All eight mayoral candidates were present at Thursday night’s debate, and each hopeful was allowed to direct one question at a candidate of their choosing.
Most chose to call out their opponents.
The event was hosted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch and was moderated by President and Publisher Thomas Silvestri, politics editor Andrew Cain and veteran state and city government reporter Michael Martz.
Former state delegate and commonwealth’s attorney “Fightin’” Joe Morrissey — the current frontrunner in the race — had to answer for his past jail time; City Councilman Jon Baliles had to separate himself from his work in City Hall; Michelle Mosby touted her accomplishments as City Council President.
Morrissey opened the Q&A with a jab at former Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney.
Morrissey prefaced his question by stating he has known Stoney for about four years and finds him to be a “very pleasant, professional young man.”
Morrissey then went down the panel of mayoral candidates and described why he believes each other candidate is more qualified for mayor than Stoney.
“You said you need more than just experience, but experience does count,” Morrisey said to Stoney. “Do you not believe that you need some body of experience before you become chief executive officer of the city of Richmond?”
Stoney was prepared with his comeback, though, and rattled off his leadership experience — executive director of the state Democratic Party and Secretary of the Commonwealth under the McAuliffe administration — adding he has “hired, fired and inspired from the top down.”
Stoney concluded by stating the city deserves a mayor who “won’t give our city a black eye.”
This was the first of many hits Morrissey took Thursday night. Early in the debate, Martz asked Morrissey about his “questionable decisions” in his personal life.
Martz’s question was presumably a reference to Morrissey’s brief time in jail while serving as state delegate last year, after Morrissey took an Alford plea in 2014 for contributing to delinquency of a minor, a then-underage receptionist at his law firm who he has since married.
In August, the Times-Dispatch published Morrissey is under investigation by the Virginia State Bar for knowingly falsifying evidence in the case.
“Why should people expect anything different from you as mayor?” Martz asked.
Morrissey said he is asking people to look past his setbacks and to judge his mayoral qualifications by his body of work, including starting two businesses and two law firms.
“I tell young folks: do not be defined by your set backs, your failures. Be defined by how you respond to them,” Morrissey said.
The focus on Morrissey didn’t end there, though. During the candidate-to-candidate Q&A, architect Lawrence Williams accused Morrissey of exploiting the black community and questioned his lack of civil service.
“My question to you is very precise: What would you say to many of the voters who would say you’ve exploited the Afro-American community?” Williams asked.
Morrissey, who has a strong-hold on Richmond’s predominantly-black districts, reacted with confusion to the accusation.
“I simply don’t understand the premise of that question,” Morrissey said, going on to defend himself by describing the long list of clients he has represented pro bono, many of whom were African American, in addition to the working with groups like the NAACP.
Williams retorted, asking Morrissey how he feels about taking work away from African American lawyers and small business owners.
“I assume every time someone hires me and not an African American attorney, it takes business away from them,” Morrisey said. “But such is life.”
Stoney addressed Jack Berry, former executive director of Venture Richmond, by honing in on Berry’s past support for Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ unsuccessful — and widely unpopular — proposal to build a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom.
“How can we trust that you will listen to the Richmond community when the track record shows you campaigned for a baseball stadium the people did not want?” Stoney asked.
Berry said he supported the proposal because he “believed in it,” but has since learned his lesson and acknowledges the public was against the stadium. As mayor, Berry said he would focus on “the basics,” including schools and city infrastructure.
Baliles, who represents the city’s 1st District on City Council, questioned Stoney’s availability for the job after the Richmond City Democratic Committee’s endorsement for Stoney called for him to be a party leader in addition to mayor.
“Doesn’t the city deserve a full-time mayor?” Baliles asked.
Stoney defended himself, stating Richmond deserves “a progressive leader” and that’s what he would provide.
“Someone who believes in giving a voice to the voiceless,” Stoney said. “And someone who believes in righting wrongs.”
The candidate-to-candidate questioning concluded with a challenge from 9th District representative and City Council President Michelle Mosby to Baliles.
Mosby reminded the councilman that he voted for her as the body’s leader and asked if he knew, at the time, this meant she would become the next mayor by default if Jones were to step down.
“Yes, I did,” Baliles said. “And you would be an improvement.”
In the next part of the debate, the moderators asked the candidates questions from journalists and the audience on topics ranging from politics to potholes.
Cain and Martz asked if the candidates would support a referendum for schools to decide to increase taxes to finances school construction.
Across the board, candidates agreed it’s not necessary to raise taxes, and instead offered a smattering of other solutions.
Mosby emphasized it is the school board’s responsibility to “roll out an education plan,” not the mayor’s.
“The school board will tell you what they need in their budget plan, and you as mayor must provide the services for that,” Mosby said.
Mosby said it is not up to the mayor to provide a “wrap around service,” and if she were elected all stakeholders would be aware of the responsibilities assigned to their specific roles.
“The mayor can lead on education – that should be the number one responsibility,” said Stoney, who is the first in his family to graduate high school and attend and graduate college, “To make sure children get the best education possible.”
Williams described to the audience how the school system is supposed to track students’ success rates post-graduation. As mayor, Williams said he plans to better enforce that policy, and ensure youth have the best counseling, job training programs and employment opportunities as possible.
Bruce Tyler held up the most current issue of Times-Dispatch, telling the audience more schools in Richmond failed state tests than anywhere else in Virginia.
According to Tyler, the city “loses” children at middle school and his solution would be focusing more on K-8 education.
“Our middle schools have failed this city,” Tyler said. “We must keep our children in an environment with the possibility for success.”
Poverty and the workforce
“What will you do to make sure you are workforce ready?” an audience member asked.
Williams was the first to respond. He said as a minority business owner he personally “very concerned” for the Richmond workforce.
“This mayor is hardwired to care about unemployment,” Williams said.
Mosby labeled herself as “the opportunity mayor” who would provide more options for parents to have jobs and, in turn, better provide for their children.
Berry said the responsibility for strengthening Richmond’s workforce falls on the adults.
“These kids can succeed, I know they can, if we show them the world. That’s our job as adults,” Berry said.
Cain’s final question for the candidates was short and precise.
“How many potholes are you going to fill per week?” Cain asked in light of the city’s ongoing pothole problem.
Henrico County Recreation Parks Commissioner Bobby Junes said he would allow prisoners to reduce their sentences by doing community service; Mosby would establish a “pothole team”; Stoney said the city will solve this problem by “embracing technology” and “encouraging innovation.”
Williams, the architect, was perhaps the most ambitious.
“I have a 10-point remodeling plan for the city,” Williams said. “First 100 days, we get 2,500 potholes filled.”
Maura is a senior cinema and journalism student. She’s interested in combining investigative journalism with filmmaking, and is a contributing writer for the online publications Elite Daily and Literally Darling. Before transferring to VCU, Maura was an editor for the student newspaper at Virginia Tech, the Collegiate Times.
Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn | Portfolio
Leave a Reply