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GUEST COMMENTARY: What’s Next

Levar Stoney has his second term as mayor. But how well he does may depend on what he learned from his first.

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After an unprecedented, historical election season shaped by a global pandemic and nationwide unrest, Americans might not know how to feel yet. Here in Richmond, though, the most common feeling might be déjà vu.

Just like four years ago, the 2020 mayoral election involved three top contenders in a multicandidate race, almost-obsessive concern over where votes were distributed, and hopes and fears about the need for a December runoff. And this year’s election ended the exact same way it did in 2016. Having won the most votes citywide – and, more importantly, winning the most in at least five of the city’s nine electoral districts – Levar Stoney is again the last man standing.

Now what?

Déjà vu seems doubly appropriate here. Not only did Stoney win again, but it might be best to look back on his first term to see where he might go in his second.

When Stoney first took on the job of mayor in 2017, the focus of his administration seemed to be on getting things in running order. After years of delayed filings, the city’s financial reports began to be filed on time. Stoney announced reforms at the permitting office, pothole blitzes and a formal review of the city’s creaking bureaucracy. He also launched the ambitious Education Compact, a formal structure meant to bring the mayor, City Council and School Board together for discussions and planning for the city’s troubled public schools.

The compact reflected Stoney’s penchant for catchy plan titles. The city’s Richmond 300 planning process overlapped with the national Vision Zero transportation effort and the RVA Green 2050 emissions-reduction plan, as well as the mayor’s One Richmond slogan. Still, many of these programs had substance, with proposals and initiatives attached. These policy efforts were bolstered by a level of public engagement that was a refreshing change from his often-aloof predecessor, Dwight Jones. Stoney kept his promise, for example, to visit every school in the city at least once during his first year. The mayor, it seemed, was everywhere.

All of this political capital built towards his first, truly significant political victory as mayor. He began his second year by proposing an increase in the city’s meals tax with the proceeds dedicated to building new schools. The city’s restaurant owners, backed by some City Council members, fought back fiercely, but Stoney won. This effort and Stoney’s political skills were featured in a dramatic image from his first State of the City address: Stoney holding up two pennies to represent the meals tax increase. The message was clear: The mayor was focused on the little things that would make a big difference.

Then Tom Farrell came knocking and Richmond suddenly had the Navy Hill mayor. Stoney surely saw the Dominion Energy leader’s plan for a downtown arena as a chance to transform the city – and possibly the trajectory of his political career. Stoney invested at least a year of his administration’s time, as well as at least a million of the city’s tax dollars, in promoting and defending the development proposal. But after a coalition of activists joined with the mayor’s opponents on City Council to reveal the sometimes-ugly details of the plan, Navy Hill eventually failed. Stoney’s big swing ended with a very public strikeout.

His earlier efforts, those little things, seemed to get lost in the Navy Hill vortex. The Richmond 300 planning process was bypassed by Navy Hill. The Education Compact became all but abandoned and the RVA Green 2050 Twitter account no longer exists. These neglected initiatives reflected an impatient mayor possibly looking for bigger and better things, even when it came to his signature victory. Critics complained that his meals tax money went to contractors that promised completion of school construction by this fall’s election rather than more cost-effective bids that might have led to more schools.

Then this year, the city was hit by the twin crises of pandemic and protests. The mayor seemed to be handling the pandemic reasonably well. For example, he boldly asked the governor to delay relaxed guidelines for city businesses because he didn’t like the COVID-19 case numbers in the city. The protests that followed, however, seemed beyond Stoney’s interest or abilities, or both. The mayor was lambasted by property owners who felt he didn’t defend the city against protesters and by protesters who felt that he didn’t defend them from the police. Stoney showed little inclination or ability to find a path forward for the city, instead seeming content to let the battle in the streets play out on its own. He switched police chiefs, twice, and in each case seemed less interested in finding the right candidate than just getting the whole thing over with.

Still, the mayor found a chance to take one more big swing with the removal of the Confederate monuments. Stoney received national attention, but also faced questions over his action’s legality, as well as how much he paid for the removal and to whom. Although this latter concern was overblown, critics saw once again the Navy Hill mayor playing fast and loose, concerned more with making a big splash than getting it right.

Yet this summer also saw the resurrection of what we might call Stoney 1.0, especially with the entry of Alexsis Rodgers into the mayor’s race. Faced with her array of progressive policy proposals, Stoney went back to his roots, throwing out a stream of small-scale, big-impact initiatives: Universal pre-kindergarten. An affordable housing fund. New green spaces on the South Side. A basic income experiment. Great, critics noted – but where was all this during the past few years? How, they asked, could the city count on the mayor to follow through, knowing what we know now?

As always, the question of Stoney’s political future looms large. Critics worry that his obvious ambition for higher office is the source of “Stepping Stoney’s” impatience. Some suggest that his 2020 re-election campaign is just a stop on the way to a 2021 run for statewide office, possibly as a running mate to his longtime mentor Terry McAuliffe.

Still, an alternative path might be more attractive to him, especially with an already crowded field for the lieutenant governor’s race. Stoney could use his next full term as mayor to continue to build his résumé and develop alliances with political figures in Virginia and elsewhere. A more successful second term could provide a springboard to a statewide campaign in 2024-’25 – possibly even for governor. He might have the career of another former Richmond mayor in mind, as Tim Kaine has done pretty well for himself.

One thing is certain: Stoney needs more than just an election victory to ensure his political future. He has now won two elections with roughly two-thirds of the city’s voters choosing against him. It is the fault of our city’s racial history, not Levar Stoney, that we have this arcane electoral system. Still, the mayor must reckon with the fact that after four years of his administration, most of the city wanted someone else. There is no mandate here.

Caution seems warranted, but Stoney is often anything but a cautious politician. Everyone in public office can be lured by the chance to make a mark, to build that building, to leave the legacy of that big shiny project. Stoney may be more susceptible than most. Surely he wants the city to put Navy Hill in the rearview mirror, but can he? Downtown development is still needed, with the Arthur Ashe Boulevard corridor also on the development agenda. It’s not clear what, if anything, Stoney might have learned from the past.

So which Levar Stoney will the city get in his second term? Can he stick with the reform blitz of the past few months, providing the necessary attention to detail that will result in continued improvements in city services and equitable policies? Does the mayor have the political will for serious policing reform? Does he have the patience for inclusive and equitable development processes in the city’s most promising areas? Can he muster the leadership to guide the city through the pandemic and its resulting budget pressures, while still addressing the city’s most pressing problem, its underfunded and underperforming public schools?

In Stoney, the city has a once-promising young politician who now – four years older and hopefully wiser – is still navigating a political path that remains, at the moment, unclear.

For better or for worse, the city of Richmond is on the path with him.

Richard J. Meagher is an associate professor of political science and the author of “Local Politics Matters” (Lantern, 2020).