
On an overcast day in early August, Lawrence E. Williams Sr. is set to canvas a strip of businesses on Brookland Park Boulevard in North Side. First stop: a soon-to-be-opened Boost Mobile store on the corner of North Avenue. With Scotch tape in hand and campaign fliers tucked under his arm, he enters and beelines for the first person he sees. “I’m Lawrence Williams and I’m running for mayor of the city of Richmond.”
It’s a sentence that Williams, 63, has recited countless times over the years. He first ran for mayor in 2004, earning 1.6 percent of the vote. He switched gears in 2006, challenging Ellen Robertson for the 6th District seat on City Council. He fared better, but lost by a margin of 3-to-1. He ran for mayor again in 2008, unsuccessfully, earning just 2 percent of the vote. Now, Williams is one of eight candidates wooing voters in the run-up to the November general election. This time will be different, he says.
“Running against Doug Wilder [in 2004] took a lot of guts. Everyone recognized that was a done deal. Now, when they look back on it in hindsight, I may have been a better mayor. Dwight Jones, because he’s a preacher, the Afro-American community naturally went toward him [in 2008]. In this election, from an Afro-American perspective … there’s only three of us, so my competition is nowhere near like it was in those previous elections.”
Williams has a thin salt-and pepper mustache and, today, sports a straw fedora and purple plaid tie. Upon entering the store, he strikes up a conversation with the owner, Bashir Makshar, about the permitting process. They commiserate over how long it takes for small businesses to set up shop in the city, especially compared to the surrounding counties, where Makshar has several stores.
“Did you find Chesterfield was easier?” Williams asks.
“Not just easier. A lot easier,” Makshar says. “Henrico is actually the easiest.”
“I think what’s happening is everyone downtown takes their job so seriously like they’re the most important person in the world rather than saying ‘How can I make this customer happy?’ ” Williams says. “I don’t know what the mindset is down there.”
Before Williams leaves, he asks to put a flier in the window. Once outside, he launches into his background. He is a self-employed architect. He graduated from John Marshall High School in 1970, then studied at the University of Virginia and Harvard University. He traces his foray into politics to his participation in the Eastview Civic League and interest in community planning issues, he says while stuffing his business card into a mailbox bursting with letters.
Many storefronts on the stretch are boarded up or else closed today. A native Richmonder who grew up in Church Hill, Williams says he remembers when this strip was thriving, back when it was a predominantly white neighborhood, before school desegregation spurred flight to the suburbs and working-class African-American families moved in.
The observation underscores one of the candidate’s strengths, says the Rev. Herbert L. Ponder, who serves as pastor at Mount Tabor Baptist Church in the East End, where Williams has been a lifelong member. “He’s very in tune with the community’s history, the culture, the people, the shifts, the movements,” Ponder says. “He’s like a walking history book.”
Since 2012, Williams has served on the board of Groundwork RVA, a nonprofit that works with teenagers and volunteers on neighborhood and environmental revitalization projects. Giles Harnsberger, the nonprofit’s executive director, says he is a dedicated advocate for the Eastview neighborhood with visionary ideas for its — and the city’s – future.
“[Williams] has stuck it out through changes and realizes focusing on youth is really important to carrying the city forward,” Harnsberger says.
In his 10-point platform, Williams outlines his goals if elected. They include determining “new sources of funding” for city schools without increasing the real estate tax rate, restructuring the city’s budgeting process and filling 2,500 potholes in the first 100 days of his administration. The platform is more exhaustive than any of his opponents have yet made available.
However, he spends little time discussing these ideas on Brookland Park Boulevard. In fact, in the hour he has a reporter in tow, Williams spends as much time explaining to citizens he meets why they shouldn’t vote for one of his opponents as he does persuading them why they should vote for him.
“I’ve got master plans older than [Levar] Stoney,” he tells Andrew Manuel, the owner of a barbershop and salon on the strip. “He only graduated from high school 16 years ago, so how the hell is he going to be mayor?”
Stoney isn’t his only target. Of Joe Morrissey, a former state delegate and former commonwealth’s attorney, he tells Manuel before leaving the shop, “Joe is going to claim he’s a boxer. I’ll knock him right out – three rounds.” Of former Venture Richmond executive Jack Berry, he tells a young man behind the front counter of Nomad Deli, “Jack Berry is a nice guy, but he’s not going to care about this neighborhood; I’m hardwired to care about this neighborhood.”
Citing his “crossover appeal” with white voters, Williams says he is the only candidate who can win in seven of the city’s nine voter districts. To win the election, a candidate must receive the most votes in five of nine districts, a tricky proposition with eight candidates on the ballot.
Bob Holsworth, a veteran political consultant, says his chances of becoming the city’s next mayor are remote. “[Williams] is a smart guy. He actually has a pretty good understanding of issues, but he has run before and not done very well. It’s unlikely that things are going to change this time around.”
To date, Williams has reported no donations, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. He has begun fundraising in the last month and hopes to raise $30,000, he says. Five of his opponents have already exceeded that sum, but he dismisses their chances.
“In this election, I’m really running against my own strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “I’m not worried about the field.”