Photo by Adam Ewing
Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ final year in office was, like much of his second term, tumultuous.
It began with a smattering of bad press that prompted a 10-month investigation into overlap between his administration and First Baptist Church of South Richmond, where he is the senior pastor. No criminal charges were filed after the probe closed in November, but Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Herring noted that what had occurred undermined confidence in City Hall. A springtime budget battle about school funding put Jones at odds with Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Dana Bedden, the School Board and hundreds of teachers, parents and students. The spat further damaged the mayor’s popularity. An August survey by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University showed an approval rating of only 25 percent. On the campaign trail, all of his potential successors channeled dissatisfaction with his administration. Asked in November whether the criticism bothered him, a weary-looking Jones shook his head.
“If I hadn’t been doing such a good job, they wouldn’t want my job.” —Mayor Dwight C. Jones
“I don’t listen to it. I know what I’ve done. I know where the city is. If I hadn’t been doing such a good job, they wouldn’t want my job,” he said. “I think they really want to sit in the chair that I sit in and be who I am, so they might have to tear me down in order to get where they want to be.” His response raises an interesting question: In a city that’s better off than when he was elected, do Jones’ contributions outweigh his administration’s failings? Or in other words, what measure of credit is he due for Richmond’s resurgence?
It depends on whom you ask. During Jones’ tenure, Richmond’s population increased from less than 200,000 to about 220,000, according to a 2015 U.S. Census estimate. The influx helped spur development downtown and in adjacent neighborhoods. Restaurants, startups and breweries have breathed life into once-desolate swaths like Scott’s Addition, Manchester and the Arts District on Broad Street. Buzz of our newly vibrant city reached the national and international media, resulting in positive press for a place that once only made news for the wrong reasons. Under Jones’ watch, the city built four new schools and a long overdue city jail. Progress on the Riverfront Plan improved the city’s most valuable and beloved resource. A $25 million federal grant set in motion what could be the most significant improvement to the region’s public transportation in recent memory: the Pulse bus rapid transit (BRT) line.
Mayor Dwight C. Jones leads reporters on a tour of the new T. Tyler Potterfield Memorial Bridge in November 2016. (Photo by Jay Paul)
“[Jones] focused a lot on the city’s economic development for the future,” says Suzette Denslow, his chief of staff from 2009 to 2013. “The rising tide lifts all boats.”
Jones also took a more deliberate step to raise all boats. In 2014, he created the Office of Community Wealth Building, a city department tasked with lifting families out of poverty by increasing their access to opportunity. Its first director, Thad Williamson, says the initiative was personal to the mayor. Williamson recalls Jones telling him, “Thad, it’s really, really important to me that this works. ”
The mayor’s detractors offer a less rosy view of his tenure. Jon Baliles, the outgoing West End councilman, was one of Jones’ most frequent critics. He says that the mayor played favorites with council members and shut out dissenting opinions. (Jones, in contrast, says his “door was open” every day.) “We got top-down, take-it-or leave-it government instead of someone who listens to what the people want, and that’s not a good way to run a government,” Baliles says.
He credits Jones for improving the city’s bond rating and launching the anti-poverty initiatives. On the other hand, Baliles points to Jones’ Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium plan as an example of poor leadership. The failed proposal, which the mayor withdrew for lack of council support, was one of a handful of high-profile projects that drew the public’s ire. Others — the Washington Redskins Training Camp and Stone Brewing Co. — were “good deals,” Jones maintains, because they spurred development and brought a solid return on investment for the city.
These so-called “big, shiny projects” prompted criticism when City Hall failed to provide basic services such as picking up leaves or mowing grass in parks and medians. Likewise, the inability of the city’s finance department to track its books further diminished public confidence in the mayor’s priorities. Tammy Hawley, Jones’ spokeswoman, chalked up the criticisms to competing interests for scarce resources, imperfections with the city’s “strong mayor” form of government and Jones’ longevity.
As the race to replace him was peaking, Jones embarked on a sort of goodbye tour. The stops, billed as ceremonial groundbreakings, were projects that wouldn’t be completed before his term ended in December: the Maggie Walker monument downtown, the Lumpkin’s Jail memorial in Shockoe Bottom and the first phase of the plan to overhaul the Creighton Court public housing community. Jones leaves his fingerprints on each, but it will be up to the administration of Levar Stoney to see them through.
What type of credit does Jones believe he’s due? “I think that history will tell the story,” he says. “In order for growth to take place and the kind of renaissance that Richmond is going through, the city’s job is not to do it, but to provide the infrastructure for it to get done. … We don’t necessarily get the credit for it, but it didn’t happen by accident.”