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COMMENTARY: Slow Change

This year’s City Council elections may seem like a lost opportunity.

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As we approached this year’s elections for Richmond City Council, it felt like change was in the wind. And yet now that the votes have been counted, the results suggest that not all that much is different.

Blue wave elections over the past few years brought young reform candidates to the state legislature. Many Richmond residents, including me, wondered if similar changes would come to the council this year. The big question was whether existing political machines were strong enough to withstand challenges from the city’s growing progressive coalition.

The answer was a resounding yes. Every incumbent who ran for re-election won.

Cynthia Newbille and Ellen Robertson fended off challenges from young progressives, and it wasn’t even close. I actually thought Robertson would be more vulnerable since this was her second time in a row facing a young upstart, but she got a higher percentage of the vote in her district than the safer Newbille. And in the city’s most hotly contested and expensive race, longtime incumbent Reva Trammell survived an almost-maniacal campaign from local entrepreneur Amy Wentz.

Challengers likely were hurt by the pandemic. Some national pundits are attributing the disappointing results for Democrats in congressional races to the coronavirus, as traditional outreach like door knocking and rallies were limited by those willing to follow pandemic guidelines. Here in Richmond, council candidates were more active door knockers, but it’s still hard to get your face out in the district when that face is masked. At the same time, the still-robust political networks and institutions that helped return Mayor Levar Stoney to office helped council incumbents retain their seats.

There will be new faces on the council, with Katherine Jordan – pending some vote discrepancies – and Ann-Frances Lambert taking over vacated seats. As The Richmond Times-Dispatch recently noted, their victories mean 2021 will feature a record number of women on the council with seven. Both candidates are relative unknowns, although Lambert comes from a political family and used the same networks as incumbents did to win. As a result, Jordan is the safer bet to be more reform-minded, possibly in the mold of 5th District representative Stephanie Lynch, who easily won her second election in two years. Still, both are newcomers and, even if Lambert joins them, are far from a majority on the council.

Replacing the outgoing Kim Gray and Chris Hilbert with change-oriented legislators may make for some more active policymaking. There are no clear ideological factions. Pragmatic figures like Kristen Larson, Andreas Addison and especially Mike Jones can be recruited for specific issues. Jones particularly has been an outspoken advocate of policing reform, and it will be interesting to see how new voices affect the currently divided vision of how to proceed.

Gray seems to be doing her best to highlight what new voices could mean. At the last meeting, she and Trammell voted against maintaining the city’s property tax rate. This rate is currently at a historic low, but an austerity-minded state law requires the council to actively vote for it each year or it reverts to an even lower rate, which would require drastic cuts to existing city services. Gray’s vote was largely symbolic, but it suggests a model of governing that avoids active problem solving.

This episode underscores why this year’s elections may seem like a lost opportunity. A stronger, more active legislative branch would help in a city where our arcane election rules produce a mayor supported by barely a third of the electorate. Stoney’s victory is legitimate based on current rules – a statement that, unfortunately, needs to be emphasized thanks to our current national conversation about elections, but does not offer a clear mandate. Our legislative representatives, elected by majorities in each of the city’s districts, are supposed to better reflect the will of the people. But the culture of the current council seems to produce members inclined to interpret this will very narrowly, often directed towards the interests of the loudest –and wealthiest? – voices in their district.

And so the return of most of the current council suggests another four years of deferring to the city’s executive branch for policymaking direction. As their defeat of the Navy Hill development project showed, there are worse things than having a council that acts as a check on the mayor’s power. But those unhappy with Stoney’s leadership might wish for a more active voice countering his priorities.

Council, like the city, is changing, but slowly. It may take another four years before we see a more active policy voice coming out of the legislative chambers. We might sum up the results of the election as “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” – only there’s not likely to be a lot of bossing.