Led by former governor and Richmond mayor L. Douglas Wilder, 12 city mayoral candidates hashed it out in a spirited forum Wednesday night at the Allix B. James Chapel in Coburn Hall at Virginia Union University.
Most candidates roundly trashed outgoing Mayor Dwight C. Jones, decried the sorry state of the city’s underfunded schools, pushed the idea of a strong executive as mayor who knows about finance and budgets and scolded about a lack of transparency and cronyism at City Hall.
It was a warm-up to the race ahead. Here are some take-aways from the event, which lasted two hours and 15 minutes:
1. Ganging up on Jones. The scene was set by former U.S. Representative and Richmond mayor Thomas J. Bliley Jr., who opened the forum by saying: “We need someone with no outside jobs.” That was a barely hidden barb at Jones, the target of a state police investigation about using city workers for labor at the First Baptist Church of South Richmond where he is senior pastor. Bliley lashed out at Jones for hiding behind a big press office, flubbing city finances and not attending crucial meetings such as some with the School Board. The anti-Jones theme was repeated by every candidate except for Michelle Mosby, the president of the City Council who is a Jones ally. She constantly recited: “I am about results.”
2. City schools are a disaster. Candidates agreed the school system is a crumbling, underperforming mess. The latest turn is a plan to close venerable Armstrong High School and some elementary schools that otherwise could be saved for $3 million from a $700 million city budget. One especially passionate speaker was Open High School teacher Chad Ingold, who said that Richmond must act now to fix schools because the election in November “will be too late.”
3. Wilder flares up. A grand old man of Virginia politics and the first black governor in the state, Wilder, a forum moderator, is known for being tough and unpredictable. He occasionally berated candidates for not answering his questions, getting into an especially awkward back-and-forth with Chris Hilbert. He also made obvious digs at Levar Stoney, the young secretary of the commonwealth and possible mayoral candidate, who chose not to accept an invitation to participate in the forum. Stoney has strong support from Gov. Terry McAuliffe and his access to lots of Democratic campaign cash. Wilder dissed Stoney as “the man from Boston.”
4. CEOs need apply. Time and again speakers hit at Jones and the city’s strong-mayor system of government, suggesting that Jones is a figurehead who never managed a large organization and often was clueless at the city’s helm. “I want to make Richmond a high-performing city,” said Jack Berry, outgoing head of Venture Richmond. “The city needs a CEO.” Several candidates duly recited, at Wilder’s prompting, how much financial and management experience they had.
5. Joe Morrissey’s unintentional comedy. Richmond’s politician with the boxing-gloves logo had his act together on facts and issues, pushing for derelict homes to be fixed up to improve neighborhoods and fatten city tax ledgers. But there was an unfortunate double-entendre stemming from recent legal troubles. He was accused of having sex with his current fiancee Myrna Warren, 20, when she was a 17-year-old receptionist at his law firm. In December 2014, Morrissey entered an Alford plea in the case, denying guilt but acknowledging evidence against him. He received a six-month sentence that was reduced to a three-month work-release term, and now has two children with Warren and a wedding day set of June 11. In an answer, he discussed his experience as a high-school teacher and coach. “I loved being engaged with the students,” he added. That brought down the house, but not in the way he apparently hoped.
6. Redskins, go home. Speakers decried Jones’ one-sided deal that got the Washington Redskins to do summer training in the city. Morrissey noted that the city’s Economic Development Authority had been writing checks to the team that is the richest in the National Football League for $285,000, but this year stroked one for $375,000. Even Mosby took a dive on the football conundrum, saying the deal was done before she was elected.
7. But we love Robert E. Lee! Responding to a rapid-fire series of questions, most candidates said they wouldn’t move Confederate memorials off of Monument Avenue. Community activist Lillie A. Estes said they should come down. Alan Schintzius said, “Let the people decide.” Ingold got laughs by saying, “Bring your own hammer!”
8. And where were you? One nettlesome issue was where some speakers and candidates were when all the allegedly bad stuff was happening with the Jones administration. This especially involved the Old Guard of speaker Bliley and candidates Berry, Bruce Tyler and others. Berry, for instance, backed a new baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom in plans criticized for their secrecy. Council members were asked why they didn’t do more. Even Wilder himself got a zinger from Ingold, who said “it’s certainly not the mayor’s job” to throw the School Board out on the street, when he was in office.
9. Back to the basics. All 12 candidates picked up on the public furor over streets peppered with potholes and backlogged leaf collection. Criticism flew at Jones’ administration for large-scale economic development projects, such as the Redskins Training Center, which have questionable returns on investment. When asked about how the Richmond Coliseum could be made viable, Berry said that “flashy stuff is not on my list. Schools are on my list.” He also made the point that a major tenant was needed for the facility.
10. Time to commemorate black history in Shockoe Bottom. In answering one in a series of lightning-round questions, each candidate said that marking the history of slavery in Shockoe Bottom was long overdue. It’s something the city is moving toward, but what that will look like is up for debate. Architect Lawrence Williams simply recited the link to his website, lawrencewilliamsarchitect.com, as a hint to get the ball rolling. Will the groundwork be laid for a slavery museum at the Lumpkin’s Jail site? Also, how much of the neighborhood, which was once the epicenter of the slave trade in Richmond, be included in historical interpretations?
11. Keep baseball put. Perhaps the candidates took a cue from public meetings where city residents came out in force to clamor for the Flying Squirrels to stay on the Boulevard. And it’s a far cry from Jones’ failed Shockoe Bottom stadium proposal. Activist Rick Tatnall, a member of the Save the Diamond Committee, says that the city could enter into a partnership with the counties to share in the cost of a new stadium. But Mosby wasn’t so forthcoming. When asked whether baseball should stay on the Boulevard, she said, “I need more information.”
12. Transparency and honesty are top priorities After the multiple financial blunders of City Hall, the public wants answers. All candidates agreed with a recent City Council proposal to create a website detailing costs and contracts for capital projects of more than $5 million. Jon Baliles pointed out that he voted for it. But it’s an initiative that the city’s administration says will take significant money and man hours. With residents calling for more transparency after budget decisions that shifted money to cover multiple city services from other line items, it’s an initiative that seems welcome.
Editor's note: This story incorrectly quoted former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder as referring to Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney as "the man from Boston." We apologize for the error.