RVA Politics is a blog about politics in the state of Virginia And the capital city of Richmond.

The author is a political scientist. Please don't hold that against him.


In Richmond, uncertainty extends beyond mayoral race

For only the third time in its modern history, the city of Richmond will directly elect a new mayor this fall. (Post-war mayors were appointed from the City Council until 2005, when the city's charter was changed to allow popular elections for the city's top office.)

The first guy elected under that new charter, former Governor Doug Wilder, helped us take a first look at the many, MANY candidates who want to become that third Mayor. At a forum at Virginia Union University last week, a dozen candidates argued that they were the one to replace current Mayor Dwight Jones.

Richmond faces a number of big issues, including economic development, the historical legacy of slavery, and funding for crumbling public schools (which sparked big protests this week). And certainly the mayoral race will be the focal point for those issues. But there's been little attention paid to how the race also will affect the other chief player in city politics: the City Council.

The Council is the legislative branch of the city government, and it has a number of important powers and roles that mayors ignore at their peril. (As Mayor Jones demonstrated when he launched a big stadium proposal and forgot to check if he had enough Council votes to support it.)

The key issue here: at least two, and possibly three, current Council members are running for Mayor. The city does not have any "resign-to-run" laws, but it's difficult for a candidate to say they expect to win the Mayoral race when they have a fallback election. So the current members will essentially have to abandon their Council seats to run for the big chair.

So current members Michelle Mosby and Jon Baliles will lose their seats. Mosby is the current Council President, so the Council will have a new leader. Councilmember Chris Hilbert is also considering a run, although in such a crowded race, he may stay where he is. (As the Council VP, he has a good chance to become Council President and realize some ambition that way.)

But that's not the end to the changes. Charles Samuels, a one-time foil to the Mayor, is stepping down, with current school board member Kim Gray an early front-runner for his seat.
Kathy Graziano, another former Council President, is retiring. (Her chief staffer, Tim Grimes, is planning a run.) In the other districts, long-time members Reva Trammell and Ellen Robertson have announced they will run again, but there's been no word yet from first-term members Parker Agelasto and Cynthia Newbille.

The result: at least half, and probably more, of the Council will be newly seated, dealing with a newly elected Mayor down the hall who may have very different ideas about city priorities.

As I have argued before, the city is still feeling its way through the "strong mayor" system ushered in by Doug Wilder a decade ago. There are a couple of options for what happens after November:

  • Suppose the crowded Mayoral field is winnowed down to a few. A single candidate consolidates support of major voting blocs and powerful forces in the city, winning a strong majority in the election and claiming a mandate. The Council could find itself marginalized by this dynamic new mayor. They will have no choice but to let the mayor's office determine the agenda and react to it.
  • The field could remain crowded, with the winner stitching together a slight majority and limping into office. The Council could establish itself as a real counterbalance, either under Hilbert or a new face, checking mayoral power.

It's hard to know which of these scenarios is more likely as we all wait to hear from the real front-runner for Mayor: Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney. It's still early, of course. But if I had to bet, my money is on Stoney running, and winning big, with Council taking a back seat after November. We'll know more soon, as Stoney says he should decide by the end of the month. The fate of more than the Mayor's office rests on his decision.

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