Richmond mayoral candidates square off virtually in first forum of campaign

In a year of turmoil, Richmond’s mayoral candidates shared their respective ideas Tuesday on how to build a more equitable city in the wake of months of civil unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ideas — reparations, defunding the police and homeownership among them — came at the first forum of the campaign, hosted virtually by the Metropolitan Business League. Each of the six candidates who will appear on the November ballot took part. They fielded questions posed by residents and relayed through a moderator that centered largely on recovery from the public health crisis and next steps for the city following months of protests against systemic racism and policing.

“Until we first stand on the same level we cannot be equal. A lot of people are speaking on equality, but we first have to get our footing for Black and brown families,” said Tracey Mclean, a small-business owner who said she would push for some form of reparations for Black residents if elected.

Michael Gilbert, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor, posed another idea, one he said would build toward a city that delivers on demands made amid the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer.

If elected, Gilbert said he would resurrect a policy idea the City Council recently dismissed: defunding the Richmond Police Department. He proposed cutting the department’s budget by 50% over four years, then dedicating those dollars to city departments and initiatives that he said would benefit residents.

“The police treat a symptom, not the cause, and this will help solve the root and create positive community amenities,” Gilbert said.

Alexsis Rodgers, the Virginia director for Care in Action, said she would prioritize policies that lift up working families and foster investment in Black and Latino communities.

“For so many working people, the city has not been there for them, it’s not supported their families, it’s not supported their entrepreneurial efforts, and it’s time for that to change,” Rodgers said.

Across the board, candidates expressed support for doing more to support small businesses. For Justin Griffin, a small-business attorney, that means overhauling what he called the least friendly local government for businesses in the state.

“Trying to get a business license is very much a hassle,” Griffin said, adding that he would also adjust the city’s business license tax rate to be more in line with the surrounding localities.

The two sitting elected officials in the field — Mayor Levar Stoney and 2nd District Councilwoman Kimberly Gray — both cited homeownership as a key to building a more equitable city.

Black homeownership has plummeted 30 percent in the city since 2000 as the city’s population has surged, a report by the Partnership for Housing Affordability found earlier this year.

In neighborhoods like Jackson Ward, where Gray lives, the effect has been displacement brought on by gentrification. “I’ve seen my neighbors pushed out due to increased real estate taxes and code violations,” Gray said in highlighting the priority.

Stoney pledged to reverse the trend if re-elected to another four-year term.

“My next four years, we’re going to focus on Black homeownership,” he said.

To win the election outright, a candidate must win a plurality of the vote in five of the city’s nine council districts. If no candidate wins five districts, the top two vote-getters head to a run-off.

The election is Nov. 3.