Thad Williamson can't officially run for office yet. City Council has to get permission from Richmond Circuit Court to hold a special election this November to replace Councilman Parker Agelasto of the 5th District, who announced his resignation a couple weeks ago. But once that's on the calendar, Williamson says "nobody should be surprised" if he throws his hat in the ring.
An associate professor of leadership studies and philosophy, politics, economics and law at the University of Richmond, Williamson has had a hand in local government for years. He worked in City Hall as a senior policy advisor to Mayor Levar Stoney for a year and a half, served on the Anti-Poverty Commission, writing its final report, and co-chaired the Maggie L. Walker Initiative for Expanding Opportunity and Fighting Poverty.
"The city of Richmond and helping this community have become my passion, some of the most important things in my life," says Williamson, who's lived in the 5th District since he moved to Richmond in 2005. "It's not like it's something that's completely separate from what I do with my research and teaching."
Williamson has been a vocal supporter of Stoney's administration, and in March he wrote an opinion piece for Style defending the mayor's budget proposal, which included tax increases earmarked for the Richmond Public Schools. Council ultimately balanced the budget without a controversial 9-cent property tax increase, and finalized it on the night of May 13, after press time of this story. Williamson says he "would have been willing to entertain a smaller increase than the 9 cents."
"The budget process is always one of compromise," says Williamson, noting that tough decisions are inevitable. "You have to be able to persuasively defend all parts of the budget, not just the highlights, if you want to get the whole package."
Education and economic opportunity would be his top priorities as a candidate, Williamson says, and the two go hand-in-hand.
"The education discussion and the poverty discussion in Richmond are the same thing, and they need to be talked about at the same time," he says. "When you have a very large majority of kids in poverty in schools, that really makes everything extremely challenging."
Justin Griffin, a lawyer with a background in accounting and economics who has publicly criticized City Hall for what he calls a lack of leadership and transparency, and who has taken a public stance against Stoney's elusive coliseum project, worries about putting an insider in that vacant seat.
"If you have someone who's a former staff member, and from my understanding it seems that they're friends, you definitely would question whether the tough questions would be asked," Griffin says, adding that the mayor and council are set up to be checks on one another. "As a citizen of the city, I want the mayor to question the City Council, and I want the City Council to question the mayor, but also work together when they can."
Williamson argues that his experience in the mayor's office makes him more qualified for the position.
"I understand it's a different role, and I will certainly ask tough questions of anybody. And having been on the inside, I know some of the things to ask," he says. "I think it's really important to have folks on council who know what questions to ask and know how to push to keep the administration accountable."
Parker Agelasto, who faced legal challenges after he moved out of the 5th District to accommodate his growing family, will step down Nov. 30. His replacement will serve for one year, finishing out the rest of his four-year term. At press time, no one else had publicly expressed interest in running for the seat.