Editorial Roundtable on the Richmond & Virginia Elections 

by | Jul 1, 2024 | EDITORIAL, NEWS, PINNED, POLITICS

As we find ourselves in the middle point of summer, the upcoming months will bring pivotal decisions for our community as we elect our next mayor, city council and school board members followed by the gubernatorial election next year. Over the past few months, we have engaged with numerous candidates in those races and covered the sentiments on the ground here in Richmond. This juncture presents an opportunity for a roundtable discussion on recent developments and future prospects as we approach the second half of 2024.

The following conversation features insights from moderator Christian Detres, Editor-at-Large covering the Richmond mayoral race; Landon Shroder, Editor-at-Large covering the gubernatorial race and national and international politics; and Goad Gatsby, RVA Magazine contributor reporting on white nationalist movements within Richmond and Virginia, as well as street-level perspectives on the city’s overall political landscape. – R. Anthony Harris, publisher

Christian Detres: I wanted to start this conversation for everyone looking to be engaged in local politics, but doesn’t know where to start. Let’s get a general impression, like a State of the Union for what’s going on. I don’t expect us to formulate full opinions as to who we’re supporting, but media opinions on elections are important and endorsements are a boon to the selected candidates. This conversation is about impressions and the general sense of where things are, and where they seem to be going. 

Goad, what’s your impression of the local political battlefield right now?

Goad Gatsby: Well, not only is the Mayor seat up for grabs, but every city council and every school board spot is also up. Right now the school board doesn’t have a very good direction. They don’t know what to do. And at the same time, we’re seeing Andreas Addison leaving City Council for this run. We’re also going to see a very competitive race in the third district against Ann Lambert.

In terms of the Mayor, there’s no big star power that we saw in 2016 with Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney stepping down to run for that office. We’re not seeing someone like former House of Delegates member Dwight Jones in the race. Instead you have current Councilperson Addison, former Councilperson Michelle Mosby… probably the closest to star power is Danny Avula, who stepped down from his state position. 

CD: The city’s been doing well, objectively. We have homegrown talent coming out of the nooks and crannies, which is essentially matriculating upwards. But if you had to write the story as to how your city government is formed, isn’t it ideal to have them come from the lower ranks of the city – are you enthusiastic about the idea that the candidates are locally focused? 

GG: One thing that seems very evident in the past four to eight years, with Stoney’s case in particular, is that being mayor isn’t necessarily a stepping stone. It can actually hurt your career. Using this as a way to achieve higher public office doesn’t really seem possible. In fact, it could be a dead end for a lot of political careers. With that in mind, the candidates who are running for mayor probably see that this could be their last job in politics. 

Landon Shroder: I think Mayor Stoney probably saw himself on the Tim Kaine trajectory — mayor, governor, and senator. That is unlikely to happen since he’s now dropped out of the governor’s race and entered the contest for lieutenant governor. Regardless, I do think about what a mayor should be in a mid-major city like Richmond since we sit at this very distinct crossroads between Washington DC and Hampton Roads and those are the two major economic engines of Virginia. When we talk about how Richmond should evolve as a city, you can imagine that tension. We are trying to cater to the local needs and ambitions of our citizenry, but is there really a way to escape the orbit between these two competing economic engines and the obvious impacts they’re having on the city? So, as we size up our mayoral candidates, we have to consider how they balance these things. Is it better to have a mayor that can stand tall against the hyper-development we see throughout the city or someone who can work, manage, and shape the economic push-and-pull from within? I don’t know the answer to this question, but I feel like this is the right question to ask. 

For all of its great qualities, and obviously for some of its not-so-great qualities, Virginia is a well run and well managed state due in large part because of our federal economies. I think we would struggle to find an analogous example of a city that sits in the middle of these massive government polarities and what that means long term. We like to think of Richmond as an island, but everything is interdependent nowadays. And as that bureaucracy expands, it is ultimately expanding in one direction – Richmond. Washington DC is not really expanding north into Baltimore, Hampton Roads is not expanding into the ocean. Whoever wins the mayor’s contest will need to tell a story to the citizens here how they can manage this in a way that will lead to the betterment of their lives – short of that, we lose a lot of what makes Richmond so amazing. 

CD: Who actually seems capable of taking care of that, have you had conversations or been involved in that topic?

GG: I think everything that makes a candidate appealing, what can give them an advantage in the election, is also what can count against them and be seen as a weakness. 

You have Michelle Mosby, who has been out of politics for nearly eight years. She is getting a lot of key endorsements from state and local leaders that helped elect Stoney. But in trying to push those donors’ agenda, Michelle Mosby could very well back problematic deals like the casino project, like the Colosseum debacle. You also have Harrison Roday, somebody who specializes in private equity investments, focusing recently on tech entities that meet his venture, Third South Capital’s requirements. He’s raised the most amount of money but a lot of his money is coming from out of state. Maurice Neblett’s strength is his authenticity. But his weakness is that he’s just authentically himself. He’s very individually minded with what he conceives of that role being. 

CD: I’m not sure Neblett can see around all the dark corners of the job, but I feel he’ll make those turns with the faith he has in himself. He impresses me as the person that knows what the right decision is before the expedient one. There’s merit to that in my book. 

GG: We also have Andreas Addison, somebody I worry that has been in the bubble of the Fan and the West End too long to be able to reach out to other parts of the city. And then you have Danny Avula, whose strength is his history at the Department of Social Services, but his weakness is that he could be perceived as being aligned with Glenn Younkin and the Republican Party. All of these candidates come with strengths, but they’re also soft targets, when trying to explain how their vision for Richmond helps the voter overall.

CD: Let’s go beyond the mayoral race. When I look at the city council races, many are running unopposed. It seems that these seats are essentially theirs, but if there is no challenger, what does that do to a candidate’s dedication to enact any kind of change?

GG: Four years ago, I said, ‘There’s no way Reva Trammell could get re-elected.’ Boy, was I wrong. She was basically running a campaign in absentia. There was every reason for people to dislike her. Her opponent, Amy Wentz, got Ralph Northam to endorse her. She was running a campaign with a lot of momentum for a whole year and she still lost. It just goes to show that when you get into those positions, you find people within your district that are going to vote for you, no matter what; no matter what’s been happening in the past session. Those candidates have found a way to really sink into the seat, it’s very difficult to unseat a city councilor.

CD: Whenever anyone says that, I always look at the vote totals in the city council races and the turn-out is dismal. I think I have enough friendly acquaintances in my district that I could successfully run! I guess what I’m getting at is that if we’re uncomfortable with the representation we have locally, how hard is it to really unseat them? Maybe the real and fair question is, are they doing a good job and is that why they’re running unopposed?

LS: It’s also a comfortability issue, since all politics are ultimately local. A lot of the incumbent candidates do enjoy a level of comfortability from their constituents just by being a known entity. At a time when there’s so much tumult in national and state level politics, actually knowing your city councilperson, awkward as they may be, counts for a lot. Especially if you have direct and easy access to them. I think we underestimate that kind of interpersonal connection at a city council level. From a certain perspective, that’s almost more of an insurmountable political challenge than trying to raise a million dollars to run for a congressional seat. These are people that you can run into at Kroger or in Carytown; we share our day-to-day space with them. Being present, available, and known is incumbent armor and that’s a hard thing to break – more so when people don’t turn out to vote in local elections. 

CD: With that in mind, how are we actually doing as a city? From a certain perspective, are we ignoring Richmond’s success to fuel a never ending narrative of grievance? Are we fighting our representatives when they’re putting in the effort to get the job done? Is it always about replacing what’s there or should we be protecting what we have?

LS: Ultimately, it is a conversation about continuity versus progress. Continuity tends to bend in the direction of the political status quo. And in times of political uncertainty, do we immediately reach for a course-correction or batten down the hatches and try to preserve what gains we already have?

GG: I don’t think the people of Richmond should feel that their current politicians are listening to their voices. Look at the casino deal – it got rejected – but eight out of the nine city councilors were in support of it. The city rejected [the referendum] and their response was just to hold another vote and hope they win a second time. Look at the police, the citizen review board. This is a project that is completely stalled. It would be extremely helpful to have an agency set in place to lodge complaints against the police instead of taking it to the department’s internal affairs department. The current system just preps the offending officer for an eventual lawsuit instead of actually addressing the problem. Remember when we were alerted to the “averted” mass-shooting plans on July 4th, 2022

CD: You mean the alleged fabrications made by the Police Chief and Mayor Stoney? They turned an anonymous tip from a disgruntled coworker against a Guatemalan immigrant into an international incident to serve their egos and tough guy reputations.

GG: We don’t see our elected officials coming out and apologizing, saying I’m sorry.

LS: The chief did get fired for that?  

GG: Well, we don’t know why the chief got fired. He resigned, but we don’t know why.

LS: The minute it went public, the Guatemalan embassy was involved, Homeland Security was involved. You can’t recover from that. At that point, there’s a much higher level of analysis and scrutiny involved. 

CD: What kind of person do you have to be to even manufacture an incident like that? 

LS: Well, I think that goes back to Goad’s point about the police. That’s why there should be an independent civilian review board. 

GG: During that July 4th PR stunt, there was a shooting on West Broad just a few blocks away from the police station. As far as I know, they don’t even have any suspects for that — any leads at all. It’s an unsolved shooting. There were no fatalities, but multiple people still had to go to the hospital for gunshot wounds. RPD took attention away from this real issue and fabricated a hero moment for itself instead. So, should the people of Richmond feel that they’re represented well in their city? I don’t think that’s the case right now. The average person in Richmond should feel confident that whoever’s holding office above them is doing so with their interests in mind. That’s really the tragic thing out of all of this. 

LS: How’s the new police chief performing? 

GG: Rick Edwards? If you’re grading on a curve, he’s doing okay. But that’s a pretty favorable curve from the last guy. Not only that, we’ve also replaced the second, third, and fourth in RPD leadership as well. 

CD: That shakeup, has it been a positive thing?

LS: On some level this has been a response to the community’s frustration with police failures. So when you say hold their feet to the fire, this is what that looks like. 

GG: But at the same time, we’re having Richmond police officers text protesters to coerce them into not engaging in their First Amendment rights. 

LS: Don’t you think that level of communication is probably a good thing, as opposed to just showing up with armed riot police?

Police Crackdown on VCU Campus Palestine Protests by Goad Gatsby 2024_RVA Magazine
Police Crackdown on VCU Campus Palestine Protests by Goad Gatsby_RVA Magazine 2024

GG: Well, sure, if they weren’t ALSO sending SWAT teams anyway.

CD: Just an unpopular opinion, if the cops don’t show up in riot gear, barring anyone actually getting physically hurt, isn’t that part of the dance? Getting them to show up to get the point across? That’s when the media shows up, that’s when it becomes national coverage and your movement gets some real attention. Maybe it’s pulling back the curtain a little too much, but that’s the dance between protesting and official pushback which informs the recipe for change.

GG: There have been a good amount of protests that have had little to no police presence. 

CD: Of course. The regular Palestinian march comes right up my block. And you know, when I hear them approaching, I play some loud Palestinian music out my window and chant with them. Solidarity. But then what happens?

GG: Then they just go home. As opposed to the police showing up, arresting people, and instigating violence. 

LS: Slightly adjacent, but I think the big winner in all of this has been Governor Yougkin. It wasn’t just the Palestinian protests at VCU, but also UVA and Virginia Tech. I asked this question of Senator Hashmi. She said that’s what her investigation will look for since there did seem to be some level of coordination between the universities and the police. And we do know the governor’s seeking higher office, so from a certain perspective, it’s all just political brinkmanship and theatre.

GG: But we’re talking about the Richmond police responding to these calls which may have been coordinated with the governor’s office. They’re having somebody who’s announced as a lieutenant governor candidate and then the Richmond police going in and responding to a curated scenario initiated by a Republican governor in an election season. 

LS: We do have a mayor that has no problem turning the police loose on protestors. 

GG: This is exactly why I’m saying that people, at this current moment, should not feel comfortable with their elected officials and people in charge. 

CD: That being the case, what are our options? Are our candidates in line with fixing the problems as you see them, or are they just simply reverting back to the status quo? Or worse, does changing up leadership mean we regress, because we just didn’t know how good we had it? 

GG: You’re asking me a very good philosophical and political science question. This outcome is not borne by election results. You hold police accountable by having successful litigation that makes city officials get tired of being sued and shamed. Enacting policies that don’t allow unnecessary tragedies to happen again is how we move forward. Coming to city council and just constantly being in their ear, bothering them when they go to the grocery store, it doesn’t so much matter who’s elected as long as they are constantly reminded who they work for. 

CD: You’re speaking exactly to the point that I was trying to make. A lot of times it doesn’t matter who the warm body in the chair is, it’s who is holding them accountable. If you’re the type of person that shows up at city council, they know you’re also the type of person that talks about this stuff incessantly to your friends. They understand you to be the person who’s trying to get your friends to register to vote and reminding them when voting day is. 

LS: Has any candidate actually articulated a vision for Richmond that diverges from the status quo? What is that vision and is that vision compatible with everything we’re pragmatically seeing in our daily journeys? 

GG: There is Eric Sundberg, who’s running against the Council President, Cynthia Newbille. There are two challengers in the third district. But in terms of being able to successfully articulate how this is going to change Richmond policies and vision, I’m not entirely sure about that. You’re outlining a specific question and I don’t think they’ve answered me on that.

CD: Richmond is not backsliding into some sweeping hell. We’re actually doing well, the city is growing, we’re getting investment windfalls and revenue collections, but I don’t think our leaders have offered a single comprehensive plan for how to capitalize on it.

LS: The question lies with whether or not the benefits of a booming economy are going to advantage the citizenry that is already here versus the citizenry that is moving here – our new neighbors. The newcomers will be fine, everything is new to them. But are these candidates articulating a vision that preserves the energy that makes this an attractive pace to be to begin with?

CD: I don’t have bad feelings about any of the mayoral candidates. I like them as people. To be honest though, I think they struggle with what they’re supposed to be protecting from a cultural standpoint. I firmly believe all of them want to make housing affordable. Addison shared some truly insightful ideas on stopping exorbitant housing prices with carve-outs to keep generational residences in the family. They all have a plan on how to restructure City Hall to better meet the city’s needs. But I don’t think they could name five artists of any note in the city. They don’t have a favorite band. Maybe they have a favorite restaurant. When they do have favorites, it always winds up being someplace with a politically active owner, a convenient anecdote-adjacent business, or heartwarming success story they can guest-star in. It’s never an opinion based on cultural appreciation, only opportunity. They know the spreadsheet version of Richmond. Someone has to, but it cannot be the only thing they understand. They have to know why Richmond is worth protecting from its own growth. 

LS: I believe that after reading your interviews with them.

CD: Culture is the thing. What do I go to work for, what do I do any of this for? So I can spend time with my wife and go on vacation, catch a VA Rep play, go down to the river, plan a ridiculous party, go to my favorite place with the best people and the best music. Start a band. Paint a mural. Write a book. That’s life. All the other stuff is supposed to be the background noise. We’re not supposed to be focused on that. If there’s an existential horror that I’ve felt in interviewing these candidates is I don’t think they get that point, I don’t think they get that at all.

The fact we’re fighting for affordable housing is absurd and needs to be treated as such. Whatever obstacles are in the way of fundamental needs like school lunches, equitable mass transit, police reform, need to be publicly shamed for being despicable. Acting like these are negotiable topics and not emergencies that should embarrass us. Stop ‘thinking’ and having ‘conversations’ about fundamental rights and do the damn thing. Let’s spend more time making the party better. 

LS: Richmond’s growth is being outsourced to condo culture, which seems to be the modus for most cities these days – going back to DC as a prime example. Maybe in this case we are ill equipped to handle this kind of rapid development. Maybe we don’t have the political talent yet to harness that growth in a way that preserves Richmond culture for what it is, while simultaneously being able to integrate with new investment coming in. Maybe those politicians just haven’t emerged yet.  

CD: Or maybe they’re right here, on deck, waiting for their turn. Maybe they’re reading this right now. 

LS: We have a city council that seems very much stuck in the old way of how Richmond has been managed. But sooner or later, in a political cycle or two from now, the people who have moved here, but are not necessarily local to Richmond, will be running for those city council seats. At that point, there is no real loyalty to what Richmond was. 

CD: What things would you want to preserve in this massive growth? Where do you feel we have room to explore our boundaries and become something even better than we are right now?

GG: Two very important things worth preserving is the ability to have a porch, a semi-private outside chilling area, to foster community. Not to submit to just high density living in giant apartment buildings. The other is the ability to maintain truly welcoming third spaces, not just giant breweries where people hang out. Real communities, built around vibrant third spaces, are the small details that make Richmond what it is and they’re just slowly getting wiped out. We don’t quite realize that when we lose the bathroom at Monroe Park, that we’re slowly losing Monroe Park as a concept. Now it’s just a place you walk past, not spend the day at. 

CD: That’s a really insightful way to look at it.

GG: The wrong approach that these city officials have been taking is thinking if we had this one big grand ornament over here, then the other things will thrive. If we had more hotels, then the Coliseum would thrive. Instead of trying to find ways to have more events at the Coliseum, so a hotel developer would want to show up and pitch an offer to them.

CD: Ass-backwards.

LS: For me, it’s about preserving the creative community in Richmond. Look at what happened to Washington DC, it used to be one of the creative bedrocks of the East Coast. Whether it was the rock and roll or punk scene, Go Go music, or the intersection of arts and activism. But condo culture has strangled that out in favor of what developers think city life should be, not what it actually is. They’re conflating being entertained with culture, those two things are not necessarily compatible. 

One of the first things that inevitably goes is the creative mechanisms that make Richmond so special. When this happens, a city just becomes a company town. We’re seeing that happen right now.  The city shouldn’t be trading tax credits with developers, they should be trading tax credits with art galleries and local businesses. If Richmond loses the creative spark that it built its reputation on, it just becomes a bedroom community of Washington DC. So how do we protect creative innovation in Richmond by ensuring affordability; how do we encourage those creators to stay here; how do we invest in them; and how do we give them the space to grow so they can continue to thrive? 

CD: Let me propose to the politicians that will wind up reading this. Create a robust and generous conduit between our city institutions’ funding grants and the weirdos and inspired imps that make Richmond magic, not just function. 

LS: I think they are trying, but is it too little too late? If these politicians that you guys have been interviewing haven’t articulated a vision where the continuity or expansion of culture isn’t the city’s centerpiece, maybe they’re ignoring a big part of their constituency. 

Creativity is a subjective thing, which is why developers can point to Scott’s Addition and claim ‘city culture.’ Investment, whether in a restaurant, barcade, or gym to service condo residents is not local culture. So the challenge becomes how to connect our local politicians to what the idea of culture really is. How many of them went to Charged Up Fest a few weekends ago, because that is city culture – shout-out to Noah-O. Actually spending the time to understand the value of what we make here, not what we import here. Culture is under assault, it is not guaranteed to survive and every condo that goes up, chips away at the armor of what makes this city a community. 

Illustration by Mauricio Vargas

RVA Staff

RVA Staff

Since 2005, the dedicated team at RVA Magazine, known as RVA Staff, has been delivering the cultural news that matters in Richmond, VA. This talented group of professionals is committed to keeping you informed about the events and happenings in the city.




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