No one really knew what to expect when voters elected three new council members a year and a half ago.
There was the son of a former governor, a neophyte out of nowhere and a museum curator who toppled one of the mayor's biggest critics. How would they mesh with council members whom some people perceived as too willing to accommodate Mayor Dwight Jones' every wish?
Sure, people had predictions. Most of them proved wrong. Case in point: In the aftermath of the election, it appeared that Jones was the big winner after his two biggest critics on council were defeated.
"I'm just tickled pink," Jones said at his election night party. "Things are moving in the right direction."
To say that the buzz from that night has worn off would be an understatement.
Parker Agelasto toppled incumbent Marty Jewell in the 5th District. Jewell, a frequent thorn in Jones' side, had warned that Agelasto would be just another one of the "mayor's minions." He has turned out to be anything but.
Jones let out an excited yelp upon learning that Jon Baliles had narrowly edged out incumbent Bruce Tyler in the 1st District. Baliles has adopted a far less bombastic approach to governance than Tyler, a vocal and dogged critic of the mayor. But it was Baliles who led the recent effort to slash funding to the mayor's biggest initiative, the ballpark redevelopment project in Shockoe Bottom. Somewhat perversely, if you look at it from mayor's perspective, Tyler has advocated the Jones plan from the sideline.
No one saw Michelle Mosby coming. She beat incumbent Doug Conner in the 9th District. Conner had the mayor's early support, but in most of the major fights that have transpired since Mosby took office, she's turned out to be a reliable ally for Jones, choosing to devote most of her political capital to projects in her district and to criminal-justice and social issues.
The three bring a distinctive combination of personalities — the laid-back Baliles who keeps his cards close, the hyper Agelasto with his shotgun approach to policy, the no-nonsense Mosby with her head-down focus. For the most part, they lend a more collegial, civil tone to council, though the emotion, duration and high stakes of the stadium debate are testing that.
Council is starting to look strong, City Council President Charles Samuels says: "We're not just trying to throw up roadblocks, and we're not just saying yes to whatever the mayor wants. We're actually partners in crafting what's next for the city of Richmond."
With residents deep in debate over the Shockoe Bottom plan and how to both honor the city's past and shape its future, here's how the council's new members have carved out a path for themselves halfway into their four-year terms.
- Scott Elmquist
Occupation: Freelance museum curator and consultant.
First ordinance: To establish a $20 fine for parking more than 18 inches from a curb.
Despite winning an endorsement from Mayor Dwight Jones in the run-up to the election — a backing that's backfired — Agelasto has proudly carried on the traditions of his predecessor.
He's a pain in Jones' ass.
Agelasto was among the first council members to come out against the mayor's ballpark proposal. And he led a solo campaign to cut city funding for Venture Richmond, a downtown booster group that's vocally backed the plan.
Agelasto's outspokenness has stood in contrast to the quiet, deliberative approach that his fellow newcomers adopted as they acclimated to council. In his district, his willingness to challenge Jones and administration officials is appreciated by admirers of his independent streak. But at City Hall, it's irritated the mayor and his allies. It's also raised questions about how effective he can be at building the coalitions needed to actually get things done.
His first ordinance, which makes it illegal to park more than 18 inches from the curb, exemplifies his wonkish tendency toward the most basic elements of city governance.
In another case, he helped initiate a work-force development program that's teaching a handful of unemployed city residents to weld. The city planned to purchase new bike racks from out of state when Agelasto proposed keeping the money in the city and teaching residents a sought-after job skill in the process.
Still, Agelasto has crossed enough people that some of them are actively working to discredit him. Someone anonymously leaked to Style Weekly a rather dumb research paper Agelasto submitted with two other students as part of a group project in his graduate course work at the University of Virginia.
The 2005 paper suggests re-theming parts of Richmond, saying, among other things, that Brown's Island isn't exclusive enough and that fingerprint scanners should be installed at the entrances.
For the record, Agelasto says most of the ideas — finger-print scanners included — in the paper weren't his, and old college papers probably would make most adults look silly later in life.
Agelasto's trouble isn't only with the administration. At times, his colleagues also have grown frustrated. In recent months, that's manifested itself in the occasional eye roll from his colleagues in council chambers when Agelasto signals he'd like to speak.
"Parker leaves no stone unturned," says Council Vice President Ellen Robertson, the body's senior member. His studying and questioning can be a gift, she says — he does at times come up with something important the others missed.
"He drills and he drills and he drills and sometimes he strikes oil and we're grateful for that," Robertson says, "but like most drilling, you drill more holes than you find oil."
More recently, Samuels cut off Agelasto while he was questioning the director of the city Finance Department about the budget. Samuels noted that Agelasto was asking rhetorical questions and it wasn't clear whether he truly expected a response.
Agelasto is unapologetic about his tendency to ask lots of questions and his willingness to pontificate on most topics that come before council.
"Whether other council members choose to get into that level of detail or not, I can't fault them for that," he says. "But every time I'm asked to vote, I have to understand what I'm voting on. … So I have no regret for reading and being inquisitive."
Agelasto says he decided to run after approaching Jewell about a project and getting no response. In contrast, Agelasto is obsessive in his follow-through. This past winter, when an overnight construction crew was driving a neighborhood in his district mad, residents called Agelasto at 4 in the morning. He answered the phone, went to the site, and when police couldn't produce the certified sound meter necessary to shut the contractors down, he demanded that the chief of police be called down. The chief got out of bed at Agelasto's behest. Not that it changed the outcome. Construction continued.
Council pays $25,000 a year and Agelasto essentially has made being a councilman his full-time job, falling back on his savings. It helps that he's thrifty, he says. The man clips coupons for butter and drinks Folgers coffee.
"I think it's just one of those things where I've put everything into City Council right now," he says, "so other job opportunities, other career opportunities, have fallen by the wayside."
Likewise, he says he understands that he may have alienated some potential allies at City Hall by coming on fast and strong. That's not to say he has any misgivings about it.
"I'm not going to go and say, 'You can have my vote for this if you give me your vote for that,'" he says. "I don't do that. But that's the political arena that we work in. I'm simply saying, why does that have to be?"
- Scott Elmquist
Occupation: Health and life-insurance broker.
First ordinance: To name an alley in his district between Floyd and Grove avenues Bertha's Country Lane after a longtime resident.
Baliles, the son of former Gov. Gerald Baliles and former teenage resident of the Executive Mansion, says he swore off politics as a kid.
"Growing up as a teenager in it is hard," he says. "I was 15 when dad got elected governor."
He's picked up the family business in short order.
Baliles has a poker face that's unrivaled on council and a knack for saying as little as necessary. Where Mosby can be outspoken, he is guarded. Where Agelasto will fight every battle, Baliles picks and chooses his.
The traits have made him difficult to pin down, even among his colleagues.
"You can rely on [Baliles] to be a swing vote," Samuels says. "You just don't know which way he's going to swing at first. I think he's taken a very good approach in listening more than talking."
This trait has been most noticeable during the past six months, with council debating the Shockoe Bottom ballpark plan.
This month, after all that quiet study, Baliles essentially torpedoed Jones' proposal by releasing details about an alternative option to build a stadium on the Boulevard. Developers said they could build the stadium at no cost to taxpayers. (The developers have since written a letter to city officials backing away from the plan, but the politics have yet to play out.)
Baliles went public the day before council was set to finalize amendments to the mayor's budget. Baliles hoped the publicity would help persuade his colleagues to support budget amendments he'd introduced that redirected $12.6 million from the Shockoe ballpark plan to schools, the riverfront and city infrastructure.
His amendments passed on a 5-4 vote.
The move, a political coming out of sorts, has prompted speculation that Baliles is trying to raise his profile in anticipation of a run for higher office in 2016, when there's an open field in the next mayoral contest. He's coy about future plans.
"I'm not going to engage in speculation," he says. "My job was to make sure the money went where council thought it needed to go."
Baliles came into office with the backing of the powerful Richmond Democratic Committee and the mayor received him as a welcome change from his predecessor, Tyler, who, among other things, accused Jones of backroom shenanigans in an open meeting.
Baliles' most high-profile project since he's taken office was co-organizing the RVA Street Art Festival, which covered a former bus depot on West Cary Street with public art. As you can imagine, it wasn't particularly controversial.
"I just kind of laid low for a couple months," Baliles says, "just to get the lay of the land and start working on building relationships."
He's also mellow, sometimes to the point where you might wonder whether he just woke up from a nap. Or perhaps maybe he's just a tad stoned? But no, he says he's never done drugs: "I'm definitely laid back. If I did drugs I probably wouldn't be moving."
The one area where Baliles has been outspoken is his distaste for long meetings. During them, he sometimes takes to Twitter, where a small community dissects council and public commentary in real time, often joking about how brutal the lengthy meetings have become.
Prior to his ballpark amendments, the most substantial ordinance Baliles introduced was to cut meetings from twice a month to once a month to give council members more time to vet issues and reduce the number of items being continued from meeting to meeting.
He says his brief career working in the Wilder administration and then for the city's Department of Planning and Economic Development inspired him to run for office.
"You see the city from the inside and you see how it works," he says. "And I thought I could do a better job of representing the district and helping the city."
But even the insider experience couldn't make the transition to council much easier, he says: "You realize it's a different method of madness."
The key difference is the political dynamic, he says.
"On City Council, you can't get anything done unless you have four friends," he says. "It's a constant battle of balancing resources and needs. And some days you've got to understand that the other council members might get upset with you, but at the end of the day, you know, they might need you for something else. So it's best to remain cordial — you can't hold a grudge in this business."
- Scott Elmquist
Occupation: Real estate agent, salon owner.
First ordinance: Instructing the city's Human Resources Department to remove questions regarding criminal history from applications to certain city jobs.
With no political background and no apparent hope of winning, Mosby garnered virtually no news coverage for her campaign until after she won, a feat she managed to pull off with a budget of $13,000. Her opponent, Conner, raised $60,000, and didn't bother showing up to a candidate forum to debate her.
Two years later, Mosby arguably has more to show for her time in office than her counterparts.
Less than six months into her term, she shepherded her first piece of legislation, and it hit on one of her top priorities going into office: removing a requirement that applicants for some city jobs disclose felony convictions.
"We're one of the first jurisdictions to take that on," Samuels says. "And it was a unanimous vote. And I think that, for someone who's only been on council a few months, was a big deal."
Though it's mostly symbolic in effect, Mosby intended it as a small step toward making it easier for felons to start their lives over after prison sentences.
Mosby runs a nonprofit that offers assistance to ex-offenders, and since 2001 has owned a salon and barbershop for the express purpose of providing employment and job training for felons who otherwise might not be able to find work.
Mosby also takes credit for initiating the city's recently announced plan to purchase the Richmond Outreach Center's old campus on Warwick Road.
Mosby said her South Side district has been angling for a recreation and community center for more than 10 years. When she drove by the ROC's old campus, which has a gym, skate park, baseball and soccer field, she pushed the city's chief administrative officer to look into it.
This month, the city's Planning Commission approved the $1.7 million purchase, and the plan soon will come before council.
Mosby says her next move will be to push for the installation of sidewalks in the parts of her district that lack them.
Her early victories are indicative of her approach to council, which has been to keep her head down and focus on her district.
"I'm a firm believer that you need to work the time that you're given," Mosby says. "You're not guaranteed anything beyond what you were given, so you better get in there and try to work the time for me."
Throughout the ballpark debate, Mosby has been a reliable vote for the mayor's proposal. She says she can't see abandoning a plan that promises to address the city's long-ignored slave-trading history with a heritage site and museum.
"That's the driving force for me," she says. "I don't want to keep talking about Lumpkin's Jail. That's giving reference to the person who held slaves. I want something that tells me about the slaves that were there."
In the ballpark debate and most other votes and policy discussions, she's aligned herself with Robertson, Cynthia Newbille and Kathy Graziano. Though she's been relatively quiet at meetings, when she does speak, she's drawn reactions.
At a raucous meeting last month, audience members heckled her while she explained her decision to support a plan to lease Monroe Park to a nonprofit conservancy that will oversee maintenance and operations. Some residents worry that the change will prevent churches and advocacy groups from serving free meals to the homeless who congregate in the park. Council members and the conservancy's director have insisted that isn't the case.
Mosby had no trouble shutting down her detractors.
"Everyone comes up here and acts like everybody on this council has no feelings," Mosby told the audience. "Unacceptable. … Michelle Renee Smith Johnson Mosby has feelings for people, and she will fight for all people. Homeless, those with shelter, ex-offenders, children in school, and all. Because that's the oath I took, and I was doing it before I became council."
Mosby says she views her role as a council member as not unlike that of a parent, and that approach can come across in meetings. "I'm looking out for the district," she says, "trying to figure out how to make things happen that will be productive."
Last month, Mosby moved her council office into her hair salon, which is sandwiched between an Italian restaurant and an Asian food store in a strip mall on Forest Hill Avenue. Mosby put her desk in a small room that until recently held a barber chair.
She says she wanted to make it easier for constituents to meet with her, and spare them the expense of paying for parking downtown. As she's transitioned from citizen advocate to council member, she's had to get used to the idea that not everyone in her district is going to agree with her decisions.
She's slowly coming to terms with it.
"I'm hoping that in telling you how I feel, that perhaps it will help you understand how I feel," she says. "We have to be in a position where we can at least dialogue." S