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The 2017 Richmond Power List: Politics

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Elections went on a wild ride last year. Statistical predictions were scrutinized while pundits battled it out. Richmond wasn’t immune. Joe Morrissey’s mayoral bid landed on The Washington Post’s front page, and The Economist said that Richmond’s race was “capsized.” Just three weeks before Election Day, a ChamberRVA poll put Morrissey in the lead, too. But it was fresh-faced Levar Stoney who galloped into the mayor’s office.

Appropriately, the 2017 Power List reflects a year of uncommon intensity. Some of the nominees have an almost dynastic affinity for each other, but others have a more frictional relationship. Local political observer Don Mark says the list reflects “strong executives establishing themselves here in the capital city,” particularly in reference to Gov. Terry McAuliffe and his protégé Stoney.

And Stoney is certainly getting a fiery baptism in Richmond’s strong-mayor government. He’s been confronted by City Council President Chris Hilbert, who pushed for fiscal controls over the mayor’s office, while simultaneously requesting access to a budget surplus on council ledgers. Stoney also wrestled with city auditor Umesh Dalal over a review of city tax collection efforts, but the two later came to an agreement. And while Dalal can be seen as a prickly figure, he’s also been hailed as a faithful employee. Thus, his resignation in July looked like dark clouds on the horizon to many. Last November, the city picked its third outside auditor in three years, only highlighting the level of financial dysfunction.

It’s not known how much McAuliffe is advising Stoney during these times — if at all. The governor is almost certainly reviewing his legacy. Some say a 2020 presidential run is in the offing. But besides that grand ambition, McAuliffe is likely pleased to see his Virginia Board of Education appointee, Dan Gecker, as its chairman. True, McAuliffe found himself at odds with Gecker’s friend, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. During his Democratic bid for senator two years ago, Bloomberg gave Gecker a $700,000 ad package from his media company. But in February, McAuliffe struck a gun deal with Republicans and found himself smeared on social media by Bloomberg’s group, Everytown for Gun Safety.

Nonetheless, McAuliffe’s support also proved fruitful for Donald McEachin, who left the Virginia Senate in January to serve as a United States Representative for Virginia’s 4th District. “I have watched him stand up for our important progressive values like addressing climate change, fighting sea-level rise and working for a healthier, cleaner environment,” McAuliffe has said. Indeed, McEachin has pushed against proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency. And State Sen. Jennifer McClellan is yet another McAuliffe acolyte. They most recently worked together to combat sexual assault, and Mark says she could be a future governor.

But longtime political observer Bob Holsworth says there’s more to consider, just beyond edges of 2017. He points to Republican Kirk Cox, a Colonial Heights resident who will become speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates in 2018. Cox will be the one who “appoints every member of every committee in the House of Delegates,” Holsworth says. “It’s an extremely powerful position. Everybody is trying to get his attention.”

Then there are the local power players who are not politicians per se, but rather people who work tirelessly to make Richmond an inclusive home for longtime residents and newcomers alike.

“It is reassuring to see [these] education, crime, and housing civic leaders,” Mark says. “It comes as no surprise to anyone who has lived in Richmond that generational poverty has plagued the city for all too long — and there is now a more holistic approach both inside and outside City Hall.”

SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

1. Levar Stoney, Mayor

With his slim suits, boyish looks and sensitive demeanor, Stoney seems like Richmond’s answer to Justin Trudeau. He rode a snowplow during his first week in office and later visited an animal shelter. With nearly 100 appearances in his first 100 days, he appears positively gregarious compared to former Mayor Dwight Jones. But now, after roughly 200 days, Richmonders are taking a harder look at Stoney’s One Richmond platform. He launched an independent performance review of all city departments and fired four of Jones’ managers. But he also announced a Monument Avenue Commission in June, designed “to help the city redefine the false narrative” of its Confederate statues. Some criticize the commission as a legacy-building move, and public hearings have been testy. Stoney’s urge to widen the scope of the commission to include removing the Confederate monuments has had a mixed reception. Richmond won’t change overnight, and Stoney tells reporters he’s anxious for progress, too. Meanwhile, many focus on positive signs, such as the mayor’s proposed $6.1 million funding increase for schools. For now, all eyes are on Stoney.

SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

2. Terry McAuliffe, Governor

It’s tempting to wonder if McAuliffe’s play list contains Willie Nelson’s “He Won’t Ever Be Gone.” Not because the governor was photographed last year sitting next to Nelson’s weed stash, of course. More to the point, McAuliffe is a guy who doesn’t want to leave the limelight. As Politico reported in June, McAuliffe could be a potential candidate for the 2020 presidential election. He’s planning a nationwide tour in support of Democratic gubernatorial candidates, which easily doubles as presidential campaign reconnaissance. He’s tried to make job creation a signature focus, and that could stick with voters who don’t support his progressive platform. A $2 billion paper mill in Chesterfield, which was postponed but not canceled, may bring 2,000 jobs. State breweries have more than tripled during his term, too, from 61 to 206. He helped attract California-based Stone Brewing to Richmond and championed homegrown outfits such as Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, which received $1.15 million in state incentives for a Goochland campus. He’s also promoted Blue Bee Cider and Virginia distillers. Before he moves forward, though, McAuliffe will first have to make it through a federal investigation into his finances, which opened in May. But federal investigations are par for the course when it comes to presidents now, right?

SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

3. Donald McEachin, Congressman

Speaking of politicians who won’t be discouraged, former State Sen. Donald McEachin decamped for Washington’s swamp in January. He now holds Virginia’s 4th District congressional seat. “In some respects, it’s the same stuff, just a different place,” he told Style at the time. As the sole congressman representing Richmond, McEachin has his work cut out for him. He’s pushing hard for educational reform in his district, at a time when Richmond’s public schools are in dire need of a stable superintendent. In March, he asked the Department of Education to investigate suspension rates in the Richmond region. But McEachin will need to persist in other areas, too, such environmental policy. He recently added his signature to a letter to the House Appropriations Committee, opposing a proposed 31 percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget.

SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

4. Jennifer McClellan, State senator

So, who will carry on McAuliffe’s legacy in the governor’s mansion? In the future, it could be Jennifer McClellan, says political observer Don Mark. In 2013, she was co-chairwoman of McAuliffe’s transition committee. Then in January, McClellan won the 9th District House of Delegates seat vacated by McEachin. At 44, she represents the kind of fresh energy favored by young voters, and she credits Tim Kaine as a mentor. Plus, she possesses legal savvy after 15 years as general counsel for Verizon. In February, she wasn’t keen on a sanctuary city law that would hold Richmond accountable for crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. Yet a month earlier, she participated in the March on Monument, a local version of the national Women’s March on Washington. “It’s clear what we do now,” she told the crowd. “We fight like we’ve never fought before.” Even if McClellan eventually carries the gubernatorial torch, she’ll bring her own vision along.

5. Allen Jackson, City attorney

Jackson is an administrative anomaly. Even though his title is city attorney, he technically reports to City Council and not to Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration. It’s not quite an auditor situation, but he does review contracts and advises council members on the legality of the issues upon which they vote. That gives Jackson unique influence over City Council matters. Consider Umesh Dalal’s recent departure. Jackson took the spotlight when he negotiated a $400,000 severance package with Dalal’s attorney. Then he swayed Councilor Michael Jones from offering a motion to reconsider the package, saying the city should avoid setting up a future lawsuit from Dalal. There’s no doubt that Jackson will continue to feature prominently in knotty financial issues. In May, he pushed against council members who wanted to unmask a company that overpaid city government. Due to an obscure interest-rate clause, Richmond paid that company a $3 million tax refund. Jackson cited a state law that makes it illegal to reveal the company’s identity, but he supported council members by promising to further look into the matter.

6. Chris Hilbert, City Council president

After angling for the council president position, Chris Hilbert finally got his wish in January. Hilbert does have great collaborative power, but that comes at a cost: Things may take a long time under his leadership. True, drawn-out diplomacy is useful for defusing potentially explosive situations, such as budget hearings. During a March hearing, finance director John Wack accused Umesh Dalal of misusing taxpayer data, and Hilbert urged Wack to support his claim with documentation. But a showdown with Stoney this spring proved to be a tangled controversy. Hilbert pushed for ordinances that would strip Stoney of the ability to move dollars between departments without first receiving council permission. In a statement, Stoney cried micromanagement, but Hilbert countered with a call for cooperation. It seems as if the council president’s patience will be an oft-used asset. And an unexpected $13 million surplus on the budget sheets could prevent cuts to Hilbert’s cherished anti-poverty programs. Stoney had a terse answer for Hilbert’s request: Not so fast, don’t touch that cash.

7. Parker Agelasto, City Council member

Agelasto will have his patience tested, too. In what was considered an unusual move, he abstained from voting for Hilbert as president. He later released a statement that said Hilbert had demoted him from vice-chairman of the council’s Finance Committee. Agelasto’s commitment to transparency found another outlet, though. He’s long pushed to revamp the ownership of Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority properties. In June, over two dozen properties were sold by public bidding. On his Facebook page, Agelasto praised the process for doubling the amount of anticipated revenue. Next up in his reformation efforts? Streamlining a competitive bidding process for commercial properties around Richmond to waylay back-room offers. “This should lead to a large number of surplus properties being considered for disposition and thus pre-empting the unsolicited bid process for rather mundane transactions,” Agelasto told Style.

SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

8. Dan Gecker, Chairman of the Virginia Board of Education

Gecker will probably go down in history as the man who brought millennials to Richmond — or at least gave them places to sleep. In 2005, he and Robin Miller purchased 153 parcels of land in Manchester from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ real estate foundation. The neighborhood is currently booming with apartments. But now Gecker finds himself in the halls of academia. He was unanimously elected chairman of the Virginia Board of Education in July, after his previous appointment to the board by McAuliffe. It will be interesting to see how he handles humdrum tasks such as high school graduation requirements. In a Style story on the Manchester boom, the tax credit specialist said, “I’m best at the tactical level.” Gecker recently encountered a measure that would notify parents of sexually explicit classroom material such as Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” He told reporters that the board would lean on local policy to navigate those issues. That may seem like small potatoes, compared to what’s next. Near the time of Gecker’s election, the board moved towards a decade-long project of increased control over the Richmond Public Schools. Under the agreement, the schools will have to provide names and information about the top three permanent superintendent candidates to Gecker before making an offer. The board later weakened a requirement that the incoming superintendent have experience revitalizing lackluster school districts. But, Gecker said at a July board meeting, “If we’re in the same place in eight years, we will have failed miserably.”

9. Alfred Durham, Chief of police 

Durham is no stranger to politics mixing with work. Last July, he was criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union, which claimed that Richmond police corralled protestors during an anti-Trump rally. Durham responded with a letter of denial. Things haven’t let up for him since. He’s been working closely with Stoney to address the surge in local gun killings. The mayor finds hope in Durham’s plans to create a public housing unit that will focus on violent crime in those neighborhoods. Thankfully, community policing is his specialty. He developed the model more than 10 years ago under former Police Chief Rodney Monroe. And in July, Durham called for city judges to be less lenient, too. The challenge is to stop offering bail so frequently to criminals, because those individuals can become repeat offenders, he told reporters.

SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

10. T.K. Somanath, Interim director of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority

In 2015, Somanath chucked his retirement plans to help others find a stable living situation. Replacing Adrienne Goolsby, he became interim director of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority. Since then, he hasn’t stopped chugging along. “There are drastic cuts proposed,” he said in a recent Style story on public housing. “We have an enormous task of providing better places.” You might say that Somanath doesn’t fear tough situations, though. In the 1960s he built rural schools in India. He immigrated to the United States in the ’70s, arriving in Richmond by Greyhound bus. He then served as president of the Better Housing Coalition for 23 years. What he now wants is for the authority to communicate effectively with city and school leaders. But in his plan to deal with public housing complexes, Somanath is also in the orbit of Durham’s violence reduction plans. That puts him at the intersection of some of Richmond’s most pressing issues — and many say he’s the best person for that job.

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