The election to succeed Mayor Dwight C. Jones is a year from now. Is it too soon to start speculating on who might replace him? Of course not. (Illustration by Victoria Borges)
Some time ago, I met a young politico for coffee at Lamplighter in Scott’s Addition, a once-forlorn industrial wasteland turned large-scale urban renewal project. That we were convening there to discuss next year’s mayoral race was a testament to the neighborhood’s — and city’s — trajectory.
The city is younger and more vibrant than ever, he reasoned; shouldn’t its leadership reflect the demographic changes that are contributing to its new sense of self?
“Richmond is looking for its Cory Booker,” he said before we parted, referring to the former mayor of Newark, New Jersey, who went on to the U.S. Senate.
Next November, the city will choose its third popularly elected mayor since the charter change of 2004. The first two contests landed L. Douglas Wilder and Dwight C. Jones on the second floor of City Hall, the former for four years of brashness, the latter for seven years of aloofness.
If the past year is any indication of which way things are trending, Jones’ successor will take office at a time when public confidence in City Hall is cratering thanks to inefficiency, poor management and a seeming inability to carry out basic tasks of governance. And there’s no transformative leader in sight. As depressing as that may be, it adds intrigue to what could shape up to be a competitive, and crowded, 2016 election.
At this stage of the game, with only two candidates declared as of this magazine’s deadline in mid-October and the rest of the field still shaping up, the current and former elected officials, City Hall insiders — including the young politico — and political observers interviewed for this story would only talk on background. But they’ve been busy scanning the political landscape, seeing who makes what move first, and their observations offer insight on how the hopefuls may fare.
Among the early favorites are Levar Stoney, the 34-year-old secretary of the commonwealth who has never held elected office; Michelle Mosby, the first African-American woman to be City Council president, whose rapid political ascent has not been without its hiccups; and Jon Baliles, the first-term councilman who may have a tough time appealing to constituents beyond his West End base.
The jockeying, which likely won’t begin in earnest until after this month’s state elections wrap up, gives rise to several questions: Whom will the business community throw its weight — and wallet — behind? Will the influence of Richmond’s churches on the race’s outcome be diminished in a younger, less African-American city? Which candidate can raise enough funds to rise above the presidential election chatter and connect with voters? Who is capable both of being an effective leader and a strong manager? Who has the chops and the connections across racial lines to carry five of the city’s nine districts?
What does the city need in a mayor?
The answer to that question is not what it was in 2008 or 2004. The city has undergone a resurgence in the last decade, one that is buoyed by a sense of good feeling long foreign to this place. Among longtime Richmonders, a true sense of surprise, bewilderment almost, is audible when they talk of what their city has become, or, as they say, how far it has come. September’s 2015 UCI Road World Championships showcased Richmond on the world stage — and it looked good. Twenty years ago, we wouldn’t have even qualified for an audition.
Crime is down. The city’s population, once depleted by white and middle-class flight, has surged since the millennium, as neighborhoods adjacent to downtown have gentrified. Developers have reimagined abandoned warehouses as apartments and condos in Shockoe Bottom, Manchester and Scott’s Addition. The city’s dining scene is eating up national accolades faster than you can say “Just the check, please.”
Virginia Commonwealth University’s ceaseless construction has breathed life into Broad Street west of Belvidere. East of there, a blossoming Arts District bustles on beautiful days. In two years, should all go as planned, the stretch will have a $54 million Bus Rapid Transit line connecting Willow Lawn to Rocketts Landing. Officials expect it to fuel more development, even if everyone isn’t sold on the idea.
But beneath that sparkling surface lie some serious foundational challenges.
Twenty-six percent of Richmond’s population lives below the poverty line, including 40 percent of its children. The city faces seemingly insurmountable odds in addressing this, though Jones, to his credit, has laid the groundwork for his successor to do so. Much of the city’s poverty is concentrated in monolithic public housing complexes in the East End. The city has come up with plans to redevelop some of those communities, a massive undertaking still in the early stages.
City schools, the subject of much budget wrangling in the last year, remain among the lowest performing in the state. Superintendent Dana Bedden has enjoyed great public support in his first two years on the job and seems to be moving things in the right direction despite not getting all the operational funding he wanted last year — City Council holds the school system’s purse strings — and hundreds of millions more in maintenance needed for the district’s school buildings. Bedden repeatedly has said that investing in schools is the answer to the city’s generational ills — whether next year’s field takes heed of his message may be key in the outcome.
“We really need to have someone who says, ‘This is the moment for education in Richmond,’ ” says the Rev. Benjamin Campbell, author of Richmond’s Unhealed History and a perennial watcher of city politics.
And then there’s City Hall.
City Council and the mayor’s administration seem to be on different planets at times. The finance department is a disaster, with several senior officials and an outside auditor jumping ship this calendar year. In early October, Richmond became the last locality in the state to submit its comprehensive annual financial report for 2014. It was 309 days late. City officials were warning that the 2015 report, due by year’s end, likely wouldn’t be completed on time, either.
Jones may leave office before we have the answers to some of the defining questions of his tenure: How will the city develop the coveted North Boulevard site? What will it do to acknowledge Shockoe Bottom’s slave-trading history? Where will the Flying Squirrels end up? Will Richmond ever have a freestanding children’s hospital? True regional public transportation? High-speed rail service?
The momentum is in the city’s favor, but who has what it takes to guide it, to build the bridge between the Richmond of murals, breweries, festivals and food, and the Richmond that languishes and is demanding equal access to opportunity?
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The next mayor of Richmond, says Baliles, needs to be, “somebody who’s accessible and focuses on the basics. I think that’s been made painfully clear in recent months.” The answer underscores the niche Baliles, 45, has carved out for himself during his first term on City Council, where he is a consistent, if not vociferous, critic of the Jones administration.In May 2014, Baliles announced his opposition to Jones’ plan to move the Diamond ballpark from city-owned property on North Boulevard to Shockoe Bottom. Joined by Councilman Charles Samuels, the move forced the mayor to withdraw it from consideration for lack of votes. A Baliles-backed measure to seek alternate proposals for the Boulevard, in limbo since Jones pulled his plan, has been delayed for more than a year. In the aftermath of the Redskins Training Camp deal, Baliles has questioned whether the investment was worth the return. (Then again, who hasn’t?)The stances have endeared Baliles to Twitter’s #RVACouncil crowd. The question is whether he actually can win the five needed council districts when he eked out a victory in his own backyard in 2011 — defeating incumbent Bruce Tyler by only 22 votes. Baliles had not officially announced his candidacy by the time this magazine went to press, but confirmed his interest when reached by phone in September. (Photo courtesy of Jon Baliles)
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The first-term North Side representative is a reliable vote on the School Board’s common-sense bloc, even if he’s not its most vocal member (see Kristen Larson, Kimberly Gray). The board’s accomplishments include hiring popular Superintendent Dana Bedden, adopting his academic improvement plan, and laying the foundation for a much-needed facelift of the district’s dilapidated facilities.If he can raise enough money, Bourne feasibly could capitalize on the fervor surrounding public education reform in the city to propel his campaign. But that will hinge on the support building, not crashing for lack of results.Bourne, an attorney who served as Jones’ deputy chief of staff for a time, also may have to answer for his affiliation with his former boss, to whom he’s more sympathetic than most mayoral contenders. “We should never fault our leaders for having big, bold ideas,” he says.At 39, Bourne is among the youngest and least experienced rumored to have interest. In a conversation in late September, he says he is mulling a run. An alternate theory floated by some observers places Bourne among a contingent of School Board representatives interested in running for City Council seats vacated by mayoral hopefuls. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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Lillie A. Estes
The longtime activist and community strategist became the first announced mayoral candidate for the 2016 election cycle this past July.Estes, 56, is a resident of Gilpin Court and the founderof ALO Community Strategy Consulting, which aims to build partnerships addressing community issues. She worked with Residents of Public Housing in Richmond Against Mass Evictions, which lobbies for public housing and affordable housing reforms. She also served as a member of the mayor’s Anti-Poverty Commission.Estes has a bachelor’s degree in administration of justice and public safety from Virginia Commonwealth University. She has never held public office. She faces an uphill battle in fundraising. But her message of amplifying voices that typically are excluded from the civic process has won her many supporters, especially at a time when public frustration with City Hall is peaking.“The office of the mayor represents the entire city. Period,” she says. “Communities have a variety of needs and those needs require a more active citizenship. I’m asking the citizens of RVA to reengage in that active process.“Change has to come from the community, she emphasizes.“I applaud the people who want to lead Richmond out of the dark ages,” she says. “But you can’t just say ‘Stay over there. You’ll thank me later.’ ” (Photo by Justin Vaughan)
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As far as potential candidates go, there is, perhaps, no one less flashy than Hilbert. That may be why some former elected and current City Hall insiders are dismissing the veteran North Side City Council representative’s chances in a bid.Hilbert, a senior lending officer for the Virginia Housing Development Authority, is somewhat of a wild card on council, but reliably reasonable. He’s an advocate of building up the city’s retail base, namely on the North Boulevard site. Doing so would pump money back into perpetually strained city coffers that would fund public safety, schools and infrastructure improvements, he says. The next mayor “needs to get back to the basics,” he says.Hilbert confirmed his interest in a September conversation. At 55, he has more experience than most who are mulling a run. He has served on City Council since 2004. His district, which contains the stately Ginter Park as well as Gilpin Court, the largest public housing community in the city, is one of Richmond’s most diverse. Because of this, his district is considered a battleground in mayoral races. Having a base there could help his chances of running a competitive campaign. (Photo courtesy Chris Hilbert)
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McQuinn is from the old guard of city leadership, but recently has stepped back into the spotlight to shepherd public discussions on the memorialization of the Lumpkin’s Jail site in Shockoe Bottom, a city Slave Trail Commission initiative she long has championed. The $13 million project could be finished as early as 2017, if it doesn’t spiral into controversial oblivion. Both seem equally likely, given the city’s recent track record on high-profile projects. But we digress. Stints on the School Board and City Council preceded McQuinn’s current gig as a state delegate. She won her seat in a 2009 special election held after Jones was elected mayor and vacated the seat. In 2014, she sought to fill Henry Marsh’s 16th District Virginia Senate seat, but lost in the Democratic primary to Rosalyn Dance.McQuinn, 60, is the most experienced person rumored to have mayoral ambitions. Asked in September about the whispers, she was tight-lipped, replying that she is focused on the upcoming General Assembly session and on seeing the Lumpkin’s project through to completion.If McQuinn does run, she will have less at stake than some hopefuls. Sitting City Council members have to choose between a reelection bid or a run for mayor. Miscalculating their mayoral odds would mean squandering their political clout. If McQuinn loses, she still has her House of Delegates seat. (Photo courtesy Delores McQuinn)
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His, ahem, colorful résumé notwithstanding, the former state delegate and longtime local lawyer could be a ringer among a crowded field of political newcomers. Despite this year’s legal and personal soap opera, Morrissey, 58, still has supporters in some corners of the city, specifically south of the James. If we’ve learned anything during the last 12 months, it’s that the normal standards to which the public holds a politician to account do not apply to Morrissey. As one former local politician who did not want to be named put it: “There might be 80 percent of people that would never vote for Joe. But there are 20 percent of people who will always vote for him.” See January’s special election for the 74th District House of Delegates seat. Morrissey won 42 percent of the vote — albeit, with minimal turnout — while serving a jail sentence for his conduct involving a minor employed by his law firm, AND being outraised five-to-one by the Democratic Party-endorsed candidate. He’s planning to marry the young former employee, who, at 19, gave birth to his fourth child. Morrissey served in the General Assembly by day and a Henrico County lock-up by night.In September, Morrissey ended his independent bid for the 16th District state Senate seat, citing a health issue. Reached by phone, he did not rule out a mayoral run. (Photo courtesy of Joe Morrissey)
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In three years’ time, the 46-year-old has gone from hair salon owner to Election Day upstart to the first African-American woman chosen by her colleagues as City Council president. Along the way, Mosby spearheaded an initiative eliminating a requirement for city job applicants to disclose felony convictions, fulfilling her promise to her district.Her rise to prominence hasn’t occurred without missteps, though. In 2014, news reports confirmed she was living with a man she hired as her council liaison, whose salary is paid with public funds. She shrugged off charges of a conflict of interest, saying they were only friends. In recent months, her lobbying for higher salaries and debit cards for councilmembers has raised eyebrows.A political ally of the mayor, Mosby believes she has fostered better communication between council and the administration since assuming the presidency. However, her tenure has coincided with growing public frustration over the body’s decision-making — or lack thereof. It has repeatedly postponed votes, citing a lack of information.Mosby announced her bid in August, “on the spur of the moment,” she admits. It was a strategic blunder, several sources say, because the Democratic Party — and its donors — are focused on the November election. The decision may hurt her ability to raise funds in the long run. For the next mayor, she says, “It’s important that their vision [for the city] be laid out upfront.” (Photo courtesy Michelle Mosby)
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Stoney supporters arealready talking about the2016 election as if it werehis to lose. The 34-year-old secretary of the commonwealth is primarily responsible for helping Gov. Terry McAuliffe in his appointments to the state’s boards and commissions. Stoney served as deputy manager of McAuliffe’s 2013 campaign, as well as state Sen. Creigh Deeds’ unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in 2009. Stoney’s connections in the state’s Democratic party, of which he is a former executive director, are extensive. This could give him a distinct fundraising advantage over the field, several political observers acknowledge. He’ll also have the support of the state’s top elected official. A Stoney-for-mayor bid backed by McAuliffe, a loyal Clintonite, could benefit hugely if Hillary Clinton is on the presidential ballot next November, as expected.In September, Stoney confirmed he is “seriously considering” a run. But he has never held a public office, and old guard Democratic Party Richmond still believes in paying your dues. If elected, he’d be cutting his teeth in a dysfunctional City Hall that even seasoned administrators haven’t been able to sort out. Although he won’t have to answer for the impotence of City Council, as some candidates may, his résumé contains little demonstrating policy know-how or civic leadership. That may be true, countered a Stoney supporter who did not want to be named, but if he surrounds himself with a knowledgeable inner circle, he can fill in any blind spots of inexperience. (Photo courtesy of Levar Stoney)