All seven candidates for Richmond mayor took part in Thursday's Mayorathon forum at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (Photo by Jay Paul)
The seven candidates seeking to become Richmond’s next mayor fielded pointed policy questions Thursday night before an overflow crowd of about 750 gathered at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Mayorathon 2016 was organized and hosted by the James River Association, Richmond Forward, RVA Rapid Transit, Sports Backers and the Storefront for Community Design. Richmond magazine was also a sponsor and organizer of the event. Susan Winiecki, the magazine’s editorial director, and Tiffany Jana, CEO and president of TMI Consulting, moderated the 90-minute forum that covered public education, public and alternative transportation, neighborhood development, and the James River.
Below are our five takeaways.
1. Jon Baliles’ strong showing. The West End councilman’s name was mentioned frequently in the post-forum chatter, and for good reason. Throughout the night, Baliles offered sharp answers rooted in initiatives or budget decisions he has supported while on council. He reiterated his goal of establishing a dedicated funding stream for Richmond Public Schools, specifically what’s called “the Roanoke model,” which Baliles said could help end annual budget squabbles. “I don’t ever want to have 76 people come down to a budget public hearing and beg for more money for schools,” he said. “It has to stop, and it will if I’m elected.”
Asked to what extent he would support bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure improvements, Baliles said it would depend on the city’s revenue forecast, but he was committed to an annual line item in the budget because “I know Richmonders are equally bad drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians.” The answer drew laughs.
On his strategy for selling a regional transportation system to the counties, Baliles said the city needs to show “bus isn’t a four-letter word” by successfully implementing the first phase of the Broad Street Bus Rapid Transit line, then expanding it to Short Pump. Doing so would give riders access to thousands of jobs while showing the counties that public transportation is good for the region as a whole, making additional BRT corridors more feasible. Maybe it was home-field advantage. Maybe he was better prepared than his six counterparts. Whatever it was, he brought his A-game, and people took notice.
2. Lawrence Williams’ best performance of the campaign. In our candidate profile of Williams back in August, Giles Harnsberger of Groundwork RVA praised the candidate as a visionary thinker when it comes to community planning issues. On Thursday, the nitty-gritty policy questions were in Williams’ wheelhouse, and he offered articulate answers that earned him applause from the audience on several occasions. He said he believed Richmond could be “the most livable city in America,” a goal he would work toward by establishing viable mass transit that directs developers where they should build and invest. Also crucial to the goal is incorporating new alternative transit systems — bike and pedestrian greenways — to connect neighborhoods, he said. Improving riverfront amenities would draw more people to the James, the city’s biggest asset and, as he put it, “Richmond’s Central Park.”
3. Jack Berry loses the crowd. There was very little drama Thursday night, a refreshing departure from some of the earlier forums. The tone was set early on. Given the opportunity to answer his first question of the night, the former Venture Richmond executive strayed from the topic and attempted to address Joe Morrissey, who earlier this week challenged Berry to a one-on-one debate about the Jefferson Davis statue on Monument Avenue. Berry called it a “political stunt to get headlines.” Before he could finish, the moderators cut him off. They received an assist from the crowd, too, which booed over Berry until he returned to the question.
Asked about the moment afterward, Berry said, “Somebody needs to take [Morrissey] on, or he’s going to win [the election].” The ill-timed power move did not go unnoticed by Morrissey, who, while answering an audience question as the forum drew to a close, looked at Berry and said, “What if we’d spent $80 million on that stadium in the Bottom? Right now, we’d be looking up at Petersburg.”
4. Best Moment – Midway through the event, moderators asked candidates to name an opponent they would hire to their administration if elected, and in what position that person would serve. The query generated the most memorable moment of the night, when former Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney replied, “Well, you know, since we’re going to get rid of the [mayor’s] police detail, if I needed someone to be my body guard, I’d pick Joe Morrissey.” The audience erupted in laughter. Morrissey offered Stoney props in the form of a fist bump.
5. Michelle Mosby hates pronouns. The City Council president is fond of referring to herself in the third person. She did so several times Thursday night when answering questions, to the bemusement of attendees. An example:
Q: What are the biggest obstacles to using a strategy employed by Baltimore to fix city schools?
A: “The biggest weakness is Ms. Mosby not being your mayor. Ms. Mosby has already had conversations with many of those who were apart of the Baltimore plan ... I need you all to get with Ms. Mosby, so we can get these facilities done, and this can get off the table."