At a triangular intersection in Church Hill, the city's most important work in the fight against poverty takes place inside an old grocery store. Murals painted on the outside of the building depict the cycle of life, a family tree, a couple hoisting a child up a ladder that reaches into the sky. Protective eyes keep watch over a wooden jungle gym, with weeds growing around a chain-link fence.
In March 2011, Mayor Dwight Jones made reducing poverty one of his administration's top priorities. He created a commission and appointed 36 members, a broad cross section of academics, city politicians, and civic and business leaders, to develop a strategy for attacking the city's high concentration of poverty with "demonstrable results." After a series of public hearings ended last week, the commission plans to make its official recommendations to the mayor in August. By the fall, City Council is expected to begin considering the plan. But no budget has been set, and it's unclear exactly what impact the strategy will actually have on poverty.
After three and a half sluggish years in office and entering the fall election as the sole candidate on the ballot, the poverty initiative and the commission's work may well define the mayor's second term.
The East End Family Resource Center on Jefferson Avenue straddles an imaginary line between the poorest residents in the Mosby, Fairfield and Whitcomb housing projects and the growing legion of young professionals and creative people who have moved into Church Hill in recent years.
On June 14, Jones' anti-poverty commission uses the center to hold a public hearing on its long-awaited recommendations. The report is broken into six categories, such as job creation, transportation and regionalism, and the reports from the various speakers were laced with dire urgency.
"Richmond has the highest level of poverty since the U.S. Census Bureau began tracking poverty," laments John Moeser, a senior fellow at the University of Richmond's Bonner Center for Civic Engagement and a member of the commission. "Poverty has grown numerically by thousands. It has grown geographically by miles. It's tragic."
The meeting, however, is sparsely attended. About 30 people show up, and most are either associated with the commission or some other government agency. No senior-level city administrators or directors are here. Neither is Jones.
That the meeting is taking place just two days after the June 12 filing deadline for political candidates to run in the fall election isn't a topic of discussion. At the time, it isn't publicly known that Jones would be the only candidate for mayor on the ballot. Two long-shot contenders are later disqualified because their petitions came up with too few signatures. In a span of three days, two of the city's most important developments take place with next to no media coverage.
Mayor Jones has an unprecedented opportunity. Running unopposed gives his administration a head start into a second term, an extra six months to set an agenda and a course for the next four years. Jones has made poverty reduction — it stands at 25 percent, the highest in the region — a top priority. A new city charter was instituted in 2005, replacing Richmond's city manager form of government, where the mayor was selected among the nine City Council members, with a mayor elected at large. Limited to two terms, Jones is set to enter his final four years unimpeded by electoral politics.
"He has a remarkable opportunity to do something really big over the next two or three years," says Thad Williamson, an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond, and another member of the mayor's anti-poverty commission.
The lack of competition gives the mayor a "free hand, politically," Williamson says. That can be both a blessing and a curse. While Jones may have the opportunity to do big things, not having to campaign for a second term has its drawbacks.
"I think one of the major arguments for moving to the at-large mayor is that it would promote accountability," Williamson says of the debate leading up to the charter change in the early 2000s. "Elections are not the only method for achieving accountability, but it's the primary method."
How Jones handles his newly found invincibility is anybody's guess. Unlike his predecessor, former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, Jones is more of an introvert. He's less prone to make broad declarations and take grand political stands. This makes Jones difficult to read. His first four years could be broken into three parts, with mixed results.
Jones spent his first two years as mayor largely rebuilding. Wilder's tumultuous reign was marked by instability, political infighting and an exodus of long-time directors who fled City Hall. It took Jones more than a year to hire his chief administrative officer, Byron Marshall; key positions such as the city's economic development director took even longer. Budgets were set and bridges were mended during in the first 24 months, but as he built his team Jones' agenda sat idle.
In his third year, Jones began to press his own agenda more aggressively, pushing for new projects such as the new $134.6 million city jail and striking a deal with the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, which repaid the city $62 million in old debts relating to the construction of the expressway system in the 1970s.
But year three also brought exposure. Jones's team bungled the city jail plans repeatedly — from mishandling the public bidding process to misinterpreting state requirements — which delayed the project. The removal of the Occupy Richmond protesters from Kanawha Plaza led to considerable backlash, including their widely reported showdowns with city police. A publicity nightmare followed when the Occupiers moved their encampment to Richmond Free Press Publisher Ray Boone's front yard. Boone, who supported Jones' campaign in 2008, lives next door to the mayor.
"I still consider the mayor as a good neighbor and a good friend," Boone said at the time. "But we part company when it comes to his political actions."
Jones had spent his first three years insisting that he was hard at work rebuilding City Hall, installing a deliberate, more efficient approach to governing. But repeated administrative mishaps seriously undercut that message. Meanwhile, Jones began to earn a reputation as aloof and disconnected. When Hurricane Irene ripped through Richmond in August 2011, Jones was broadly criticized for the city's slow response.
The final act began at the beginning of this year. Jones shook off the slow start and asserted himself much more aggressively. During his state of the city address in late January, Jones called out the School Board and the superintendent for "celebrating mediocrity," demanding more accountability. When the School Board submitted its budget to City Hall with a $23.8 million hole, the mayor created a task force to do the cutting, and repeatedly hammered the School Board. It was a political move that elevated his status, particularly with the business community, and shifted the focus away from his lackluster first three years in office.
Largely invisible to the business community for the first three years, Jones began reaching out. He appointed business leaders to the school task force and the recent steering committee to help raise money and find a training home for the Washington Redskins, who are moving their summer training camp to Richmond next year. He also patched things up with Boone, whose Free Press is a powerful voice in the black community. During his re-election campaign kickoff at the Hippodrome Theater on June 7, which Boone attended, the mayor recognized the longtime newsman in his speech, and afterward made a point of reaching out to shake his hand for the cameras.
"I'm here today because I know we're moving in the right direction," Jones told his supporters. "And you're here because you agree that these four years have been four years that have taken Richmond to a completely different level. We recognize that we're on the right path and our shared destiny is one that we want to continue."
That Jones was able to so quickly shake off his lackluster first three years can be attributed, in large part, to the lack of political damage inflicted by his slip-ups. Mishaps with the city jail, for example, enraged some members of City Council and generated harsh attacks from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but didn't resonate with the broader public. Jones may have been slow moving, and at times invisible, particularly during Hurricane Irene and the long-running liaison sex scandal that rocked City Council in late 2010 and 2011, but the political damage was limited.
"The issues with which Jones has struggled are not necessarily issues that mobilized large sections of voters," says Bob Holsworth, a long-time political analyst and consultant. "These are issues that are niche issues that are of concern to people of particular interest or families. It's not something that mobilizes the entire community."
Indeed, the lack of broader interest in Jones' repeated mistakes is something that perplexes City Councilman Bruce Tyler, the mayor's harshest critic on council, who contemplated running for mayor earlier this year.
"The difference in media coverage during the Wilder administration and this administration are like night and day," Tyler says. The charismatic Wilder, a former governor who launched multiple political fights after taking office in 2005, could call a news conference and every TV news station and media outlet in town would descend on City Hall to take notes. Jones didn't have that option. Perhaps unwittingly, Jones' low profile worked to his advantage.
And City Council, with the exception of members Tyler, Marty Jewell, Reva Trammell and Doug Conner, has largely remained pliant. "And so when I sit there and talk about these things, it falls on deaf ears," Tyler says.
While city elections are nonpartisan, the four-year cycle is aligned with the presidential election, which makes it very difficult to unseat an incumbent Democrat such as Jones, especially in a majority black city with President Obama on the ballot.
"This whole election cycle puts in the position where the presidential race overshadows our race," Tyler says, which "makes it very difficult to run on one's own merits." After reading the tea leaves, Tyler decided the obstacles were too big to challenge Jones, and opted not to run against him.
Holsworth concurs. "It makes it almost impossible for someone who is a Republican to run in that position," he says. One thing that wasn't taken into account during the charter switch to mayor-at-large, Holsworth says, is "how great an advantage it gives to a visible Democrat. If you don't have someone of equal stature in the Democratic Party to take on Jones, it's almost impossible."
The Obama effect also should come into play. The first black president clearly mobilized voters in 2008 and will likely energize the city's majority Democrat, and majority black, voters this fall. Without Obama in the picture in 2016, the mayor's race will take place in a dramatically different political environment. There will be no incumbent, and the race will likely draw a field of higher profile candidates.
"I don't think it's a problem with Richmond, per se, I just think it's a challenging time for public officials in general," says Delegate Jennifer McClellan, a Democratic legislator involved in recruiting state political candidates. Taking on an incumbent such as Jones, on the ballot with Obama, is already difficult enough.
"It is hard to find people to run for office in general," she says. "You have to spend a lot of money. In most cases, you're asking people to take a pay cut, which in this economy most people aren't willing to do."
But no matter how you slice it, an uncontested mayoral election is ominous sign, Holsworth says.
"Not having political competition is almost always bad. Political competition makes people sharpen their focus," Holsworth says. "In most forums of life competition is beneficial, not harmful, especially in politics."
What does it mean for Richmond over the next four years? Quietly, City Hall observers say the biggest concern is that Jones will disappear without the pressure of a political campaign. There are already signs that the new, more aggressive mayor is an anomaly, that City Hall's reputation for responding to issues at a snail's pace will continue. The biggest complaints come from City Council, most frequently lodged by Tyler and Jewell, who say the Jones administration rarely responds with urgency to the legislative body.
Take City Stadium, for example. After University of Richmond's football team departed for a new on-campus facility in 2010, developers began eyeing the 16-acre property, which sits south of Carytown near the Carillon, as a retail center. After one proposal stirred up community angst in the spring of 2011 — most neighbors want it to remain a sports complex — City Council passed an ordinance instructing the mayor's staff to conduct a study of the property, along with the former GRTC bus transfer station near Byrd Park, to determine the highest and best use of both sites by mid-October.
The city finally got around to issuing a request for proposals to study City Stadium in May and limited the request to exploring the feasibility of adding "sports entertainment/community facilities." There's still been no study of the GRTC site.
"It's been a year and he has not even begun what the ordinance required him to do — a feasibility study of the highest and best use," Tyler says of the mayor. "They are supposed to be doing two studies on our behalf. Instead, they come out with an RFP to get [City Stadium] upgraded."
If Jones snubs City Council on the small things, what of the bigger issues? While Williamson, the professor at UR, says bigger things could be on the horizon, the danger is that without a challenger there's no electoral mandate to get it done.
"He'll get a free pass if nobody is willing to speak up when there are things to disagree with," Williamson says. "Jones would be in a better position to have even more of a mandate, as opposed to re-election by default."
There are backstops, of course. Even without having to face a credible challenger this fall, Jones can no longer blame the previous administration for his lack of action. In the first term, Jones often referred to cleaning up City Hall after Wilder, putting the pieces in place to "grow by design, not default." Jones told Style Weekly in February 2011 that his first priority as mayor was to "take care of the city of Richmond. I've got to get this house in order." On bigger ticket issues, such as expanding regional transit, Jones said at the time they'd have to wait. "It's going to take a minute to get trust. It's going to take a minute to get out of the recession," he said.
David Hicks, senior policy adviser to Jones, says the mayor now has more pressure than ever to take bold action. He's set priorities for the next four years — attacking poverty and improving schools, making the river more accessible and economic development in specific corridors, such as the area around the Port of Richmond. Now, Hicks says, there are no excuses.
"When you are in your last term, you are fighting against a much harsher critic, the critic of history and legacy. And the mayor is very aware of that," says Hicks, who is contemplating a run for mayor in 2016 as Jones' successor. "Now we get to see whether you can do vertical construction and how you do it. You've had time to do the prep work, let me see if you can get it done."
It won't be easy. That's obvious at the final public hearing of the anti-poverty commission, at Hillside Court on June 28. The fifth and final meeting at which the commission members present a detailed list of recommendations, which the public then prioritizes by voting with handheld remotes, draws an even more modest crowd. Barely two dozen people show up. The notice of the meeting went out late — the mayor's press office sent the invitation earlier that afternoon, about four and a half hours before the 6 p.m. meeting.
The presenters, Carolyn Graham, the mayor's deputy chief administrative officer for human services, and Councilwoman Ellen Robertson are running late. A group of children playing football near the Hillside Court community center are invited into the meeting. They plop down in metal chairs, in tank tops and sneakers, as Moeser, the professor at UR, launches into his talk about the city's rising rate of poverty. The children, between the ages of 8 and 15, catch him off guard. Usually, the people who show up for the hearings aren't the people directly impacted by his work.
"You know far more about this than I do," Moeser tells the children, who grow restless as they clumsily pass around the the meeting agenda. "This is really what this commission is about. It's about you."
Within a few minutes, the children are ushered out of the meeting by their football coach, Anthony Lee, who is attempting to start a youth football team at Hillside. As they leave, so too does the energy in the room. The presenters shorten their presentations, and about a dozen people remain to vote on the various recommendations.
About an hour into the meeting, the Rev. Ben Campbell, pastoral director at Richmond Hill, gives yet another impassioned talk about expanding regional transit into the counties, along West Broad Street, Hull Street Road, Midlothian Turnpike and Jefferson Davis Highway. Doing so would open the city's jobless to approximately 128,000 jobs. If the will were there, and about $60 million in funding, the bus lines could be up and running within six months.
"This is segregation by transportation, folks," Campbell tells the group, incredulously. "A healthy community would not do this."
The group votes unanimously — 13 to 0 — in favor of prioritizing regional bus lines. Graham and Robertson finally show up, about 15 minutes before the meeting adjourns. A few of the members walk across the courtyard to watch the Hillside team's football practice in the searing heat.
Again, Jones is unable to make it. S