Before the smoke clears — actually, before the first cigar is even clipped — Mayor Dwight Jones is buzzing. It's a cell phone with his chief of staff, Suzette Denslow, on the other end. Election night brings many surprises, including an unexpectedly convincing re-election for President Barack Obama, but in Richmond it's all Jones. He defeats a decidedly punchless challenger by a 3-to-1 margin, and sweeps out his biggest critic on City Council, Marty Jewell.
Bu the capper is on the other line.
Around 10 p.m., Denslow calls with the big news: Jon Baliles is winning the 1st District race for City Council, edging out incumbent Bruce Tyler by a mere 150 votes. By week's end, the margin is down to a couple of dozen votes, but no matter: Tyler, who was expected to run for mayor in 2016 and likely would remain the mayor's biggest obstacle on City Council, is a goner.
"Get out of here!" Jones yelps in the soon-to-be smoke-filled upstairs bar at Havana '59, where his staff and supporters are gathered for an election after-party.
The party already had begun. After calling out the School Board for inefficiencies and celebrating "mediocrity" earlier this year, the mayor gets a board shaped in his likeness — literally. One of the mayor's senior advisers, Jeffrey Bourne, beats incumbent Norma H. Murdoch-Kitt for the 3rd District School Board seat, and his son, the Rev. Derik E. Jones, takes the 8th District. On council his chief allies remain, and his two biggest thorns shown the door.
"I'm just tickled pink," Jones says at Havana. "Things are moving in the right direction."
A year ago, some people complained of a directionless City Hall. Missteps plagued the first three years of Jones' administration, including fractured regional relationships and the bungled city jail contract. (On Election Day, the city is hit with a new lawsuit from a disgruntled city jail contractor.) The overall laggardly pace of the mayor's office was expected to spill over into this election year.
"It's stunning to have [Mayor Jones'] two biggest thorns on council go down in one day," says Thad Williamson, associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond. But be careful of reading too much into the City Council and School Board races, Williamson says. The low profile of the mayor, publicly at least, meant the individual races likely had as much to do with district-by-district preferences and the retail abilities of the challengers. "People in each district win on their own merit," Williamson says.
Outgoing School Board member Dawn Page, who got the mayor's support for the 8th District City Council seat, loses handily to incumbent Reva Trammell. And by some measures Trammell is a close third to Jewell and Tyler's thorniness.
For the mayor, it doesn't hurt to have significant sway with the local Democratic Party apparatus, which is almost exclusive Jones territory. Just ask Jewell.
Two days after the election, Jewell is back to his wry self — although still a bit shell-shocked by the results. "Let me say first of all that I congratulate my opponent … although it's astounding that no one ever heard of him before he filed June 12th," he says.
Jewell says he's delighted that the city Democrats have re-emerged as a force to be reckoned with after limping along for several years. "But I'm saddened that the mayor was clever enough to plug into that juggernaut and do me in. It wasn't [Jewell's 5th District challenger] Parker Agelasto that did me in. It was Dwight Jones."
Jewell says the mayor "commandeered the city Democratic committee process" with the help of J.J. Minor, the committee chairman, who also works for the city's Department of Economic and Community Development. Jewell says he couldn't compete with the sample ballots distributed by the committee at polling stations printed with Agelasto's name. "Low-information voters" who hadn't followed the campaign closely just voted the ticket, Jewell says.
As for the council upset, "It means that the mayor won," Jewell says. "He has six votes in his pocket. Obviously he wanted nine. To do what? Why does he want nine?" So the mayor can avoid criticism, Jewell says. "He's got a homogenized, compliant council. Almost."
The biggest question will be how pliant? Who will step up to ask the tough questions and challenge the mayor when it's merited. Jewell suggests that Michelle Mosby, a real estate agent who defeated Doug Conner in the 9th District, could be up for the task. Mosby is "a quick learner and is about the people's business," Jewell says.
The new City Council certainly won't throw roses at the mayor either. At Caliente on Park Avenue, Baliles gives a tentative victory speech Tuesday night. "It looks like, if everything holds, we're set for a victory," he tells supporters.
Baliles says he isn't serving at the behest of the mayor. "I'm going to do what's best for the residents of the 1st District and the city," he says. "Whoever's leading the way, whether it's me, the mayor, or anyone else — I'll be out there."
It's difficult to know for sure just what the election ultimately means by way of a clear mandate for the mayor. David Hicks, senior policy adviser to Jones and expected mayoral candidate in 2016, notes that of the biggest winners of the night on the School Board, Kim Gray largely has been a lone ranger. She's diligently fought the establishment, what some say is an inefficient and inept schools administration, and was re-elected with 70 percent of the vote. Along with Don Coleman, who ran unchallenged, she's the only returning member of the nine-seat School Board.
The message? The people aren't satisfied with the status quo, particularly when it comes to the city's broken school system. Jones, who long opposed alternative educational options such as charter schools for fear that they would draw resources from schools that could hardly afford it, also is a convert.
"I've long been an opponent of charter schools. But I've changed," he says. "I think we're at a point where we can't take anything off the table. I pushed for lab schools, model schools — we have to take that to the next level."
Still, what was a sweeping victory for Jones shouldn't be misconstrued. The mayor must make good. Even his senior adviser, Hicks, says the next four years will be the ultimate test. The path has been cleared of obstacles.
"There's no excuses," Hicks says. "It's as simple as that." S
What do Richmond voters want next from their newly elected officials? Here it is, straight from the people of River City, in a video by Briget Ganske.