Richmond’s biggest political power shift in eight years is underway, with that many candidates running to replace two-term Mayor Dwight Jones.
And in politics, as with most worlds, money is power. Or is it? After all, this is a topsy-turvy, unconventional election year, when the Republicans’ outsider nominee for president, a political newbie, faces a Democrat with a decades-strong war chest. Money may be a source and a result of political power, but it’s only part of the story.
Take the city’s mayoral race, where the top campaign earner, Levar Stoney, has raised $416,699 – nearly as much as his seven opponents combined, according to the most recent financial reports at the Virginia Public Access Project.
The candidate raising the second-highest amount is Jack Berry, at a far distant $210,804. Joe Morrissey is third, with $75,581 – not even 20 percent of Stoney’s haul.
Don’t go extrapolating popularity so fast. In their own ways, Berry, Morrissey and Stoney, along with most of the candidates, are outsiders in an outsider year.
Stoney comes as a fresh, youthful face to City Hall and city politics, but greatly owes his positioning to Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Stoney’s been firmly entrenched in a political career from a young age, most recently as secretary of the commonwealth.
Take a look at the 35-year-old’s upper-tier donors – the people who have given $2,500 or more, as reported by the access project. They’re responsible for $205,650, or nearly half, of the amount Stoney’s raised. Of them, 78 percent are donating from beyond the Richmond area. The top check, $10,540, is from Common Good VA, a Democratic fundraising committee set up by McAuliffe.
Contrast that with Berry, who’s spent the last 18 years at Venture Richmond, helping produce the Richmond Folk Festival, Friday Cheers and the 2nd Street Festival, among other projects. If you rattle off his top 10 donors you’ll find Richmond names with community ties. Ukrop, Gottwald, Bates. Keep reading and you could draw up an invitation list for a quite lovely soiree at the Country Club of Virginia. Watch his recent promotional video filled with flyover shots of the city and you’ll see familiar faces.
“He’s been kind of the big surprise, I think,” political analyst Bob Holsworth says. In the past, such business-oriented candidates as Berry have been duds politically.
But Berry seems to have communicated that this is something he wants, projecting energy, going after young professionals, campaigning hard. It “looks like a real campaign going on,” Holsworth says – not someone drafted by the business elite.
Indeed, while selling himself as someone who can get things fixed and help City Hall function again, Berry offered a poignant pitch at the first mayoral forum in April, speaking of his late son as inspiration, and his desire to make change.
How do you win election as mayor? If having eight candidates doesn’t make things complex enough, there’s the city charter. The easiest way to victory is to pull in the most votes in five of the city’s nine districts. Done.
If that doesn’t happen – a likely scenario given the number of people running – then the top two vote-getters citywide are put in a runoff. From there, the candidate still must win five of nine districts.
Some candidates have a better chance at winning in a runoff against one other person, while others may stand better odds if they win five districts outright. Which brings us to Morrissey. You’re either a fan or he makes you shudder, but he’s the biggest wild card in the race – and that gives him a leg up.
“Joe Morrissey is going to get a number of votes,” Holsworth says. “And I think he’s one of the few people who could win the five districts.”
The lawyer was re-elected to the House of Delegates in January 2015, but left to pursue a brief run for state Senate last year. He dropped out, citing a health episode, moved to the North Side, got married and entered the mayoral race in March.
“He has everybody running scared,” says a politico who’s closely involved in the campaigns. “He’s powerful in the realm of he is causing abject panic in the normal power structure in Richmond.”
Beyond the mayoral race, there are other shifts in the power structure underway. Richmond has seen the effects of organized, effective protests, demonstrations, rallies and movements – for equal rights, on environmental issues such as Dominion’s coal ash plans, on relations between police and their communities, and on social justice issues such as the recent Fight for $15 minimum-wage movement.
Beyond the mayoral race, City Council and School Board offices all are up for grabs – 18 seats in which at least 44 percent of the positions will be filled by someone other than an incumbent.
Richmond holds a cadre of behind-the-scenes players fueling political power – lobbying firms, developers, corporate interests and such giants as McGuireWoods and its army of lawyers and consultants.
And in this moment, in this rare convergence of turnover, unrest, struggles over resources and a most unusual election season, everyone is focused on moving one thing: you to the polls in November.
1. Tim Kaine
U.S. senator, vice-presidential candidate
He may not have amassed the personal wealth of some peers, as underscored by his recently disclosed tax releases. But Kaine is at his zenith of power as Hillary Clinton’s running mate in a battleground state. The former civil rights lawyer, who maintains his residence in the North Side, has political roots starting at City Hall, running through the Executive Mansion and stretching to Congress. Is he progressive enough? Can he straddle a defense of Clinton controversies while attacking Donald Trump controversies? This is his proving ground, and it’s Kaine’s time to leverage his power, demonstrate his mettle and perhaps become the Commonwealth’s first vice president since John Tyler.
2. Terry McAuliffe
Governor of Virginia
Voters registered “modest” job-approval ratings for McAuliffe a year ago, at 50 to 31 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University Swing State Poll. In May, a Morning Consult survey had his popularity at 58 percent. McAuliffe’s helping protégé Levar Stoney in the mayoral race, and made a popular, sweeping restoration of felons’ voting rights. The Virginia Supreme Court said he went too far, but he’s working around it. McAuliffe pushed such deals as Stone Brewing Co.’s arrival, Hardywood Park Craft Brewery’s expansion (hey, the guy likes beer) and Shandong Tranlin Paper Co.’s $2 billion plant in Chesterfield County, which broke ground in October. It will create 2,000 jobs by 2020, he said – long after his term ends in January 2008. Or will he be gone sooner, working with best buds the Clintons? “I don’t think I’d be good in a cabinet,” he said on 103.7 Play earlier this year. “I’ve never worked for anyone in my life.”
3. Donald McEachin
State senator, U.S. congressional candidate
The former delegate and now No. 2 Democrat in the state Senate is running for Congress. A Richmond lawyer, McEachin may not live within its boundaries, but his candidacy for the 4th District became official in June when he won the Democratic primary. With that status solidified, it appears that he’s beaten back any concern raised about his name and credit-card transactions showing up in a widely publicized hacking of the affair-seekers’ website, Ashley Madison. In answering a Times-Dispatch reporter, he denied his involvement and later told CBS-6: “At this time, this is a personal issue between my family and me. I will have no further statement on this issue.” This is a key race, an office previously held by Republican Randy Forbes, who left to run in the 2nd District, but lost the primary. And McEachin seems to be sitting pretty. “He’ll be a player for quite some time,” political analyst Bob Holsworth says.
4. Umesh Dalal
Without his efforts, you wonder how much waste, fraud and questionable business practices would go undetected in city dealings. Dalal isn’t worried about popularity contests with people in power. He’s been there for a decade, digging through the muck and churning out reports that demand attention. His work dates to the city’s first popularly elected mayor, Doug Wilder, through two terms of Mayor Dwight Jones. Dalal also hasn’t left out the schools, tardy reports to the state auditor of public accounts and the disastrous implementation of an $18 million computer system. In many ways he’s laid the groundwork for the mayoral candidates’ top platform: to get in there and fix City Hall.
5. Anne Holton
Former secretary of education
As the daughter of former Gov. Linwood Holton, she’s lived in the Executive Mansion twice, the second time with her husband of more than 30 years, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine. Now they have their sights set on the nation’s capital. Last month Holton resigned as secretary of education to join the campaign trail, traveling the country with Kaine and working to get Hillary Clinton elected. Holton is a former juvenile and domestic relations court judge who zeroed in on the foster care system in Virginia. She’s been a force behind an initiative of Virginia’s community colleges, Great Expectations, which helps create a bridge for foster youth from high school to life after a postsecondary education.
6. Dwight Jones
Mayor of Richmond
What’s a lame-duck mayor doing on a list like this? Disappointments, controversies and sluggish progress have fueled the overriding fix-the-mess pitches of mayoral hopefuls, with former Gov. Doug Wilder’s opening candidate forum a raucous indictment of the Jones legacy. But if this is a snapshot of power, Jones still sits on the throne – for now – and is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of South Richmond. Jones also has a measure of control over life in his wake: He recently appointed a respected nonprofit leader, Reggie Gordon, to his anti-poverty initiative’s Office of Community Wealth Building. And a new mayor would have trouble ignoring the strides of Police Chief Alfred Durham, put in place by Jones. Violent crime was down in 2015, and in an era of tensions and riots, Richmond’s community demonstrations have maintained a mutually respectful balance. Other loose threads are being tied off: a Church Hill grocery store, movement on Boulevard redevelopment and Bon Secours’ stepping up its nursing college project at the Westhampton School property. It’s a legacy scramble.
7. Joe Morrissey
Lawyer, mayoral candidate
He may be seasoned in politics, but Morrissey plays the role of an outsider to the political establishment – and seems ready to shake up City Hall. Voters tired of the mess there may be willing to overlook potential drama for a shot at someone unafraid of confrontation. With his boxing-glove logo underscoring his Fighting Joe brand, Morrissey has delivered a surprise hook to the now eight-way mayoral race. For months, politicos wondered whether to expect the unexpected, and they got it in March, when he announced his candidacy complete with a “Rocky Balboa” theme. His campaign chest lags behind, but he has name recognition, fervent supporters, and the ability to cross diverse constituencies. Morrissey acknowledges he’s not perfect, but says at least voters already know his “trials and tribulations.” He may be the one candidate who could win without a runoff.
8. Jack Berry
He’s playing the mayor-as-chief-executive angle. A former official at City Hall and county administrator in Hanover County, Berry is calling upon that experience – as well as his 18 years with Venture Richmond – as proof he can lead and manage large organizations. His opponents might say Richmond is bigger than Hanover, and the stakes are higher than a successful Folk Festival. He also was on the losing side of a push to get a baseball stadium into Shockoe Bottom. But Berry is bringing passion to his campaign, pulling together an active operation with the financial backing of committed locals and powerhouses in the business community. If he finishes second and is in a runoff with Morrissey, he could get back into City Hall.
9. Selena Cuffee-Glenn
Chief administrative officer
The former city manager of Suffolk, Cuffee-Glenn, arrived in Richmond last year with an unenviable job: finish and submit the city’s 2014 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report to the state – which was due almost six months before she arrived. Six months later, in October, she had it finished with Finance Director Leonora Reid. “It is hard to change what has happened in the past,” she said during a community meeting. “I believe in competencies in staff. I believe in efficiencies.” But where’s the 2015 report? Still overdue. And last week came puzzling news that the city’s 2015-’16 fiscal year, ending June 30, is projected to have a $4.5 million surplus, not a multimillion-dollar deficit. As the Richmond Free Press noted, Cuffee-Glenn and Reid had blamed City Council’s shift of resources to the schools for the deficit, but with a projected surplus, “the success also appears to undermine their argument.” Cuffee-Glenn isn’t tied to many years of the mess, but a new mayor might be moved to sweep her away for a completely fresh start.
10. Dana Bedden
Superintendent, Richmond Public Schools
With City Hall’s elected officials facing the polls in November, it’s good news and tricky news for Bedden. An upended School Board will be scrambling, and former chairman Jeff Bourne, even if re-elected, could be pulled away to higher political aspirations. Bedden got a budget increase from City Council, but not the one he wanted. And in the mayoral race, schools have become a priority plank, getting the attention they deserve. But it also means whoever’s elected will be under intense pressure to make something happen. For Bedden, results must be imminent – and he must show that he’s a key player in them. Can he face what’s headed his way? He had a popular start in 2014, and last year, after news broke that he was interviewing for a post in Boston, he was persuaded to withdraw his application. But one of his saving graces, Anne Holton, no longer is secretary of education. There’s no more time for a honeymoon.