Mayor's race a Richmond Rorschach test

As the election for Richmond’s Mayor approaches its end, there have been enough "October surprises" to fill more than a month.

Last weekend’s political news cycle may have been about the FBI and e-mails. But here in Richmond, mayoral front-runner and lawyer Joe Morrissey was forced to defend himself against new charges that he made sexual advances towards a client. This week we find his campaign is being sued by the Democratic Party (and an opponent’s campaign) because of misleading campaign mailers. And on Wednesday, one of his opponents, City Councilman Jon Baliles, dropped out of the race in an explicit effort to stop Morrissey from winning the election.

As I told WRIC’s Tracey Smith on Wednesday night, this is now a three-person race between Morrissey, former Venture Richmond executive Jack Berry, and former Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney. City Councilwoman Michelle Mosby, while generally well-regarded, has even less support than Baliles, and the other names on the ballot are not even spoilers. (A picture of retired real estate consultant Bobby Junes taking down campaign signs could end up as a popular RVA meme for sadness.)

Baliles has long been considered one of the top contenders for the race, but polling suggested that he was never able to broaden his base beyond the young millennials who admired his work for the city’s cultural scene. Baliles was drawing some support in the election districts in which Jack Berry was dominating (read: the city’s majority-white districts), and so his withdrawal may help Berry add to his city-wide total. But both myself and another local politics expert, Bob Holsworth, thought that the absence of Baliles best helps Stoney, who should have more appeal to those self-same millennials than the establishment figure Berry.

Still, the dynamics of the race are left largely unchanged by Baliles' announcement. Morrissey has brought international attention to Richmond, none of it good. Most of the city's political class see disaster if he wins, but he retains his core support among the Richmond's African-American voters. It remains to be seen if the latest scandals dent that support, but they’ve forgiven him for worse.

For those who oppose Morrissey, there are now two alternatives, Berry or Stoney. If you are a Richmond voter, which candidate you choose says a lot about how you view the city: a political Rorschach test of sorts.

Richmond has a number of challenges ahead, but two rise above the rest. It's widely perceived, fairly or not, that the city government has been more a hindrance than a help to the city's recent cultural and economic renaissance. If something good happens in the city, it’s because another institution -- a local university, art museum, or non-profit organization -- made it happen. On this view, city government lacks the efficiency, organization, and accountability it needs to move the city forward.

If you think this is the biggest problem facing the city, then Berry should be your preferred candidate. A former county administrator, Berry directed one of those self-same non-profit organizations. His Venture Richmond ran a number of highly successful downtown events and festivals, including the city’s popular Richmond Folk Festival. Berry is the consummate professional manager, and probably has the best shot at immediately wrangling the city's ossified bureaucracy.

But there’s another key concern for Richmond: like most southern cities, Richmond is unfortunately segregated by race. Of all people, Joe Morrissey has best described the problem of "two Richmonds": the white, West End business class is thriving, while East End blacks face poverty, crime, and crumbling schools. The city's African-American voters are flocking to Morrissey in part because they don’t trust the (white) establishment to look past craft breweries and "shiny projects" to tackle the greater problems of racial and economic inequality that have plagued the city for years.

To his credit, Berry acknowledges these problems. But he’s clearly a West End establishment figure, one most associated with those self-same "shiny projects." As a result, he has had trouble reaching out to voters in the East End. In an online post supporting Levar Stoney, University of Richmond professor Thad Williamson argued that no matter his good intentions, "Berry will face a major if not insuperable challenge winning over the trust of a large segment of the community. This is not a personal criticism, just an observation of fact." (Morrissey made a lot of hay out of a newspaper reporter’s interview with a Berry supporter using the term "underclass.")

In the same post, Williamson suggested that Stoney has the communication skills and life experience to earn the trust of the entire city. But Stoney also has the necessary demographic qualities; he's young and black in a city where millennials are fueling the economic motor and where African-Americans make up the majority of citizens (and voters). Stoney's supporters argue that he's exactly the kind of fresh voice that can bring the two Richmonds together.

Stoney is not without his own experience running a large bureaucracy -- the Secretary of the Commonwealth's office does a thing or two -- and he's working with experienced city hands like Williamson. But his track record pales in comparison to Berry's, and his clear political ambitions worry some as well. The best case for Stoney is not about administration, but about inequality. If you think that the city’s racial divide is the most important challenge facing the city, then Stoney should be your guy.

Of course these two problems are related: inequality would be best addressed by a competent city government, and the city's civil servants will be more likely to support a culture change that benefits all of the city's residents. But that doesn't make it any easier to make a choice between candidates.

The dilemma for Richmond voters is that if Berry and Stoney split the #NeverJoe vote, then Morrissey may still end up in City Hall. Still, strategic voting will prove hard in the absence of any reliable polling, especially at the district level. There are worse ways to decide between Stoney and Berry than based on your diagnosis of the city's biggest problem.

One way or another, RVA will decide next week -- assuming they don't choose Morrissey, which is not a choice at all.