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Michelle Mosby at a joint political fundraiser/birthday celebration in North Side (Photo by Ash Daniel)
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Michelle Mosby joins friends and supporters at a joint political fundraiser/birthday celebration in North Side. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of Friday profiles on the eight candidates in the Richmond mayoral race.
About 30 of Michelle Mosby’s friends and supporters convened at a North Side restaurant on Chamberlayne Avenue earlier this week. The gathering doubled as a birthday party for the Richmond City Council president and a political fundraiser for her campaign for Richmond mayor. The attendees serenaded a cheery Mosby, who turned 47, with a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” before she delivered her stump speech.
All seven of her opponents will court voters with promises of funding public education, promoting economic development and improving basic services like snow removal or leaf collection, she told those in attendance, reading from prepared remarks on her phone.
“But what they can’t say, and what they can’t show, is that they’ve already started the process,” Mosby says. “That’s where Michelle’s uniqueness comes in, because I can.”
Mosby, the owner of a South Richmond hair salon, unseated the 9th District council incumbent in 2012 despite being outspent 6-to-1. Her political rise continued in January 2014, when her colleagues unanimously voted her council president. She is the first African-American woman to serve in the role.
Kathy Graziano, who represents the 4th District on council and has mentored Mosby, says she has brought leadership to the position. “She is willing to make hard decisions in what she feels are the best interests of the city and to move forward with them. That’s an important quality,” Graziano says.
During her tenure as council president, Mosby says she has “changed the culture of council and council meetings.” Charles Samuels, Mosby’s predecessor in the role, questions whether that culture change has been for the better. “There’s certainly been a lot more 5-4 votes,” he says. “There has been more acrimony when she’s been council president than in the past.”
Mosby’s climb into the public spotlight has not been without stumbles. In 2014, she drew criticism for hiring a man who lived with her to work as her council liaison, a salaried position paying nearly $60,000 annually. Earlier this year, another council member said that Mosby directed the word “retarded” at Samuels in a closed meeting, an allegation she denied (Samuels said publicly he wouldn't discuss what occurred in closed session). In January, she hosted a mayoral symposium paid for by a supporter. Weeks later, an Escalade emblazoned with her campaign logo was spotted downtown.
A political ally of Mayor Dwight C. Jones, Mosby is a part of the council bloc that typically supports his administration’s proposals. She does not shy away from defending her votes on projects that drew public scrutiny, such as the Stone Brewing economic development deal or the Broad Street Bus Rapid Transit line. The former created jobs and increased the city’s tax base, she says, and the latter will increase opportunity for the city’s poorest residents.
What does she offer the city’s voters that her opponents do not? Continuity.
“I’m already in place and have begun the work to move our city forward, and I don’t think we really need the interruption,” she says.
Ten percent of voters citywide said they would vote for Mosby in November, according to a poll conducted by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University released this week. She trails Joe Morrissey, a former commonwealth’s attorney and state delegate (28 percent), and former Venture Richmond executive Jack Berry (16 percent). A quarter of the poll’s 600 respondents were undecided.
To win the election outright, a candidate must win five of nine voter districts. Mosby led the field in her home district by less than the poll’s margin of error. Her strategy is to build support in districts south of the James River, where the front-runner is polling the strongest, she says.
Mosby announced her mayoral bid last August, months in advance of her competitors. However, she had raised a fraction of the funds her opponents had managed by mid-summer. Of more concern than money, says Bob Holsworth, a longtime observer of local politics, is Mosby’s struggle to translate her accomplishments in a prominent position into an effective campaign message that resonates with voters citywide. Making the task more difficult is her close association with Jones, whom other candidates have lambasted at every turn.
“She’s a part of the status quo, and a greater part of it by being council president,” Holsworth says. “She has struggled to find a way to take advantage of that and not be surpassed by all of these people who are bashing the mayor.”
Richard Meagher, a political science professor at Randolph-Macon College, questions Mosby’s messaging, too.
“It seems like she’s trying to say, ‘I’m the face of Richmond government, so vote me into this position and I’ll continue the good work,’ ” Meagher says. “But I don’t know that anyone has a high opinion of Richmond government, so it’s a dangerous play to make, especially in a couple of years when outsider candidates seem to be favored by people in just about any election.”
The CNU poll found that two out of three voters disapprove of the Jones administration’s work. Half of the poll’s 600 respondents said they disapproved of the job council has done as well. In an interview, Mosby acknowledged the findings present a challenge for her campaign, but one she can overcome.
“Overall, our city can work more efficiently,” she told supporters at the fundraiser. “We have to be a whole lot more accountable and a whole lot more transparent to the people who elected us. But again, as a council member and as the council president, I have already modeled this.”