Posted by: brad – Jun 23, 2016
With under five months to election day, the picture of Richmond’s mayoral race got a little bit clearer this week with 13 candidates filing paperwork and petition signatures to be on the ballot this Fall.
They’ll be vying to become the third directly-elected mayor of the city after a referendum in 2003 to change the city charter.
Previously, RVA's mayor was largely a ceremonial position selected by the nine city council members. Now, in order to succeed, a candidate has to win a plurality of votes in five of the nine council districts.
Or as they put it in the city charter:
"... the person receiving the most votes in each of at least five of the nine city council districts shall be elected mayor. Should no one be elected, then the two persons receiving the highest total of votes city wide shall be considered nominated for a runoff election."
Though the number of candidates may drop slightly as the city registrar certifies signatures and paperwork in the coming weeks, early indicators point to a fairly crowded field all the way to November.
If no candidate captures five of nine districts on the first shot, the top two vote-earners will go to a runoff six weeks later.
“You’d have to have a strategy for first, how do you get to the runoff?” said Thad Williamson, an associate professor of leadership studies and politics at the University of Richmond. “We’ll see how things shake out, but with a least five pretty strong candidates and then the numerous others who have constituencies that are capable of pulling some votes, it’s hard to project right now how anyone wins five districts on the first take.”
Those five, according to Williamson, would be first district City Councilman Jon Baliles, former director of Venture Richmond Jack Berry, former state Delegate Joe Morrissey, City Council President Michelle Mosby and former Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney. Williamson is not alone with most people seeing these candidates as having the best chances, a projection backed up by early fundraising numbers.
The stipulation that a directly-elected mayor must win a majority of council districts was inserted in the 2003 city charter revision to allay fears that the change from a council-elected mayor would diminish black voting power. A candidate hoping to win the job can’t simply run up the votes in one community, but must instead get support from a diverse group of neighborhoods and constituencies.
As the city struggled with crime, poverty and corruption in the 1990’s, a movement arose to strengthen the mayor’s position.
“Starting in the mid 90’s there was a lot of push to create a directly-elected mayor so you’d have at least one person in city government who was responsible to the entire electorate, but also had the capacity to think about a citywide strategy as opposed to simply district politics,” said Williamson, who also served under Mayor Dwight Jones as head of the Office of Community Wealth Building, which was tasked with implementing the Mayor’s anti-poverty initiatives.
That strong mayor push culminated in a ballot initiative put forth by former Governor Douglas Wilder and former mayor Thomas Bliley, Jr. in 2003, which passed and was approved by the state’s General Assembly.
Wilder then ran and became the first mayor under the new system in 2004. When he didn’t run for reelection in 2008, Jones won a five-way race.
Wilder remains influential in city politics but his term saw a number of high-profile conflicts within city government. Williamson said Jones has tried to steer clear of those internal disputes while building coalitions to tackle the city’s big challenges.
“I think the theme during Wilder’s time in office was how much power can the mayor have internal to the city and he had a lot of fighting and legal conflicts internal to city hall,” Williamson said. “I think the Jones Administration has avoided those kinds of internal battles and tried to focus more on a citywide vision and I think there’s more of a sense that the role of the mayor is to try to get all the different institutions steering in the same direction towards common goals.”
But Jones has not escaped controversy either. He’s been something of a target for this year’s candidates over a perception of cronyism -- fueled by an ongoing FBI investigation into ties between City Hall and First Baptist Church of South Richmond, where Jones is a pastor. Along side the investigation is concerns from the public around the city’s economic development deals (ball parks and training parks) and a perceived lack of commitment to adequately funding public schools.
RVA's failing schools have dominated the race since people began campaigning earlier this year.
And as the cost of elections has ballooned nationally, Richmond's mayoral candidates are also set to raise historic amounts to help sway voters. Stoney brought in the biggest first-quarter fundraising haul of any candidate since direct elections started, raising over $300,000 according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Berry took in $159,433, followed by Morrissey ($45,093), Baliles ($16,996) and Mosby ($14,230).
The other eight candidates who filed their paperwork this week are local architect Lawrence Williams, former City Councilman Bruce Tyler, community activist Alan Schintzius, VCU graduate Nate Peterson, former City Councilwoman L. Shirley Harvey, public school teacher Chad Ingold, as well as Richmond residents Bobby Junes and Amon Rayford.
Richmonders go to the polls to vote for mayor on Tuesday, November 8, 2016.
Words by Jared Foretek