Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones appeared unstoppable when he unveiled his ballpark proposal late last year in front of cheery renderings of a Shockoe Bottom stadium.
Nothing sums up the story of power in city politics better than the plan's subsequent — and somewhat spectacular — collapse.
With Jones' second and last term coming to an end in a year and a half, his opportunity to leave office with a prestige project to his name is vanishing quickly. It also doesn't help him lay any golden groundwork in a potential run for statewide office again. The question of how to grow the city's tax base — one of the Shockoe plan's main selling points, if you believe the numbers — remains unanswered.
The mayor came into the year with momentum in the form of the initial success of the Redskins training camp, and he seemed to have shored up support in all the right places. Joining him onstage was Delegate Delores McQuinn, the chairwoman of the city's Slave Trail Commission, to address concerns that the ballpark would be insensitive to the Bottom's slave history. On top of that he'd lined up $15 million in pledges from the city's omnipotent business community to help fund privately a slavery heritage site.
Today, Jones' proposal appears to be in shambles, a jumble of unanswered questions. Even the revised renderings released six months into the process looked bleaker — preserved historic facades were replaced with a tall, blank wall, and an outfield fence that snaked around the automatic car wash of an adjacent gas station.
Facing certain defeat at the hands of City Council, Jones was forced to temporarily withdraw his proposal at the end of May. He's promised to reintroduce it, and while his position doesn't look strong — as one City Hall insider puts it, "the cake is half-baked" — it's too early to know how things will shake out. By all accounts, the mayor's affable chief administrative officer, Byron Marshall, is working behind the scenes with all parties in an attempt to resurrect the plan, though details are scant regarding how his team hopes to accomplish the feat.
In the interim, the sun hasn't come up much for Jones. McQuinn, a key supporter of his in the ballpark debate, just fell to Petersburg Democrat Rosalyn Dance in the race for former Sen. Henry Marsh's seat. That's despite the Richmond Democratic Party — under the state party that Jones serves as chairman — throwing its full weight behind McQuinn. All those robo calls featuring Jones' endorsement weren't quite as potent as city Democrats figured.
The downtown business and development people who once looked like they could do almost anything with the help of a friendly mayor are appearing less important. Developers David and Brian White and their partner, Louis Salomonsky, stood to gain the most from a downtown ballpark, with their vast holdings in Shockoe Bottom. The booster groups that represent those interests — Venture Richmond and the Greater Richmond Chamber — poured thousands of dollars into a pro-stadium PR campaign that included paid canvassers, a bus trip to Durham, N.C., multiple full-page newspaper ads, informational gatherings and billboards. The debate hasn't seemed to budge, an outcome that exposed either their lessened influence or its absence in the first place.
Conversely, by standing up to Jones, City Council expanded its power by demonstrating that it no longer would serve as a rubber stamp for whatever economic development proposals the mayor's administration put in front of it — a significant shift in the order of things.
That might not do council members any good during the mayor's term. More than one of them says the mayor has demonstrated he's unwilling to compromise. But they hope that future mayors will take heed of the debacle and bring forth a more collaborative approach to major policy decisions.
Two council members in particular, Charles Samuels and Jon Baliles, expanded their influence through the course of deliberations. They served as the swing votes in the ballpark debate, eventually making a joint announcement that they'd oppose it, effectively killing the proposal. Either could be laying the groundwork for a run for higher office. Baliles, in particular, has the advantage of being the son of a governor who could, say, help shore up necessary financial support should an appropriate seat open up.
Baliles already has shown he has connections. In turning against the mayor's stadium proposal, he released details of Chesterfield County developer and Board of Supervisors member Daniel Gecker's proposal to build a privately financed stadium on the Boulevard. Gecker's entrance into the ballpark debate did the mayor's already faltering proposal no favors.
Beyond the ballpark debate's shining a light on the story of power, the city opened its new jail, and managed to reduce its inmate population enough that it didn't open overcrowded from day one. The credit goes to Commonwealth's Attorney Michael N. Herring, whose staff introduced alternative sentencing measures. As director of the city's Department of Justice Services, David Hicks oversaw the design and implementation of programs to which those inmates were redirected, namely a day reporting and monitoring center.
Either Hicks or Herring could use the success to their advantage as Jones' lame-duck status creeps in and the campaign to become his successor begins.
Hicks, Herring and Richmond Delegate Jennifer McClellan all are considered potential candidates in the 2016 mayoral race. A fourth possible contender, Delegate Joe Morrissey, saw his chances of mounting a competitive run go from good to improbable when he was indicted last month on charges he had sex with a 17-year-old receptionist he hired to work in his law office. But Morrissey says he was set up, and Richmonders know by now not to count him out before he's down. The man has staying power.
1. Dwight Jones
City of Richmond
Yes, it was a terrible year for the mayor, but the fact is, the way Richmond city government is set up, Jones holds all the cards — no matter how badly he bungles major policy initiatives. While the sun sets on his administration, eyes will focus — and resources will build around — the person who rises to fill the vacuum.
- Scott Elmquist
2. Byron Marshall
Chief Administrative Officer
City of Richmond
Marshall, the city's chief administrative officer, didn't have such a great year either. One of his top deputies was fired at the behest of the mayor and Marshall tried to hand over $300,000 in additional retirement benefits to her on her way out. But Marshall is safe for now because he's become the go-to contact for the business community in the city, and the business community likes him.
3. Charles Samuels
Richmond City Council
City Council members stepped up their influence by saying no to the mayor in a big way. Lawyer Samuels, as council president, oversaw this flexing of muscles. But council's power is limited by its inability to pursue alternative plans of its own, meaning Samuels can't sidestep the mayor — he and his colleagues can only throw up roadblocks.
4. David and Brian White
They stuffed Shockoe Bottom with more loft apartments than anyone thought possible, and now they're behind-the-scenes drivers of Mayor Dwight Jones' plan to build a stadium there. A review of property records by Style in November showed their company, Historic Housing, has holdings assessed at more than $83 million.
5. Louis Salomonsky
He's the other half of Historic Housing, partnering with the Whites. He's just as involved behind the scenes in the Shockoe Bottom debate, but because of a stint in federal prison on bribery charges, he's the one plan supporters avoid mentioning because, you know, bribery. He and his partners may be driving the debate, but their failure to make headway might mean they don't have as much back-channel pull as they once did.
6. David Hicks
Senior Policy Adviser
Mayor Dwight Jones
As the mayor's chief policy adviser, Hicks was sidelined when he was assigned to head the city's struggling departments of social services and justice services. He still plans to run for mayor in 2016, and he could win, especially now that the other most likely contender, Delegate Joe Morrissey, has been sidelined by an indictment on sex charges.
7. Jon Baliles
1st District Representative
Richmond City Council
No one's quite sure what Jon Baliles is up to. The freshman city councilman started his term by saying as little as possible — not a bad strategy. When he came out, he did it in a big way, leveraging developer Daniel Gecker to torpedo the mayor's stadium plan. Everything he's done so far screams higher ambition, but ask him about it and he won't even blink.
8. Daniel Gecker
Member of Chesterfield Board of Supervisors
He sits on the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors, and more important, is a developer heavily involved in Richmond. He made the extent of his influence in city politics clear when he helped torpedo the mayor's stadium proposal by championing Midlothian-based Rebkee's alternative solution that would keep baseball on the Boulevard.
9. Michael Herring
Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney
Herring continues to play an outsized role in city politics. He was instrumental in reducing the jail's inmate population, averting an overcrowding crisis when the new jail opened last month. He also was asked to investigate Marshall's attempts to give questionable retirement benefits to an outgoing deputy. He said it was above board.
- Scott Elmquist
10. Jennifer McClellan
71st District Representative
House of Delegates
The popular Richmond delegate, a Democrat, has pull in the General Assembly. If she decides to run for mayor — and her name has been floated — she'd be a formidable opponent. Though she'd have to take a significant pay cut. In addition to holding state office, McClellan is a high-paid lawyer for Verizon.