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Jack Berry campaigns at The Veil Brewing Co. in Scott’s Addition. “Don’t default to the youngest candidate,” he tells the mostly young-adult crowd. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
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Richmond mayoral candidate Jack Berry at The Veil Brewing Co. in Scott’s Addition (Photo by Ash Daniel)
The early arrivals are already mingling by the time Jack Berry pulls his SUV into the parking lot of the condominium community deep in the South Side 4th District, the site of his first of two meet and greets on a weeknight in late August. Inside, Berry’s wife, Katherine, relays stories of the couple’s ongoing move into their new home in the Fan, a renovation project of epic proportions. She confides she’s still tripping over unpacked boxes because “all of this is going on.”
Deep ties in the business community have infused Berry’s campaign for Richmond mayor with money and momentum as the race enters the crucial post-Labor Day push. He is here to hold court with his core constituency: older white voters for whom his message of administrative experience and no-frills leadership rings true as a remedy for our city’s collective municipal woes.
“We’ve got a city government that’s not keeping up, that’s not doing its part,” he tells the attendees. “How are you going to have credibility to tackle poverty, to tackle schools, to tackle the big opportunities and problems that the city and region have, if you have a city government that can’t do the basic stuff?”
Berry, a 62-year-old native of Lynchburg, has a lengthy administrative résumé. He began working in the city’s budget office in 1978. In the '90s, he spent six years as the top manager in Hanover County before returning to work for Richmond Renaissance, a precursor to Venture Richmond. Venture consolidated several downtown-centric organizations in 2006 with Berry as its top executive. The organization produces some of the region’s most popular annual events, including the Richmond Folk Festival, Dominion Riverrock and 2nd Street Festival, among others.
Lisa Sims, who worked with Berry for a decade at the organization, says he is a steadying presence who leads by example. When the city was vying to host the National Folk Festival, Sims remembers a tense meeting where about 20 of the region’s business and nonprofit leaders were figuring out who would take responsibility for overseeing the event. Berry volunteered, she says.
“No one else raised their hand. But everybody was relieved that Jack was going to take it on because nobody doubted it would happen if he did,” Sims says. “He lived it and breathed it, day after day, until he saw it come to fruition.”
While at Venture Richmond, Berry was a vocal supporter of Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ plan to build a minor league baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. The mayor ultimately withdrew the plan for lack of public and council support. Berry has since distanced himself from the project. In an interview, he says there were “legitimate reasons for people to be concerned” about the Shockoe plan, and he now supports keeping baseball on the Boulevard.
Berry resigned from Venture this past spring to run for mayor. He has never campaigned or held elected office, but he is emboldened by a field of candidates he believes is under-qualified to do the job. Voters are responding to his message. With 16 percent of the vote citywide, Berry is running second out of eight candidates, according to a Christopher Newport University poll released late last month. The poll showed Berry leading three districts: the West End 1st District, the Fan-anchored 2nd District and the 4th District. A quarter of voters are undecided with about two months until Election Day, the poll found.
In the wake of the poll, Berry’s campaign has pitched him as the only candidate who can defeat front-runner Joe Morrissey, the controversial former state delegate and commonwealth’s attorney. Morrissey has a 12-point advantage citywide, as well as leads in five of the city’s nine districts, the poll found. Berry believes the race will be decided in a runoff, where the top two vote-getters face off in a second election. During his stump speech, he actually tells voters they’ll have to vote for him twice.
Thanks to a summer of dedicated campaigning, Berry is in a strong position, says Richard Meagher, a political science professor at Randolph-Macon College. However, Meagher says, he must make inroads with the city’s African-American voters to hold off his opponents, who may try to cast him as beholden to the city’s power brokers.
“He’s very well connected to the city elites – the white establishment, the Venture Richmond, music festival, bike race folks who worry about the big splashy events and bringing more breweries in. But are they doing anything that actually helps middle class and poor folks in the city?” Meagher says. “That’s a vulnerability he has.”
Berry’s campaign seems conscious of this potential weakness. Continuing the city’s anti-poverty initiatives, which he calls “the most important legacy of the Jones administration,” is one of his top three priorities if elected. His widely circulated online video, TV commercial and campaign literature show more black supporters than white ones.
While at the meet and greet in the 4th District, one of his campaign co-chairs, Jim Ukrop, interjects to remind Berry to tout his staff’s diversity. The candidate obliges, then continues, “We have incredible African-American support across the city … I’ve been all over this town, and everybody wants the same thing. It doesn’t matter if you’re white or black, rich or poor.”
After the event wraps, Berry jets back across town to The Veil Brewing Co. in Scott’s Addition. More than 70 people are waiting, craft beers in hand, when the candidate arrives. Berry’s oldest son introduces him before the candidate delivers a condensed version of the speech he gave earlier in the evening, this time at a near shout to be heard over the murmur. He tweaks the end in a plea to the younger crowd: “Don’t default to the youngest candidate.”
He continues, “I’m the guy who has worked for the last 20 years of my career with one goal in mind. My one economic development goal for Richmond was to make this place a magnet of opportunity, to make this place more vibrant and more attractive to young people — and it worked.”