Illustration by Tim Cook
"May I see your ID, please?” the server at the Sidewalk Café asks Levar Stoney. The former secretary of the commonwealth and Richmond mayoral candidate had, seconds earlier, ordered a Devils Backbone Vienna Lager.
“Oh,” he says, patting his pockets. “I left my wallet in the car.” The server is unmoved. Her expression reads as some combination of I’ve-never-heard-that-one-before and sorry-but-not-sorry. Stoney exchanges a sheepish look with his spokesman, the equally baby-faced Matt Corridoni, who shuffles from the booth and out the front door, and the candidate revises his order for the time being. “I’m very old,” he reassures the server as she turns away.
The 35-year-old mayoral hopeful is the youngest in the field of eight candidates. He’s got the backing of the city’s Democratic political establishment, including his former boss, Gov. Terry McAuliffe. He raised $417,000 in three months, twice as much as his nearest opponent. Stoney has a real shot at becoming the next mayor of this city, but in a dimly lit Fan bar, he can’t pass for 21.
Millennials — roughly defined as the generation of people born between 1981 and 2001 — have flocked to cities across the country in the last decade. Richmond has seen its fair share, including Stoney, who relocated after graduating from James Madison University in 2004. They come for the low rents and the river and stay for the murals, craft beer, bicycles, festivals and startups.
The demographic shift has caused the average age in the city to drop to 32. Despite this, millennials are largely unrepresented in city government. That may be changing.
“Given how big of a segment of the population we are, as younger folks, we should be helping to craft the policy that’s driving our city forward,” says Scott Barlow, a 28-year-old candidate for the Richmond School Board in the Fan-anchored 2nd District who also serves as vice president of the Metro Richmond Area Young Democrats.
Stoney’s bid to become the city’s first millennial mayor may be the most prominent example, but it’s hardly the only one. Look through the more than 50 candidates running for Richmond City Council and Richmond School Board, and you’ll find a crop of 20- and 30-somethings campaigning for local office — 18 in all. They are both native Richmonders and transplants, politically savvy and utter novices. Their respective campaigns are well-funded and penniless. If they have anything in common, aside from the generation to which they belong, it is a desire to usher in a new era of political leadership in a city they believe is clinging to the past, to its detriment.
“What this generation brings more than any other is we are willing to get past the last 50 years of this city,” says Donald L. Moss III, a council candidate in the 6th District. “And we’re willing to do it — I know in my heart — in a respectful and reasonable way. I think that this generation wants to face all of Richmond’s history in one full scope.”
Moss, 31, lives in Southern Barton Heights. He is challenging longtime incumbent Ellen Robertson in a district stretching from North Side through the East End and across the river into South Richmond. It is ground zero for demographic changes in the city, due to redevelopment in Shockoe and Manchester that has drawn young renters. New residents want the same thing lifelong Richmonders want, Moss says: a clean, safe city with good schools.
What remains to be seen is whether millennial candidates will entice millennial voters to the polls. If data is any indication, the answer is no. People older than 65 are 10 times as likely to cast a ballot in a local election as people aged 18 to 34, according to a 2015 Portland State University study of voter turnout for mayoral elections in four cities. Three of the cities held off-year mayoral elections; the fourth, Portland, Oregon, still saw senior turnout trump millennial turnout 8-to-1.
Still, some young candidates, like Rebecca Keel, are counting on their peers to bolster their campaigns. Keel, 24, recently completed her master’s degree in social work at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is one of three candidates running for the open city council seat in the Fan-anchored 2nd District. While Keel’s two opponents — developer Charlie Diradour and School Board representative Kimberly Gray — may be older and more experienced, Keel sees her age as an asset for appealing to students and young people living around VCU who are likely to turn out en masse for the presidential election.
“[Local candidates] are probably your neighbors, and they’re directly spending your money on the things you interact with every day,” Keel says. “To get that message into young folks’ hearts and heads is really, really important.”
Sean Smith, a 28-year-old resident of the Forest Hill neighborhood, is one of several candidates seeking the open school board seat in the 4th District. The Franklin Military Academy graduate says running for office, and voting in the local elections, is an opportunity for young people to take ownership of the political process, to claim a stake in the city they haven’t yet realized they possess.
“Millennials are really going to be that needed ingredient to continue the progression of our city,” Smith says.
Win or lose, the young candidates have already sent a message to the city’s political establishment. It may sound familiar: The times, they are a-changin’.