The vast majority of candidates for Richmond City Council gathered beneath a single rainbow-colored disco ball last Tuesday night.
The candidates were participating in a forum at Diversity Richmond, a nonprofit that serves the LGBTQ community.
Twenty-five of the 28 total candidates on the ballot in November were seated in rows according to district on a raised stage platform. Moderator, local journalist and VCU adjunct professor Chris Dovi asked the candidates questions on issues the city will face during their prospective terms in office.
The forum was organized by the RVA Coalition for Progress, a consortium of area nonprofits led by community activist Roland Winston.
“There are big organizations like the Red Cross and Planned Parenthood; the people that I put together were small, one-or-two-or-three-member boards,” Winston said.
Participating organizations were the A. Philip Randolph Institute, Advocates for Equity in Schools, Alliance for a Progressive Virginia, Brown Virginia, Diversity Richmond, Latinos and Amigos, Mothers and Others of Va., Senior Center of Greater Richmond, Sierra Club- Fall of the James, Virginia Organizing, Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, and Women-Matter.org.
These organizations submitted questions to Dovi, who in turn reviewed and revised and then posed them to candidates onstage.
Charlie Diradour, owner of Kuba Kuba and candidate for the 2nd district lower-Fan seat had to answer about the redevelopment of public housing projects.
“We need to offer workforce housing,” Diradour said. “We need to offer more mixed-income neighborhoods. We need to do it with an intention for creating community amongst all different types of people.”
The Coalition was informed prior to the forum that the Richmond Crusade for Voters would be discussing endorsements at their general body meeting the same night. The Richmond Crusade organization endorsed Diradour for the 2nd district seat and Garrett Sawyer for the 5th.
Sawyer was asked about methods for increasing minority and women-owned business participation in city construction projects.
“It is so important that we truly bring everyone to the table that’s not currently at it,” Sawyer said. “Time and time again, when we look at different developments that happen throughout the city, we always see the same players that get awarded contracts.”
Sawyer said the city also needs to make a point of educating minority contractors properly and making sure they have the necessary resources to be able to compete with some of the larger developers in the area.
Montigue Magruder, also running in the 5th district, which stretches from Swansboro north across the James to the Randolph and Oregon Hill neighborhoods, struck a very different tone when asked about pay raises for public servants.
“I would have to honestly admit … I have been sometimes viciously critical of police officers,” Magruder said. “And I’ve even called for the implementation of certain policies, such as decriminalizing marijuana, that would eventually allow us to abolish police officers in the first place.”
Magruder did, however, emphasize he supports pay raises for teachers and firefighters. He also called for an audit of city finances, and a threefold minimum-wage increase.
Kim Gray, a former School Board member from the 2nd district who’s now running for the district’s City Council seat, also called for a rise in teacher pay.
“I voted to decompress salaries for teachers,” Gray said. “I would do the same for our firefighters and police.”
Gray said in “leaner times” teachers, firefighters and police officers were willing to take pay cuts and teachers were willing to take furlough days.
“But we’re not in the leaner times now,” Gray said. “We’re in an area of growth, and I think it’s important to recognize that.”
Parker Agelasto, a candidate seeking reelection to the 5th district seat, gave thorough and specific answers that demonstrated his experience. Agelasto used his final remarks to emphasize his contributions to his district.
“In the 5th district, we’ve got 14 civic associations,” Agelasto said. “I’ve got relationships with every single one of them. I know how they work together. I listen. I understand the problem and work with the city to present solutions.
Rebecca K.W. Keel, a candidate for the 2nd district seat, used her final remarks to draw a sharp contrast.
“I want to try a quick exercise with y’all,” Keel said. “So raise your hand if you think City Council and School Board represent you.”
No one in the audience raised their hand. A woman looked around and laughed.
“Raise your hand if you are a woman,” Keel said. “If you’re black, if you’re disabled, if you’re a student, if you’re over the age of 55, if you’re an immigrant, if you have glasses. Raise your hand – any of those identities. Any of those?”
Everyone’s hands were raised.
“I can represent you.”
Local independent radio station WRIR was the Coalition’s sole media partner. Segments of the forum were rebroadcast at 9 a.m. Friday morning as part of news & talk program Open Source RVA.
The City Council forum was the first of a series of four events tied to the 2016 general election, organized by the RVA Coalition for Progress and held at Diversity Richmond.
Candidates in Virginia’s 4th congressional district race Donald McEachin and Mike Wade will participate in a debate Sept. 27. The event will also feature the Democratic candidate for the 7th congressional district, Eileen Bedell. Rep. Dave Brat (R-7) declined an invitation.
All eight Richmond mayoral candidates will appear at a forum Oct. 4. Candidates for Richmond City School Board will debate Tuesday.
Jim Thomma, Contributing Writer