Mayor’s challengers go on the offense during candidates forum

Lyndon German | 10/1/2020, 6 p.m. | Updated on 10/6/2020, 3:48 p.m.
Richmond Mayor Levar M. Stoney was roundly criticized during a forum last week by four challengers seeking to unseat him ...
Mayoral candidates, from left, Alexsis Rodgers, City Councilwoman Kim Gray, Justin Griffin, Tracey McLean and Mayor Levar M. Stoney field questions during the Sept. 24 forum at Virginia Union University moderated by former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who also is a former Richmond mayor, and Juan Conde of WRIC 8News. Photo by Regina H. Boone

Richmond Mayor Levar M. Stoney was roundly criticized during a forum last week by four challengers seeking to unseat him for what they said is his administration’s lack of transparency.

But Mayor Stoney defended his record against the criticism of his challengers, 2nd District City Councilwoman Kim Gray, community organizerAlexsis D. Rodgers, local business owner Tracey V. McLean and attorney M. Justin Griffin, even as they took him to task for pushing the failed $1.5 billion Downtown development and Coliseum replacement plan, his handling of the coronavirus crisis and other matters.

The forum was held Sept. 24 at Virginia Union University’s Allix B. James Chapel in Coburn Hall. VUU, in partnership with WRIC Channel 8News, hosted the socially distanced event that was livestreamed to the public online and broadcast, but not in its entirety, by the television station.

Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who served as Richmond’s mayor from 2005 to 2009, and 8News Anchor Juan Conde served as moderators.

During the forum, Mayor Stoney asserted that his resilience has helped him lead Richmond throughout this COVID-19 crisis and resulting economic downturn and civil unrest.

“When the pandemic struck back in March, I proposed ... a budget that was bold and robust. (We) had to cut back by $30 million,” he said, when asked how he has made the most of the city’s financial and administrative resources amid the pandemic. He pointed out that while the city cut spending, it was able to end the 2019-20 fiscal year on June 30 with a $13 million surplus.

Mayor Stoney described the past summer as “challenging,” as protestors took to the streets demonstrating against police brutality and racial injustice after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police.

“We saw folks take to the streets in outcry towards the racial injustices we’ve seen, and I’ve always felt I’ve been caught in the middle as a Black man but also as the chief executive of the municipal government.”

Ms. Gray, who didn’t shy away from criticizing Mayor Stoney, said her primary motivation for running for mayor is to “end corruption at City Hall.”

“I would like to end the corruption, cronyism and lack of common sense problem solving for our citizens,” Ms. Gray said.

Ms. Gray said she went to Mayor Stoney with some of her concerns and was “laughed out of his office.”

Ms. Gray also accused the mayor of withholding from City Council assessments of surplus city-owned parcels and making “closed-door, backroom deals” during development proposals.

“I think the transparency is the most opaque we’ve seen in our city and we need to have our eyes open and be in the best negotiating stance,” Ms. Gray said.

Ms. Rodgers offered a similar critique, not laying the blame at the feet of city employees but on its chief administrators.

“I think every day city employees go to work trying to do their best for the city and for our community overall. I would say that we’ve seen examples of mismanagement and issues of transparency in our government, certainly from the mayor’s administration, but also ... within the police department,” Ms. Rodgers said.

“I regret that this mayor and some of my opponents have only recently determined that it’s OK to examine ways to change our police in the City of Richmond,” Ms. Rodgers said.

Ms. Rodgers, like most of the candidates, said she supports creation of a civilian review board to investigate complaints against police. She also believes such a review board should have subpoena powers.

Ms. Rodgers also said the city needs to invest in community services so that police can focus on public safety needs and are not put in scenarios that others, such as mental health professionals, are better equipped to handle. She said she would build a coalition of advocates within the community to ensure equity in city services, schools and policy.

When asked how to best make use of city funds during the pandemic, Mr. Griffin was quick to criticize the administration for ending the last fiscal year with a surplus.

“If you look at the $13 million budget surplus that Mayor Stoney just talked about, I think that shows that our city government is loaded with fluff,” Mr. Griffin said.

“If we can be facing a coronavirus pandemic that shuts down our businesses and still have $13 million in fluff and surplus, then that’s $13 million that should be directed towards our priorities, like our schools and our neighborhoods,” he said.

Ms. McLean also expressed the need for financial transparency, saying the pandemic showed the “the holes in the foundation” of city governance.

“We are in the midst of a pandemic and we also will possibly see a second wave. In case we see a second wave, we definitely need to be already ready,” Ms. McLean said. “We have an eviction and homelessness problem, so we need to make sure the people get the money. If it’s $13 million of surplus, it’s $13 million that needs to go out to the community."