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Misses Congeniality

For two women in the 6th District, the City Council race is picking up speed.

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For that reason — and others — the contest in the 6th advances as the one to watch. For one thing, the cast of candidates could fill a playbill. There are seven of them: Lawrence Williams, Harvey Johnson, Michael Ziglar, Eric Anderson, Art Burton, Shirley Harvey and Ellen Robertson. That means in a district of more than 24,000 residents, of whom 6,000 are registered voters and 2,000 to 3,000 are expected to turn out, a seven-way race could be won with fewer than 1,000 votes.

But what may be more provocative is that the seat vacated by El-Amin could provide City Council with a dramatically different, and possibly less captious, voice from a district with a widely held reputation for race-baiting and divisiveness.

Of the seven stumping for votes, the two women, Harvey and Robertson, are providing perhaps the most interesting juxtaposition in the race.

Harvey served as 6th District council representative from 1994 to 1996, when former city prosecutor James. L. Banks overwhelmingly defeated her. At the time she claimed she wouldn’t run again. She has run in each election since.

Then there is first-time candidate Robertson, founder and director of the Highland Park Restoration and Preservation Program, a nonprofit charged with gentrifying that neighborhood. Robertson, who also has served on the city’s Planning Commission, had planned to run in 2002 but decided against it when El-Amin announced he would seek re-election.

In the days before the election, Style caught up with Harvey and Robertson to talk about why they think the 6th District needs a woman’s touch and how the race has been a tough one to trumpet.

“This is the best and saddest election I have ever seen,” Harvey says. Best because voters get to decide who fills El-Amin’s remaining term instead of council, she says, and saddest because of the influence-peddling she says persists. “I always run,” she says. “I was on council. I know the games they play.”

In 1998 Harvey was among a handful of Richmonders who filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to block City Council’s appointment of Calvin Jamison as city manager, claiming he didn’t possess the experience required by the city charter. Today, she says Jamison appears to be doing a fine job. Instead, she blames City Council for failing to “equally divide” city money throughout the nine districts. Poverty has a chokehold on the 6th, Harvey says, and it’s her platform to work to change this.

She is quick to point out that her time on council coincided with the previous push in 1995 for an at-large or elected mayor. Harvey vehemently opposes the move. “The corporate sponsors are behind all this, not the people,” she contends. “The people will lose power.”

She is as vocal about crime as she is about losing control. Her grassroots campaign includes a crime-fighting and job-training initiative that she says she’ll push for even if she loses. Instead of ROTC, think of it as “POTC” — “Police Officer Training Corps” — in which high-school seniors in at-risk neighborhoods could receive scholarships and training to become police officers in their neighborhoods.

And with time running out before the election, Harvey openly criticizes Robertson: “She has the ability to influence people,” Harvey says. “She has a cloud around her name.”

From her office in the Southern Aid building on Clay Street, Robertson doesn’t deny this. But whereas Harvey sees a storm, Robertson says she sees a silver lining.

“Folks on council are serving under a cloud of paranoia and suspect,” she says of recent machinations and an ongoing federal investigation. “That’s the political environment we’re in, and it’s unfortunate the candidates are under the same cloud.”

Robertson, a former registered nurse and graduate of the urban studies program at Virginia Commonwealth University, says her experience with the Highland Park Restoration and Preservation Program helping 300 families buy houses enables her to see what 6th District residents want: more money and resources.

“The racial and economic divide stagnates and cripples us from our opportunity to grow,” she says. “The intent of the civil-rights movement has not been achieved in Richmond.” If elected, Robertson pledges to work for “inclusion” and promote regionalism between the city and its surrounding counties.

And what of an elected mayor? Robertson is less direct than Harvey. “Are we getting ready to completely transform our government? Is the power invested in an elected mayor sufficient enough to ensure the leadership we’re looking for?” she asks. “I don’t think people fully understand it.”

And when it comes to the proposal for a baseball diamond in Shockoe Bottom, Robertson bristles. “Fifty percent of our kids are flunking,” she says, her eyes popping wide. “That’s a bigger issue to me than a mayor at large or a baseball diamond. Are we crazy?” S

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