Richmond’s Next Mayor? Get to Know Harrison Roday

by | Mar 7, 2024 | DOWNTOWN RVA, POLITICS, RICHMOND NEWS, RICHMOND POLITICS, VIRGINIA POLITICS

It’s raining fucking buckets. It’s cold, 4pm, and I want to go home. But I’m about to do that weird half-run, scrunched-shoulders thing into Blanchard’s Coffee Shop on Broad street to meet Harrison Roday, candidate for Mayor. They’re gonna close soon too. He’s a new name for me, so I Googled him. Seems he’s been on team Tim Kaine for a while. I don’t mind saying that’s a plus in my book. He’s also got quite the pedigree in the financial sector, which is balanced by his long history in the nonprofit world. I’m thinking and trying to remember as many factoids as I can about his journey. It’s good not to run in blind.

After paying $7.50 for a chai latte and feeling cold raindrops find their way down the back of my shirt, I get a text from Harrison that he’s on his way and close. I look at the time. He’s only 2 and a half minutes late but I do appreciate the heads up. This latte is fucking delicious. 

He rolls in doing the same “if I make myself really small, the rain won’t get me” jog. This dude is TALL. He’s got intensity, a kind of lean-in style tempered by a listener’s leash. He seems to me to have an idea on the tip of his tongue but the humility and patience to listen to what you have to say first. Kinda makes you appreciate it more. 

I’d say we’re dry enough to start talking.

Christian Detres: It’s really loud in here so kinda try to talk close into the mic? What’s up? What brings us here to this table right now? Where are you headed?

Harrison Roday: My whole focus going forward is trying to make Richmond a city that works for everyone. How I got here is a strong appreciation from a values perspective that public service is really important. Outside of my parents, the most important role models I have are Senator Kaine and his wife. The opportunity to work for his campaign in 2012 was the first aspect of my political education. Watching him taught me what it means to have a public service mentality. 

We should be involved in politics because we believe we can make a positive impact. It’s a really exciting time for Richmond. The city is growing. And we have to make sure that as the city grows, it functions in a way that our citizens deserve. We also have some basic things that we have to fix. Okay, so that’s my high level approach.

CD: I think no matter no matter what I ask everybody, that’s the answer that I get. And that’s totally fine. But, now that we have that out of the way, I want to know why you specifically are a candidate for
Mayor. It takes a lot of chutzpah to run. There’s a lot of exposure involved. It’s a lot of scrutiny. It’s a lot of doing this, talking to jerks like me, instead of enjoying your free time doing literally anything else at all. Many of us are content with admiring public service, speaking well of the concept, and returning to our margaritas. How do you become a public servant instead of just being supportive?

HR: Great question and great use of the word chutzpah. So my last name is Roday. But it used to be Rosendorff. My dad’s father left Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. My grandparents on that side of the family were both German Jews. Neither of my parents grew up particularly wealthy, so when they met in law school, all they had together were some degrees and student debt. They were able to build a very prosperous life, and I was fortunate to grow up in it. When you spend 10 minutes in the real world and realize that the opportunities that I had are not the norm? That truth has led to my consistent focus on how I can do what is within my ability to be useful. To try and level the playing field. 

CD: You’re part of the real world, regardless of where you’re coming from. Regardless of what privileged, non privileged, whatever situation you’re coming from. Your side of the real world offers a lot of opportunity for service – more time and stability from which to focus your efforts. That’s true. If you ask your parents, or your grandparents, what the real world means to them, I’m sure they would include their success as part of the real world. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have bothered to put in the effort. To hustle. I think there’s a perception issue sometimes where we segment differing experiences into some categories that don’t touch each other. It detaches us from each other. We have so much more in common across the board than not. 

We rely on people on your side of the road, to actually do the things that we can’t do, or to access resources out of our reach – for the common good. So many people drop out of college, or have to switch careers – reimagine their dreams because of one mistake. They hit a financial roadbump and then all of a sudden they have to redirect and regroup. But a lot of times, we perceive a barrier between that experience and the ones most associated with abundance, mainly because it’s hard to understand having such a share of resources and not helping people through these precarious situations. There’s no barrier.  I would like it if people coming from privilege understood that we’re all in it together. Some live on the mess, and some live in it. To fix it, I may be able to only clean what fits in my hands, but you may be able to pull out an industrial vacuum cleaner. We’d still be working together. We need to be able to see each other as partners, not adversaries. The rich and the poor age by the same clock. My time is just as precious as yours because neither of us take anything to the grave. 

HR: I think that’s a really good framework. My own personal experience can anecdotally back up what you’re sharing. If you have the opportunity to access abundant resources, the first thing one should choose to do is be a good listener. To listen to what people need and not show up and say, “Well, I have all the answers.” And as I evaluate what I’ve been working on over the last many years, hopefully what I’ve been doing is going to people and entities with resources and convincing them to deploy them in ways that are for the benefit of the whole community. That is informed by my overall worldview. 

CD: Cool. Building off of an analogy that Michelle Mosby brought up in my conversation with her – I didn’t know she was such a comic book nerd, but she kind of is (and I love it)-

HR: I saw her comments on the Avengers and bridges. I thought she was excellent. 

CD: It was! The Avengers thing stuck with me not because I am also a nerd (which I am) but more because I never really thought about our civil servants in this light. As specialists that could easily be doing anything else other than helping people and having a great self-centered life. I see people willing to take a lot of their own time, and a pay cut, and go do a job nobody else wants to do. That’s a big deal. 

But when you think about it, Michelle has tons of leadership experience right? Kind of Captain America territory, right? You’ve also got somebody who has lots of money; someone with a strong financial background that knows how to apply money to problems effectively. You got your Tony Stark, an Iron Man. You’ve got your really scrappy, unpowered people, like a Black Widow or Hawkeye. Each of their skills have the opportunity to be the one factor that changes the tide of the battle. None of them are insignificant, and none of them solve every issue. 

You have a background in the management of finance, which doesn’t always sound the sexiest but it is damn important. It’s really, really important. So how does this “superpower” turn into a factor that can improve Richmonder’s lives? What does someone that understands financial systems on an intricate level bring to the table? 

HR: It is often said that a budget is a statement of policy priorities, and I do believe that to be true. We have many financial tools available to us in Richmond, particularly as the city is growing. My personal experience has been in business leadership. Some of it has been at large businesses, some of it’s been small businesses. There’s been new businesses and mature businesses that need some type of assistance. There’s no straight line from business experience to the public sector and I think anyone who overdoes that comparison is not being completely intellectually honest. However, there are a lot of lessons learned in managing large complex organizations that I do think apply to the city. 

Within that, I would give you two categories. One is the actual functioning of City Hall. It would be really helpful to have folks in leadership who have had the experience of overseeing systems implementation, or understanding complex organizational charts, or working with multiple stakeholders to achieve a certain goal. Those are great traits. And then the other is in policy areas where the city’s capital can go further. The city has made some investments in affordable housing over the last couple of years, but in my opinion, they could be leveraged to a much larger dollar impact that affects the creation of more housing units.

CD: Do you believe your experience allows you to be a bit more creative in that space? 

HR: I think creativity is second. First is fundamental blocking and tackling. We need to have a demonstrated track record of being able to collect the revenues the city is owed. There are areas where we’ve made progress that they’ve taken too long to address. There are some areas that we can improve that I think are not in the public consciousness yet. 

There are some old phrases on jobs and certain leadership roles that I really like, and they’re not all directly applicable, but one of the ones that I really like is “plan the work and work the plan.” Everything that we are working on, we need a plan to be successful at. We need to be able to adapt when things aren’t going well, but we also need to communicate the plan in a way that folks understand. Whether that’s on the City Hall functioning side or budget application. 

CD: Is that a structural issue inside of City Hall? Is it the infrastructure or is it a people issue? 

HR: I think it’s really difficult for anyone to prejudge a situation like that without having taken the time to do a walkthrough of every single agency and understanding what their staffing situation is, what their goals are, what their priorities are, what metrics they can track. It would be easy to be a Monday morning quarterback on the outside, but I don’t know how productive that is. I would really be excited to invest the time in working with every single aspect of the City Hall’s functioning. Understand every agency, what its goals are and how it tracks to those goals. 

Now on some of the points you mentioned, I suspect if my experience is any indicator, that the vast majority of people who work in and around City Hall, or just partner with City Hall, are extremely hard working and intelligent people who are likely challenged by a history of management and system failures that are difficult to overcome if you’re just one person. When I read some of the reports that have been published about the city, and the city’s own statements with respect to some of the challenges we’re having on the administration side, something comes to light. What it sounds like to me is like there’s a variety of systems implementations that are in different stages of success and failure and all of the work to redirect them is very challenging. It’s challenging to oversee and it’s challenging to communicate about. I think we need to do a better job of partnering together. We need to be having an open dialogue with not just the folks who are in the building in City Hall, but with the public about what can folks really expect with respect to implementation. Just to kind of wrap it all up, I think it’s tough to prejudge what the answer is going to be. I think you do a disservice to the folks who are working really hard to do that. 

CD: We’re all fed a very cynical story that no one really cares. People are just not doing the job. And it’s almost heartbreaking to hear that there are very dedicated people, trying very hard to do their job, and something keeps getting in their way. It’s the finger in the dam situation where you plug one hole and another bursts forth. But you know, we gotta start somewhere. Where do you think you would find your best place to start? To simply begin addressing internal issues that make it difficult for those dedicated public servants to succeed at their job? How would you approach that?

HR: I’d love to answer that and before I do, I’ll just speak to one of the philosophical things that you brought up. I have found repeatedly that when trying to solve problems in an organization, the best answers almost always come from the people who work there. Too often there’s a mentality that we promote, both in the private sector and in politics, that some leader is just going to show up and wave a magic wand and fix things. That’s not my approach. My approach is listening to people on how they do their jobs today. What can be better, what can be improved? There is a science to this. What it involves is going through a months-long change process where people are being repeatedly asked about their ideas to improve processes, implement those ideas. Maybe the first implementation doesn’t go so well and things need to be fixed and changed. Those things happen all the time with systems transformation projects. 

It’s imperative that the manager set a ‘North Star’. People have to know what it is that they’re fighting for and why it is they’re doing it. There has to be a collective vision that everyone agrees to. Then there has to be clear and consistent communication of that vision not just to people inside the building, but also outside the building. And there has to be accountability and transparency about what the milestones are going to be, to know whether or not that vision is in process of being achieved, or of course, where corrections need to be made. This is just all sorts of management philosophy. 

CD: Management philosophy hits at the very core of the whole series of articles I’m writing. That’s what this is all about. That’s what I’m trying to get out of every single person I speak to. Everyone running for this very important job. 

HR: You’re right about the cynicism. I mean, there’s another old saying that I like a lot. That is when you’re doing hard work, you have to make sure you’re doing it from the “shop floor to the top floor.” You have to respect and engage every single human being who’s involved in the process. People are quick to judge by others’ behavior that their motivations are a certain way when in reality, if someone has a process in their workflow that’s poorly designed – one that doesn’t give them any visibility into the overall strategy and doesn’t allow them to provide feedback to the people who they report to – yeah, I’m not sure how happy that person is going to be on the job. And too often we make that “the problem of the person who’s stuck in that system” rather than addressing the flaws of that system.

CD: Everyone I’ve spoken with has that same kind of relevatory story. Sort of like “No, man, we’re trying over here. We’re doing the thing. And we’re not always successful. We’ve tried three ideas that don’t work and we’re trying to find one that does!” But I get the impatience. There’s a reason why I’m not taking the job. There’s a reason why, you know, my buddy smoking weed on his couch right now, isn’t looking for that job. But we’ve had generation after generation after generation of broken promises, and delayed outcomes, dreams deferred, you know? 

It’s too much to ask one person to be the guy that fixes everything. If you said you could do that, I would look at you funny. If you said I’m like, it’s gonna fix all of that. I want to hear about something that’s in your wheelhouse to fix. Something that you can approach and be “I can handle that because I’m trained in this specifically. I know what could work.” Something that doesn’t require trial and error. Is there anything we can expect that is something that Harrison Roday would be great for – like this one issue, something you will be great for?

HR: Using all the available tools to manage the $3 billion budget. The Billion Dollar General Fund, RPS funding, capital driven funding – using those tools to adapt to the priorities we care about, outside of the functioning of City Hall. That’s what I would spend my time working on. I would ask people to look at my track record of nonprofit work that I’ve done. To show that I saw a problem and listened to the folks facing the problem. I didn’t didn’t come in and say, “I’m gonna tell you what to do.” I came in and said, “what can I do to be a good partner to what you’re trying to accomplish?” That’s the right mentality. 

If I had to pick one single area to focus on it would be the growth of supply of housing. We have a situation right now, where more and more people are crossing that threshold where 30 plus percent of their income is being spent on shelter. If given the choice between a math problem of guaranteeing that wages are going to grow by 3% every year forever, or stopping the current rate of inflation in housing? The right choice for everyone’s pocketbook might sound like the first one, but it’s actually the second. It represents such a large proportion of costs. If it keeps growing at the rate it is currently growing, we’re going to face all kinds of challenges beyond what we already do. We need to be using the financial resources we have available to make maximum impact, leverage the public dollars that we have to generate further supply of housing. That is a top two issue for the next administration.

CD: What challenges what stands in the way? 

HR: In recent years there has been a growth and investment into the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. I think we have long strides to go to have the city’s housing policy more explicitly stated in a way that makes it clear to all public stakeholders and private stakeholders what the city’s goals are and how different parties can help. It’s not just about dollars. It’s also about having a unified group of people who are addressing dollars, zoning, code, and the city explicitly stating “here’s what our priorities are so we can attract the right partners, whether it’s private sector developers, nonprofits, neighboring municipalities, and and the Commonwealth, which I think is under discussed. The Commonwealth itself can be a better partner. 

CD: It bears responsibility. In line with discussing the functions of government, the Tipping Point Collective, which I’m a member of, brought up a program the city has set up for homeowners 65 and older. It exists to make sure our elderly don’t get foreclosed on when they reach a place of fragility. It’s created to hold their hands a bit. Sometimes they don’t have family that can help, they don’t understand the intricacies of their financial situation, whathaveyou. But here’s the rub. If a mistake or missed payment has happened already, they cannot apply for the program. How in the hell does that make any sense? 

Some people don’t think to look for help until they’re in a bad situation. Someone’s daughter or son has to come over and realize that mom hasn’t paid the mortgage in a minute, you know? Under this circumstance, they are barred from participating. This seems cruel, or misguided at best. Obviously, these are the people that most need this assistance. How do we change that? What do we do that’s equitable, but also doesn’t break the city’s bank? 

HR: Well, let’s start with a values oriented statement, which is that everyone deserves to live within a safe and affordable neighborhood. They deserve to not be displaced as more people are attracted to living in Richmond. So just philosophically, I think that’s what we should aim for. When it comes to specific programs and specific program implementation, I don’t know that it makes sense for me to pick one line item. What I would say is, I think it should be the expectation of the public, whether it’s from the administration, or across other stakeholders, that the city should have a holistic perspective around housing – that is in public view. That says “here’s what our priorities are” for anyone ranging from unhoused, subsidized housing to market rate housing. And “here’s how you can expect the city to provide programmatic support for different people in those groups”. 

Now, of course, there’s lots of external stakeholders, be they nonprofits or RRHA or other entities who have a direct role in aligning on some of these priorities. What I would like to start from, just a place that we can all look at and agree, and say, “Hey, we’ve done this work, here’s what our goals are and how we want to spend the public dollars” so someone can make an informed decision. To say, “we know what share of our housing dollars are gonna go to protecting seniors”, just as we know what share of our dollars are going to go to New Unit creation for people who are currently unhoused. “Do you need wraparound services?” Like, we need to be able to answer that question. That’s a process that’s gonna take significant time and community input. 

I don’t seek to diminish some of the attempts that have been made in the past. But as I review, you know, literature over the last several years, there’s clearly room for improvement. 

CD: There seem to be little trapdoors built into otherwise very noble programs that end up leaving on the table the people that really need the service. It seems some of these are structured in such a way to give maximum PR benefit, but to be of minimal practical use. The barriers to entry for the most vulnerable seem to be deliberate, or at the very least, neglectful. For the sake of magnanimity, let’s assume they weren’t designed that way on purpose. If so, that betrays the existence of a massive blind spot. 

HR: I know of at least one other program like you described, where its resources go unused. Some of our challenges, from a policy side, are not confined to the city limits. Our relationships with the counties factor into many opportunities. 

CD: Let’s take you off the hot seat for a second. Tell me about your Richmond. The Richmond you experience. Like, what’s your ritual?

HR: It’s hard to talk about the Richmond that I experience and not talk about Peak Experiences. Yeah, I spend a lot of time bouldering. I absolutely love it. It’s a fantastic community. It’s a great way to have fun, stay in shape, and spend time with friends. So you can find me there, you know, usually multiple times a week, depending on the week. 

I highly recommend Penny’s Wine Shop in Jackson Ward. It’s an absolutely wonderful place that is a great example of what can happen when people invest in leveling the playing field. The hard work, dedication and ingenuity of Kristen Gardner Beal and Lance Lemon made that happen. They were able to access community resources that helped them achieve as well.

I also absolutely love the park system that we have. It’s an incredible treasure. It’s tough to name a favorite park. The river is an amazing place too. 

CD: I find that river to be an incredible equalizer because it’s hard to get to for everyone. It’s a pain in the ass for everybody no matter what. Everyone that’s ever visited me from anywhere falls in love with the river. They’re like “what? There’s no hotels?” Yep, no frozen banana stands or other garbage.

HR: Was that an Arrested Development reference? 

CD: Hehe, yeah.

HR: There’s always money in the banana stand

CD: All right. Back to work. How would you go about structuring a dream team to match all of the challenges we have? I mean, you’re not going to be the best person on every single topic, and neither will anybody else. 

HR: I can say team building is one of the most fun and rewarding things for a leader. I have an old mentor who used to say “Great organizations are net exporters of talent.” What he meant by that is, there’s a conventional wisdom that you want to have folks work at a place for a really long time, and make a career. Of course, people should make careers. But organizationally, if you’re doing a great job of attracting and retaining super talented people, some of those individuals are going to decide they want to go and move on to other opportunities. That’s something to be welcomed, because it means that you’re running such a strong organization that people can graduate from your system. Now of course, people can decide to leave for bad reasons too. And it’s important that we talk about that. 

If you’re going to build a great team, you have to compensate folks in the ways that they deserve. So one of the challenges that we have in the public sector is many of the folks who we asked to make big sacrifices – and I’m not just talking about folks who manage in City Hall – I’m talking about teachers. I’m talking about firefighters and police officers. We ask them to do jobs that are really hard, but we don’t pay them well. When you’re building your team you want to be able to attract the best candidates. Paying them well is a baseline.

CD: Everything with that conversation generally ends on “well our budget is this, and we have to…” You can’t really pay everybody what you want to. That’s the old saw you know? But the idea behind investment is you throw money in, and then you get better teachers. Then you get better students. Then you get less kids out on the street, running around doing stupid shit. Then you get people that come into, or out of, a neighborhood of concern and do well. Business thrives, property values go up, and now you’ve created a potent opportunity zone. 

We’ve been talking about raising teacher salaries for as long as I can remember. It’s a joke. It’s a joke that’s so embedded in the American psyche that a reasonable depiction of a dedicated teacher is one going deep into their own pockets for the kids they serve. How has this problem, identified so long ago, still not being fixed? What’s making that not happen? 

HR: I would start by looking at a benchmarking exercise to see what folks actually are being compensated relative to municipalities so we can gauge the size and scale of the problem. My informal feedback that I’ve received is that there’s under-compensation just relative to neighboring counties. 

CD: I mean, that’s what I’m talking about. We have a surplus. 

HR: Yeah. We do. We do. I think I would love to see, as part of Richmond Public Schools new strategic plan, which is being drafted right now, what the plan is to attract and retain the best teachers that we have. 

Every five years, RPS drafts a new strategic plan. We’re in that drafting phase right now.  The more aligned that drafting phase can be with the administration and City Council – who will actually work through the top line number in the budget, as well as the financial obligations in the capital plan – that’s what you got to do. People have to work together in a collaborative way to get that done. 

CD: All right. Fair enough. They’re being very nice and polite [the staff at Blanchards]. We’re about to get thrown out. Let’s split.

Find out more information on Harrison Roday HERE

Christian Detres

Christian Detres

Christian Detres has spent his career bouncing back and forth between Richmond VA and his hometown Brooklyn, NY. He came up making punk ‘zines in high school and soon parlayed that into writing music reviews for alt weeklies. He moved on to comedic commentary and fast lifestyle pieces for Chew on This and RVA magazines. He hit the gas when becoming VICE magazine’s travel Publisher and kept up his globetrotting at Nowhere magazine, Bushwick Notebook, BUST magazine and Gungho Guides. He’s been published in Teen Vogue, Harpers, and New York magazine to name drop casually - no biggie. He maintains a prime directive of making an audience laugh at high-concept hijinks while pondering our silly existence. He can be reached at christianaarondetres@gmail.com




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