Richmond is a blue city in an increasingly blue state; I won’t be the first one to say that Virginia may not be a swing state anymore. (For just one data point, check out VPAP’s visualization of new voter registrations over the past five years. The increases are concentrated in Virginia’s urban corridor -- those are mostly Democratic voters.)
So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that many Richmonders found the results of the national election to be particularly dispiriting. Social media feeds are filled with comments from people expressing their hurt, anger, and shock over Donald Trump’s stunning victory. Of course, there are plenty of Trump supporters in RVA (over 15,000 within city limits), but even many of them cast their vote because they feel politics is broken. And the city's overwhelming Democratic majority probably shares the national Dems' sense that the country is different from the one they thought they lived in.
BUT: if you're feeling adrift or disheartened, there’s a possible solution. Local politics may be calling.
We can't write off the national level, of course. If you don’t like what’s happening in Washington you need to organize, participate, and act. But there's a lot going on at the local level, and you might have a bigger impact in your backyard.
Some studies suggest that Americans ignore local politics, in part because of the greater attention paid to Washington. But they’re wrong to do so. Local politics matters, for at least two reasons.
First, states and localities are doing more. As I’ve noted before, the story of local governance over the last few decades is a story of "increased capacity" -- more professionalized officials and staff taking a bigger role in directing public policy. Sure, the national government needs to take on the global problem of environmental pollution, but this starts at home with Dominion dumping coal ash into the James River. The debate over national education standards is important, but a more immediate problem in RVA may be how to properly fund the local public school system.
More importantly, local politics can provide greater opportunities for both access and impact. Especially in Richmond, public officials live and work among us. My work brings me into contact with politicos more than most, but I met my City Council and School Board reps at my neighborhood civic association meetings. I even ran into my State Senator, a practicing lawyer, in traffic court. (Let’s just say I need better reminders in my calendar about things like inspections.)
And now might be the best time to get involved. The national election in November may have brought change to Washington, but it produced equally dramatic change here in RVA. In a few short weeks Richmond will have a new Mayor (the youngest in the city’s history), half of a new City Council, and an almost entirely new School Board. Richmond voters wanted change, and that’s what we’re getting.
A change election like this one signals that the city faces great challenges, but the prospects for making a difference are also increased. Institutions can open up at times like these, as new officials create new rules and pathways for governance. City agencies and elected officials alike should be more open to input from neighborhood and non-profit groups, advisory boards and commissions, and regular citizens.
I’m putting my money where my mouth is on this point by joining with the folks from the invaluable RVA Dirt to host a public event this week. We’ve invited elected officials, citizen activists, and members of the Mayor-Elect’s transition team to address the question, "What do we do now?" The speakers and question will focus on action and impact: what SPECIFIC things can Richmonders do to help support city government while holding it accountable? Although the event is sold out, we’ll post the results online at RVA Dirt (and I’ll link to them here at RVA Politics).
The local election, and particularly the mayor’s race, drew a lot of attention (and money!) this past year. We aim to help channel this interest and energy into continuing efforts to support the city overcome its biggest challenges: education, poverty, economic development, and more.
So: if right now you feel like there’s no way to have an impact on politics, stay tuned. We’ll show you how wrong you are.