Rules - and race - matter for RVA Mayoral Election

Richmond is still buzzing over last week’s Christopher Newport University poll showing Joe Morrissey with a solid lead in the race for Mayor. We're still weeks away from the election, and many candidates are already ramping up their campaigns. (Jack Berry, Levar Stoney, and Bruce Tyler have all debuted television ads already this week.)

The fact that Morrissey -- despite his colorful history -- is the front-runner has led to a lot of questions about how the election actually works (and how to stop him). The city's arcane election rules have a lot to do with its history - recent history for sure, but maybe even the city's legacy as a participant in the slave trade and the capitol of the confederacy.

Up until 2005, the city operated under a "council-mayor" system, in which the city council selected one of their own to serve as Mayor of the city. Former Governor Doug Wilder led the efforts to change the city's charter to a "strong mayor" system, in which a mayor would be elected directly by the city's voters.

It was a surprising turn for Wilder, who had opposed earlier efforts to move to a directly elected Mayor. One of the major concerns had to do, unsurprisingly for a Southern city, with race. Richmond has for a long time mostly been a "majority-minority" city, where blacks outnumber whites. But poverty rates, including educational levels, skew the electorate towards whites, and some were concerned that a citywide election would be dominated by the city's white power structure.

This was not an idle concern. It's not talked about much today (you can still find people calling this "the Great Unpleasantness"), but Richmond actually did not hold elections for much of the 1970s because the federal Department of Justice shut them down. The 1970 annexation of majority-white southside districts from Chesterfield County was (probably rightly) interpreted by the DOJ as an attempt to help maintain majority white control of the city. The Supreme Court eventually allowed the annexation - as long as the city government was divided into districts that protected minority representation.

So when Doug Wilder and his pal, former mayor Tom Bliley, rewrote the charter, they added a "5-of-9" rule to ensure strong minority influence on who gets to lead the city. To win outright, a candidate needs to win a plurality of votes in five of the city’s nine council districts. If this does not happen, the top two candidates move to a runoff, where one of them should be able to get the five they need. (If you like this sort of thing, you can read the relevant municipal code here.)

The resulting election rules make the demographics of each district important. Based on 2012 data, five of the city's districts are majority-black, while three (concentrated in the West End and that former Chesterfield annexation area) are majority white. One additional district at the center of the city is almost evenly split, although differences in white/black demographics possibly mean more white voters are likely to turn out.

I should note at this point -- perhaps obviously -- that people don't vote JUST for race. But low-information voters, which is most of them, look for cues that can help them identify a preferred candidate. Sometimes they look for party, but at other times it's the demographics of the candidate -- especially, for minorities, ethnicity and race -- that earn their support.

This isn't necessary a bad thing. In the 1970s and beyond, civil rights advocates fought to get black representatives into office in cities across the country, and especially in the south. The argument they made was for "descriptive representation;" in other words, if the description of a candidate is like yours in terms of background, history, and ethnicity, then you're more likely to get good representation. A minority mayor or councilwoman would know what it's like to live like a minority, and would probably help blacks get better city services. (No more "911 is a joke.")

And so the first two mayors under the new "strong mayor" system in Richmond followed this descriptive model. The first, Wilder himself, was a statewide figure with huge support from blacks and whites. (Not so much when he left office.) The second and current Mayor, Dwight Jones, was much more entrenched in the city's black community - a former school board member, state delegate, and eventual state Democratic party chair, plus pastor of a local church. Jones is the type of figure that supporters of the 5-of-9 rule hoped would get elected, for better or for worse.

But this means that district demographics heavily influence election outcomes. White candidates like Jack Berry and Jon Baliles end up competing for the same white West End voters. (If the CNU poll is correct, Berry is currently winning that battle.) And those same candidates will have a tough time winning over majority black districts, at least until they can get in a runoff and ask voters to make a clear choice. (In fact, last week Berry was happy to call this a "two-person race" - meaning he knows he has a good chance if he can just get to the runoff.)

These rules and demographics were partly why it seemed like Levar Stoney was such a good candidate from the beginning of the race. He has the right background and skin color for descriptive representation, while his powerful friends in state government could connect him to West End whites. While he's lagging in the poll numbers, it remains to be seen if a late advertising push can help him make the case to voters, black and white.

Still - race is not destiny, and not every race hinges on descriptive representation. Majority-black districts do elect whites to City Council, for example. And Joe Morrissey is the perfect example of how complicated racial politics are, with his strong support from the black community. RTD reporter Jeff Schapiro suggested that if Morrissey wins, we could even call him "Richmond’s first black white mayor."  Whatever problems Morrissey might have as a mayor, getting the support of the black community won't be one of them.