Richmond business attorney and activist Justin Griffin is running for mayor of Richmond. RVA Mag spoke to him about his goals and policies ahead of November’s election.
Justin Griffin is a small business attorney who originally hails from Nashville, but has fallen in love with Richmond in the years since he moved here. He owns his own law firm, but he first drew public attention with nocoliseum.com, a website he created in objection to Mayor Levar Stoney’s high-profile plan to revitalize the Richmond Coliseum and the surrounding Navy Hill area. After months of actively campaigning against the plan formulated by the mayor and a coalition of private businesses led by Dominion Energy CEO Tom Farrell, Griffin and other activists obtained a victory when City Council voted against the plan in January.
A month later, Griffin announced that he was exploring a run for mayor of Richmond, and officially threw his hat in the ring on April 6. While he claims not to be a politician, and that he doesn’t want a career in politics, he is passionate about improving Richmond schools, putting more funding into city services, and creating a government that is responsive, helpful, and cares about its citizens. We sat down with Griffin to learn more about his ideas and policies ahead of the election.
RVA Mag: How did you start practicing law? What drew you to being a business attorney?
Justin Griffin: My undergraduate degree is in accounting. In accounting, there’s a huge aspect of “what is legal compliance,” with a very specific law set, like tax laws. You take people’s practices and apply them to those laws, audit them, and make sure they’re complying with the law. As I was getting into that, I realized there’s a much larger world of law out there, and I felt that I would much rather help businesses holistically instead of being pigeonholed into just doing the accounting side of things.
That’s what drew me to law school, and what brought me here to the University of Richmond. What particularly drew me to working with small businesses [was my] first summer internship with the Virginia Department of Business Assistance. [All summer, I talked to] small business owners, asking them what they needed, what we could do to help them — whether it be funding, laws, or whatever else. [Almost] every one of their answers was “Regulatory compliance,” and “What can you do to help me comply with regulations?”
Small business owners wear 20 different hats. You have to worry about payroll, marketing, making sure the machines are working, etc. They all said, “Legal stuff is very important, but it doesn’t necessarily make me money, and it’s so far down the list that it doesn’t get worked on. So what can you do?”
That’s when I realized these big corporations and companies all have millions of dollars, that they pay attorneys six-figures-plus to sit around and answer all of their questions. It’s the little guys — the small business owners — that don’t have that equivalent. So that’s what I decided to do. I wanted to help them. I opened my own practice so I could treat them the way they should be treated, and to be more like a partner than a lawyer.
RVA Mag: As a business attorney, how do you feel about the stores on Broad Street and throughout Richmond closing their doors and boarding up because of protests, looting, and even Covid-19? Do you worry about them?
JG: I do. I very much worry about them, because I talk to them every day. Those are who my clients are; I’ve worked with over 500 businesses across Virginia. Many of them are right here in the Richmond region and Richmond City. Over the last three-plus months, it’s been a fight for them with constant worries and questions. With small businesses, there’s not usually huge reserves, so they’re just getting through every day.
I started my own practice, so I’m a small business owner myself. When you’re a small business owner, you put your whole life into doing this… it’s your livelihood, it’s your family’s livelihood. It’s really tough when you can’t open your doors, because you work hard to not only provide for your family, but to also provide for your employees’ families. For them, it wasn’t their fault. I walk up and down Broad Street — my office is downtown — and seeing the boarded-up windows is heartbreaking, because for these people, it’s their lives. Especially on Broad Street. Many of them are black-owned businesses, so it really hurts. I think we’re in a tough spot right now [when they can’t] open, and many of them might not reopen. We’ve got to address that.
Going forward as someone running for mayor, I think it’s going to be important that we have somebody who is knowledgeable about business and economics and helping our small businesses get back on their feet.
RVA Mag: Why did you decide to run for mayor? What was the final straw that really made you say, “This is what I have to do”?
JG: As you probably know, I was heavily involved in opposing the Navy Hill plan. That was the final straw for me to speak up and do something. As a small business attorney, I deal with the city government a lot. I deal with the county governments [across the state], too, trying to get licenses, permits, zoning, and that kind of thing. I see on a daily basis how our city government is failing small business owners, which in turn fails our people, because small businesses hire people from the community. They pay taxes, which get funneled into the general fund, which can then be poured into our people; whether it be for schools or supporting neighborhoods.
If you have a thriving small business community, it creates what I like to call an “anti-fragile” economy. You have people who really care about the community, are plugged into the community, and come from the community doing that. Seeing the frustrations and dealing with the city all the time — and as a resident as well — one of the things I always bring up is that it took me six months to get a trash can.
Basic services are always frustrating as a city resident, and for me those are frustrating, but the thing that really drives me and bothers me the most is our school system. With only a 70 percent graduation rate, dropping from 80 percent four years ago, it is something that has always driven me to get involved. Then when Navy Hill came, it was just another example of misplaced priorities. Being a numbers guy — with the accounting degree and business background — looking at the projections and seeing how ridiculous and unrealistic they were, I couldn’t just sit on the sideline and watch our city walk into another big shiny disaster. It was time for us to refocus our priorities on schools and neighborhoods, instead of chasing another get-rich-quick scheme.
That fight was the final straw for me. I went through that process… 18 months of constant analysis, providing information to the city council and speaking at meetings, fighting to get that thing prevented. It seemed that there would be no change in the status quo. That’s what ultimately drew me to throw my hat into the ring, because if I care, I want to see our priorities reshaped and the mismanagement taken care of.
RVA Mag: The Navy Hill proposal has become a bit of a past memory for Richmonders, as much larger events have overshadowed it lately. However, that area still remains an issue. How do you think you can move forward with it, and create an effective and fair solution for the area?
JG: I think whenever we’re doing anything in the city… we should always ask the question, “What is our goal with this project?” In Richmond, whenever we do things, we don’t really have a plan. It’s just, “Alright! We’re going to do this!”
We should define our goals, and then decide if it’s the most efficient way of accomplishing them. Finally, if the answer is yes, we have to consider if it will take away from things that are higher priorities, if it will be neutral, or if it will actually help those priorities. For Navy Hill particularly, I think the procedure [for these projects] should be to put it out there. Ask everyone for their ideas. I have a particular idea that I would like to see there, but that’s just one. Maybe somebody else could come up with something better. Maybe one of these developers has a plan that’s great for the area, great for the city, and benefits our people.
That should be why we do anything — to benefit the people of Richmond, and make Richmond the best we can. Put it out there as an unrestricted request for proposal. Say, “Hey, we have this plot of land. What can you do with it?” Whether it’s one parcel or all of them, [with] an arena or no arena, bring it!
My idea for Navy Hill is that [I’d like to create] a recreation park, similar to Williamsburg, so we can tell the stories.. There’s a lot of stories in Richmond that are never told, like Shockoe Bottom and the slave trade. It’s ignored by our elected officials. In Navy Hill in particular, you can tell two stories: one is the true story of what it was like to be an urban slave, because there’s a misconception that the only slaves were on plantations, and that’s not true. In Navy Hill and Jackson Ward, there [were many] black Richmonders who were successful despite being treated as second-class citizens by their government. [Another] story: how an interstate and an arena was dropped right in the middle of that neighborhood to break it up. I’d love to see the history told there, but that’s just my idea.
RVA Mag: On the note of slavery, Monument Ave has been controversial for Richmonders for many years now, and has come to the forefront right now with Black Lives Matter and police brutality protests. How do you personally feel about the monuments themselves? What do you think should be done with them? What do you think would be the best use for the green spaces?
JG: For years, I’ve had a very particular plan for Monument Ave. There’s no denying now that as it stands, Monument Ave glorifies Confederate generals. That should not stay. My idea is to make the entire street an open-air museum and build a timeline. In the green space — those big, beautiful medians — start at the beginning with stone plaques in the ground. Not necessarily signs sticking up, but in the ground so you can walk, look down, and read about what was going on [in that] year.
It goes back to making Richmond a place that tells stories; particularly stories that aren’t often told, but should be. You could start before Europeans came, focusing on the tribes in the Richmond area, like Chief Powhatan. As you walk and come across prominent people from the area, you could see a life-size statue in the median with the inscription on the ground… There’s a lot of people who are important. For example, James Armistead Lafayette, who was a slave in the Richmond area during the Revolutionary War, served as a spy, and gave intelligence to the Colonial Army. He ultimately earned his freedom. You could go through time. The first black mayor of Richmond, Henry Marsh, would be there. John Mitchell, Jr. should be there. At the end, two new large monuments: one to Oliver Hill for his role in Brown vs. Board of Education, and then a final monument to Douglas Wilder.
Focusing on these stories changes the entire street from glorifying Confederate generals to telling our story as a people. [Richmond grew from] the capital of the Confederacy, who fought to keep people enslaved, to electing the grandson of a slave as the first black governor in the country. To me, that’s a story that’s educational — a story that’s inspirational. [It can] show that no matter how bad things seem, no matter how stacked the deck seems, no matter how racist we seem as a people, things can change. They can change in a short period of time. We’ve made a lot of progress with keeping the march forward down Monument Ave. We continue to grow as a people, and we continue to learn from these stories, until we ultimately get to where we want to be.
RVA Mag: You seem to have a big passion for history.
JG: I do! That’s something I love about Richmond. It has all kinds of history, a history of all peoples. When you’re a city, you have to steer into the things that nobody else has. You carve out a niche, just like in business.. We should be the center of learning black history in America. We have Revolutionary War history, Civil War history, the Jim Crow era, Oliver Hill fighting against the segregation of schools — there’s so much there.
You have [the history], and you also have a river that has the only Class 4 rapids in an urban area in the country, that we don’t take full advantage of. There’s some other unique things in Richmond from a business perspective I think we could carve out a niche for. We have a thriving creative arts community. The Brandcenter at VCU is the top post-grad marketing program in the country. We have The Martin Agency here, [who does] the Geico commercials. With history, there are stories to be told that should be told, but doing those things can also bring in a lot of tax revenue we can pour back into our people and neighborhoods — to help uplift people and right some of the wrongs in our system.
RVA Mag: Speaking of Richmond’s communities; compared to my own hometown of Norfolk, it seems that Richmond’s COVID-19 numbers are a lot higher. However, the community and people of Richmond have pulled together and helped their neighbors with everything from testing to toilet paper. How do you see Richmond moving past this and creating a healthier future?
JG: That’s one of the things I really love about Richmond. The people who live here are amazing. They’re always willing to reach out a hand and help other people when they’re down. If you want to get plugged in doing generally anything here, there’s an organization or group of people that have an initiative to help in any way. Coming together as a people is how I think we’re going to get through this. Richmonders love to support small businesses, so [as we] continue to reopen in a safe and gradual manner — we’re going to have to come together as a community. The people of Richmond will have to step up, because right now, the city government isn’t stepping up. That’s evident of everything in Richmond.
What I’ve said as I’ve been running is that I love Richmond, I love the people, and that’s why I chose to live here. But our city government does not match how great our people are. It’s failing us in generally every way. [Here’s how] I picture Richmond… if you’ve ever seen athletes training, they’ll sometimes run with a parachute on their back to build up the muscles to make them faster. Richmond is like one of those athletes; our people are doing amazing things and putting Richmond on the map while there’s a parachute on our back. But we’re still beating other cities somehow. If we took that parachute off, there’s so much potential here that we could keep running, at a much faster pace, forward. I think that’s how we’re going to get through this. Hopefully after this next election, we’ll be able to start reshaping our city government to match our people.
RVA Mag: RPS Graduation rates are disproportionate, and have been almost dwarfed by surrounding towns. How do you think you can work with RPS to boost these numbers?
JG: I think that has to be the absolute top priority of the next mayor. When you have a graduation rate of only 70 percent, that’s a crisis. That means 30 percent of our young people are not graduating high school, and in our modern society, they have virtually no chance of thriving. When you look at our school system, it’s 86 percent people of color… So when we talk about Black Lives Matter — if they matter, then we have to fix our schools.
My number one priority will be working with the school system, and working with the superintendent to get whatever they need to help our kids thrive. I have several ideas for that: I think we need to focus on things like Literacy First. There’s many people in Richmond who still struggle to read and write, and that’s completely unacceptable. Especially in the modern age, when you have an entire world of knowledge at your fingertips. If you have strong reading skills and comprehension skills, you can figure anything and everything out — for example, I built my own campaign website because I was able to figure it out. If we can put that into our people, they can have a better chance of thriving in our modern economy.
RVA Mag: Another Richmond Public Schools question for you — de facto segregation does exist in RPS, and while there have been attempts to diversify or integrate schools, many of them have faced backlash. Do you have any plans to not only create a diverse school district, but one that is fair, in which all schools, regardless of student body, can receive the funding they need?
JG: When we look at our school system, I want to [create one where] it won’t matter which school you’re in, you’ll receive a quality education. You shouldn’t have to shuffle kids around town, beg to get kids into one certain elementary school, for your child to receive a quality education. That’s insane to me. If we need funding, that’s going to be my job.
As a numbers guy — as someone with an accounting degree — I am going to pore through every department budget, and we will root out all of the waste and every inefficiency. We need that money for our priorities, such as our children. Getting them the resources they need is what you can do as the mayor. Right now, we have a lot of waste… so [I want to] make sure we have programs in place, a first-rate curriculum, a school system that is invested in high expectations for our children so we can prepare them to succeed and build wealth. Whatever it takes. That’s what I’m willing to do.
RVA Mag: The Richmond Police Department has faced criticism lately for their ongoing brutality and use of non-lethal crowd control weapons. The recent lawsuit from the ACLU has definitely amped this up, as has the vast media coverage. Would you do anything to change the RPD?
JG: Even before the murder of George Floyd, I was developing ideas for reforming the ways we do policing here in Richmond. As an attorney, I do legal business work, but also have lots of legal discussions. My wife works in the court systems, and she used to work as a public defender and a criminal defense attorney. Having conversations about the way policing is done in Richmond is something I’ve been doing for years, albeit not publicly, because I’ve never been a politician before. When you look at our policing, there is a lot of room for reform there.
The things people are asking for — like increased funding for mental health workers and social workers, and supplementing the incomes of our public defenders — are things I absolutely agree with. Right now, the city provides a supplement to the Commonwealth Attorney’s office for prosecutors, but not for public defenders. I think that needs to be fair. If we are talking about equity, then I feel both sides of the legal argument should have the same type of funding.
[Looking] at social workers, there was an article recently about when Mayor Stoney was first elected. He visited the social workers’ office in Richmond. They told him all of the problems they had, the funds they needed for different things. He told them, “No problem, I’ll take care of it.” Later the direct quote from them was, “Nothing happened, nothing changed.” We know where the problems are. We just need a mayor who is interested, and is willing to make the changes.
Specifically with the police, we’ve defunded all these departments like social work, and asked the police to fill in the gaps. Not everything needs an officer with a gun responding to it. If we manage our budget and put money into our priorities, like social work, then there’s less need for police response to these issues.
There was a program called the Second Responders Program. It was cut, but it assigned social workers to each police precinct. When calls went out, they would respond with the officers to certain situations, like domestic violence calls. Their job would be to go in and work with the victims, get them plugged in to the resources they may need, look out for the best interests of the children, or to start counseling right there on the spot. That would allow social workers to do their best job — and it would allow police to do what they are designed and trained for; to prevent violent crime and to solve crimes. Let’s leave the police to do what they’re designed for and good at, and let’s fund these other programs that wrap around services to serve our people.
RVA Mag: How do you feel about the way Stoney has handled the situation with the RPD?
JG: He’s handled it the way he’s handled every other problem we’ve had in this city. He’s approached it with no plan, and he’s failed because of it. It seems that every day, there’s a different agenda coming from the mayor’s office. Some days, he wants to crack down on the protesters, and some days he wants to pull the police back and do nothing. It doesn’t make any sense. That’s a recipe for bad things happening, like when the tear gas was shot at the peaceful protesters at the Lee monument in the beginning of June. You’re putting tired police officers out there with no plan and no direction, and creating a recipe for bad things to happen. I think he’s handled it poorly, but I think that’s kind of how he’s handled every problem we’ve had — whether it’s schools, paving roads, or even getting a trash can. Now the problems are much more serious, and Richmond’s paying dearly for it.
RVA Mag: Finally, given the current political climate in the city, why should Richmonders elect a white man?
JG: In this race, I’m the one who cares and the one who has a plan. The way I look at it, there is a division between the political class and the people of Richmond. For me — not being a politician, not being someone who’s ever run for office before — I’m just like everyone else in this city. [We’re] fed up with the misplaced priorities, the mismanagement, and the failures of our city government. Why should we elect more people from the political class? It’s just shuffling the same players around to different chairs, and expecting things to change. We need someone who is coming in from the outside, who is only interested in this because he wants to go in and manage the city, solve problems, and serve our people.
It’s not about me. It’s not about a political career for me. I have a career. I have my own business, and I enjoy doing what I do. But when I see our city government failing its people in serious ways, I feel that I need to step up to do something. That’s what I’m going to pour my heart and soul into; helping our people, providing better services for our people, and providing better schools for our kids. That’s what I’m here for. To represent the people and their interests, instead of the political class.
Top photo via Justin Griffin/Facebook. Marilyn Drew Necci and Caley Sturgill contributed to this article.