RVA at a crossroads

What kind of city is Richmond, Virginia? And what kind of city do we want to be?

There are at least two ways to think about these questions, as I have been during this election season. The first way is, forgive me, a little wonky.

As a college professor, I get to teach students about local politics. The textbook I often use, by political scientists Michael Kraft and Scott Furlong, tells a story of "increased capacity." Over the past few decades, state and local governments have been doing more and more in terms of laws and policies, with bigger staffs and more professionalized public officials. We are increasingly finding new, visionary leaders to take local governance into the 21st Century.

At the same time, local politics often remains a bulwark of small-scale corruption, crony capitalism and bribery, and local boosterism. (Look no farther than our current mayor’s "churchgate": state investigators are still looking into the role of high-ranking city officials in helping renovate Mayor Dwight Jones' church.)

The choice between old-school politics and a new, professionalized city government is pressing on the city as it elects a new mayor and largely new City Council this fall. The choice is made even starker by the particular candidates running for the city’s top job.

The current front-runner is "Fightin' Joe" Morrissey, a former state Delegate with a colorful past. But what’s past is present: Morrissey is currently under investigation from the state Bar as to whether he lied to a court during his 2014 felony trial. The candidate could have his law license stripped from him -- for the second time in his life -- just in time to take office next year. Morrissey is a charismatic politician who inspires fierce loyalty in many Richmonders, but he’s not exactly the model of a forward-thinking visionary leader; instead, he hearkens back to a past of governance by indiscretion.

His biggest challenger so far is former Venture Richmond Director Jack Berry, who wants to position himself as exactly the kind of leader that inspires. Berry often talks about "high-performing" government and schools, and offers a technocratic vision of the city similar to that popularized by Steve Goldsmith in Indianapolis and Mike Bloomberg in New York. Berry's implication, if not his exact words, is that the city should be run like a business - "Venture Richmond" indeed.

But the concerns over Berry’s candidacy are the same that sometimes followed Goldsmith – is he just a "downtown mayor" that will help the city’s elite? Last week the Richmond Times-Dispatch raised questions about the depth of Berry’s support for the current mayor’s failed baseball stadium proposal, which Berry now criticizes. Economic development is generally good for a city, but not all projects benefit everyone.

And this brings up the second way to think about the kind of city Richmond wants to be, in part because of the kind of city it undeniably is: a Southern city, maybe (with apologies to Atlanta) THE Southern city. Race matters everywhere in America, but it might matter more in the former capitol of the Confederacy. And our racist past has persistent effects on our present and, almost certainly, our future.

This is a city where many residents can still remember the 1970s, where City Council elections were actually cancelled by the United States Department of Justice over concerns about racial imbalance. Morrissey courted some press attention this week by calling for a statue of Jefferson Davis to be removed from Richmond’s honored Monument Avenue. But it was only two decades ago that a furor arose over the placement of a statue of Arthur Ashe on that same avenue, in part because of the “historic sensibilities of Richmond's Confederate-American population." (By the way, I’ll go on record: it IS a terrible statue. Ashe looks like he's taunting kids with a book while simultaneously beating them with his tennis racket.)

Morrissey has little to lose by antagonizing Confederate sympathizers; his support comes overwhelmingly from the city's Black voters. And that’s a key puzzle of this election season: why has this pugnacious white lawyer become the champion of Richmond's African-American community?

His reputation for constituent service helps, as does the fact that his young wife is African-American. But Morrissey also speaks to minority voters, particularly those with low incomes, because the story he tells includes the idea that the cultural and economic renaissance that is happening in Richmond might be leaving many behind.

A city newspaper, Style Weekly, recently asked each mayoral candidate to briefly explain their candidacy. Morrissey began by noting that "Two distinctly different Richmonds live side-by-side," with distinct differences between the two:

  • One is public and visible, the other is private and hidden;
  • One is largely white, the other is predominantly black; 
  • One is successful, thriving and hopeful while the other is characterized by poverty, despair and hopelessness;
  • One is safe at night while the other suffers from gunfire and violence;
  • One sends its children to dynamic, secure private schools, while parents from the housing projects send their children to crumbling, unaccredited, 50-year-old schools.

This is a powerful statement of the inequalities that many Richmonders experience, and that too often go unacknowledged by the city's boosters (myself included). It is entirely possible that Morrissey is not the best candidate to address this divide once in office; but he’s the one who has done the best job of articulating it on the campaign trail.

The candidate most likely to challenge Morrissey on this front is Levar Stoney. The former Secretary of the Commonwealth has developed a detailed plan for reforming public schools that relies heavily on addressing poverty within the city. The most encouraging sign for this plan is that Stoney is working with University of Richmond Professor Thad Williamson, one guy in Richmond government who has put his money where his mouth is in terms of poverty.

Say what you will about Dwight Jones, but his biggest legacy may end up being Williamson's former home, the city’s Office of Community Wealth Building (OCWB). This city agency consolidates a number of long-term, low-visibility policy initiatives that do the painstaking work of combatting poverty. The office is a model for other cities, and the new mayor needs to nurture it like the fragile newborn it is.

Morrissey has clearly heard of the OCWB, but it’s hard to know how much he will support it. In fact, based on his track record it’s hard to know exactly WHAT Morrissey will do in general, if he wins. But if not his deeds, then at least his rhetoric is reaching across the city’s economic and racial divide. That's something his opponents might want to match, if they want to help determine the future of Richmond.