Last night was the last, and probably most important, candidates’ forum for the Richmond Mayoral election. This one was televised live, and provided the last chance for candidates to frame an election story that will carry through to November. One candidate probably performed this task better than any other: former Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney. (It turns out that hundreds of thousands of dollars can actually be put to good use.)
The overall theme of the forum was former state representative, and current front-runner, Joe Morrissey against the world. The first question forced Morrissey to defend his Alford plea and jail stint for, essentially, sleeping with his 17-year-old receptionist (and current wife). And throughout the debate, Stoney in particular hit him on policy and effectiveness – "how many bills did you pass, Joe?" Most of the candidates explicitly or implicitly targeted Morrissey for his temperament and checkered past.
The Stoney campaign has been aggressively promoting the narrative that their guy has been marshaling resources and saving them for the final stretch; that he’s the one candidate who can take down the unfit Morrissey; and that their coordinated strategy will help undecided voters to eventually settle on Levar. While they’ve been spinning the media on this, though, it may actually be close to the truth.
Stoney clearly articulated the case against Morrissey last night, and helped his own chances with clear and impassioned responses to questions. His campaign will be following up on these attacks with direct mail targeted to specific districts this week, and by all accounts Stoney has been aggressively working the streets and meeting voters. One of his supporters, University of Richmond Professor Thad Williamson, made a detailed case for Stoney on a popular local news website. This whole strategy may not defeat Morrissey, but you can’t say that the Stoney campaign doesn’t have a plan.
Former Venture Richmond director Jack Berry has been arguing for a long time that he’s the best option for taking down Morrissey, and that this is a two-person race. But while Berry's good showing in the early polls suggested that he had quickly found the floor of his support, he may have also hit his ceiling. West End whites and the city’s business elite love Berry, but his longstanding support of "shiny" economic development projects like a baseball stadium in the city’s historic Shockoe Bottom district still turn off a lot of voters. (In fact, Stoney managed to get in a few shots at Berry on this as well.)
Which brings us to Fightin' Joe. Morrissey demonstrated the spirit and skill that he brings to politics. He took each of the attacks in stride, admitting he's made some mistakes but telling voters to look at his “entire body of work." He was at his best attacking the city’s deal with the Washington Redskins for a training facility, a deal that’s been widely panned. Still, while Morrissey leads in recent polling, he's clearly been losing ground. His support probably won’t drop any further – he could club a baby seal and some would still vote for him – but he’s probably not going to gain much more from the undecided column.
A few other takeaways from last night's forum:
- City Council President Michelle Mosby looked unprepared, or at least overwhelmed by the moment. Early on, she stumbled through questions about homelessness and the city’s deal with Stone Brewing Company. She brought some practiced attacks on Morrissey, and the word from the theater was that she did much better during the off-camera Q&A session that followed. But there’s a reason her poll numbers are so low: she hasn’t impressed voters to the same degree that the other four candidates have.
- The other council member on the dais, Jon Baliles, had another of his quietly impressive performances. (He’s the only candidate who didn’t have to field a question about his past mistakes – Mosby's bankruptcy, Morrissey's stint in jail, etc.). Still, his low-key energy and overall wonkiness paled in comparison to the high-energy of the other three men. I don’t think he really got the best questions for him to shine – everyone is stealing his ideas on dedicated school funding, for example, and that question was directed to Jack Berry – in the way that he has in other, smaller forums around the city. The son of a former Governor, Baliles was optimistic based on his family history - a Baliles has never been ahead in the polls, he argued - but it looks like with the oxygen sucked up by all the other candidates, Baliles will continue to have trouble breaking through. (At least he can get a job in the next mayor’s administration.)
- The moderators were praised on Twitter, a marked contrast to some other recent moderating performances. (I think Lester Holt is still in therapy.) But there were some odd questions from WCVE reporter Craig Carper, including asking the candidates if they wanted to keep Schools Superintendent Dana Bedden - a decision, as all candidates rightly noted, that is up to the School Board, not the Mayor.
- The forum format included an interesting, and revealing wrinkle: candidates could use up to two "wildcards" to answer questions. Stoney used both of his to attack Morrissey, while Berry used one to take on a question about supporting minority businesses – a telling step for a candidate who has had trouble reaching the city’s majority-black districts. And, of course, Morrissey used both of his within the first 15 minutes, with the moderators reminding him of this fact at least twice during the rest of the debate.
One final note: Stoney has one big card left to play, one that has been largely overlooked. The city's Democratic machine has endorsed him. Most citizens are what we political scientists call "low-information voters;" they look for shortcuts to decide how to choose candidates. They might look at demographics - race, for example - or just vote for a name they know. (Part of Morrissey's support is just that he's a known quantity in Richmond.) But party still matters, even in local elections. And while there won’t be a "D" next to Stoney’' name on the ballot in an officially non-partisan election, you can bet that Democratic Party operatives will be out handing out sample ballots of endorsed candidates. Those pulling the lever for Hillary Clinton will be doing the same for Stoney; this mostly hidden advantage bodes well for Stoney in November.