It’s On: Richmond’s Next Mayor Must Deal With A Changing City

by | Mar 9, 2020 | LOCAL POLITICS

While the presidential election remains at the forefront of news coverage, Rich Meagher reminds us that for Richmonders, the most important election of 2020 might be that of the city’s next mayor.

Everything is politics these days. Thanks to the Democratic Party’s takeover of the state legislature, we’ve seen more laws than we can follow. Super Tuesday brought a gaggle of Presidential candidates to Virginia, and helped reset the race for the Democratic nomination. Richmonders might not have had time to catch their breath, let alone think about what might be the most important political question this year:

Who will be Richmond’s next Mayor?

Second District Councilwoman Kim Gray made her long-rumored campaign official when she announced her candidacy on Sunday. Local lawyer Justin Griffin, who was a vocal critic of the recent Navy Hill arena development plan, is “exploring” a run. And at least according to one report, another Navy Hill critic, longtime political operator Paul Goldman, is collecting signatures as well. Others may step up before the June 9 filing deadline. And then of course there’s the incumbent, Levar Stoney, who will certainly run for a second term.

All of these candidates will have to reckon with a city that is, in many ways, transforming before our eyes. The same old political formations exist, but they are overlaid with new power sources and new voices.

The Mayor just learned this lesson the hard way, with the aforementioned two words he is bound to hear a lot this fall on the campaign trail: Navy Hill.

The downtown development plan was supposed to restore the eponymous neighborhood to its former glory, as well as to help secure for Stoney a second term and a political future. Instead Navy Hill was blocked by a coalition of City Council members, including the Mayor’s now-opponent Kim Gray.

The Richmond Coliseum, which sits at the center of the proposed Navy Hill development. Photo by Jimmy O’Keefe

The Mayor and the plan’s developers tried to force Navy Hill through in the same way that these development plans have always worked in the past. First you bring city elites on board – not just the Mayor, but familiar white business leaders (Tom Farrell, Bill Goodwin, C.T. Hill, Marty Barrington). You recruit support from black political leaders like former Council President Michelle Mosby, and enlist respected local non-profits like the Better Housing Coalition. You leverage these folks (and your tremendous wealth) to put pressure on City Council from above and below. Political scientists call this “growth machine” politics, and it typically gets your plan through.

Only this time it didn’t work.

The city has changed, and not just in the number of beer bros and tattoos. There is a new political class forming in the city – younger, with varied influences.

We saw the first obvious signs of this change when the city’s Democratic organization was forced by the state party to throw out its election results. J.J. Minor, a longtime power broker in the city, was forced out in favor of new blood. (Minor, the son of state legislator Dolores McQuinn, is a key Stoney ally and stumped hard for Navy Hill.)

More recently, opposition to Navy Hill, public housing “reform,” and other city policies led to the formation of Richmond for All, a biracial coalition including prominent voices like WRIR radio host Chelsea Higgs Wise and School Board member Kenya Gibson. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), energized nationally by the Bernie Sanders campaign, have a vocal city chapter centered on VCU. A cadre of young citizen watchdogs, led by Francesca Leigh-Davis and Melissa Vaughan of RVADirt, live-tweet public meetings and share information.

A special election for the City Council’s 5th district seat last year featured some of these new voices. The district’s voters rejected older faces like former Council member Chuck Richardson and former Stoney advisor Thad Williamson in favor of millennial Stephanie Lynch. Former VCU DSA head Nick Da Silva also won significant support. It’s not exactly “a little child shall lead them,” but the city seems to want something new.

Now this November’s election looms over this changing political landscape.

Mayor Stoney has to try to mobilize citizens to keep him in office, and yet many voters were alienated by his two-year adventure with the Navy Hill developers. He has a number of other accomplishments he can run on, despite Navy Hill’s implosion. He had a lot to talk about in his state of the city address earlier this year, for example, including new aftercare programs for city kids and school construction.

Stoney reminded us of his powerful friends this past week as he appeared with former Governor Terry McAuliffe to endorse Joe Biden ahead of Virginia’s presidential primary. Stoney even had a fun viral moment when he and his mentor were trapped in an elevator for 30 minutes. (Trapped in an enclosed space with T-Mac: the worst nightmare of every Virginia Republican… and more than a few Democrats.)

But statewide Democratic officials are not city voters. Stoney will certainly retain the relentless positivity that is his trademark, but can his formidable skills and backing overcome the noise from his failed development plan?

Councilwoman Gray has her own baggage, particularly with what some critics think is an abrasive personality and an inconsistent voting record where her wealthy Second District constituents are concerned. These criticisms should be blunted by her lead role in the “Gang of 5” opposition to Navy Hill, as well as her successful efforts to push through the renaming of Arthur Ashe Boulevard

Photo via Arthur Ashe Boulevard Initiative/Facebook

Griffin is more of a wildcard. His principled opposition to Navy Hill made him a frequent presence in various media, social and otherwise, over the past year, and he seems to want to parlay a brand of common sense criticism into the Mayor’s office. But he’ll need more than complaints about city services to overcome both Gray and Stoney’s considerable advantages as incumbent public officials.

One thing Navy Hill’s failure has demonstrated is clear: the path to victory, as well as the way forward in governing the city, is much harder than it used to be. New forces are challenging Richmond’s old power structure, and anyone who wants to be Mayor should plan accordingly.

Top Image: Levar Stoney, photo via Facebook; Kim Gray, photo via Facebook; Justin Griffin, photo via Facebook; Paul Goldman, photo via Twitter

Rich Meagher

Rich Meagher

Rich Meagher teaches political science at Randolph-Macon College, and is the author of Local Politics Matters (Lantern Publishing and Media, 2020).

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