Mayor Dwight Jones is beaming when he gets the call.
Around 10 p.m., his chief of staff, Suzette Denslow, phones in with a bit of a shocker: Jon Baliles is winning the 1st District race for City Council, edging out incumbent Bruce Tyler by the thinnest of margins -- 150 votes.
“Get out of here!” Jones yelps in the not-yet-smoke-filled upstairs bar at Havana ’59, where his staff and supporters have gathered for an election after-party. This is more than an hour before President Obama was declared the victor; the U.S. Senate race was still dangling on a razor -- George Allen had a slight edge -- and the night was expected to drag out indefinitely.
It may get lost in the immediate aftermath of a brutal, expensive presidential election. But make no mistake: Jones is killing it. Just before 9 p.m., when no one was paying attention, he’s declared the winner, besting challenger Mike Ryan with 70 percent of the vote. After calling out the School Board for inefficiencies and celebrating “mediocrity” earlier this year, the mayor is getting a School Board shaped in his likeness -- literally. One of the mayor’s senior advisors, Jeffrey Bourne, beats out incumbent Norma H. Murdoch-Kitt for the 3rd District School Board seat and his son, the Rev. Derik E. Jones, takes the 8th District.
But the real cherry is taking out his two biggest antagonists on City Council -- Marty Jewell, who lost to Parker C. Agelasto in the 5th District, and Councilman Tyler (he hasn’t been declared the official loser yet, but even if he does eke out a victory he’ll return with a serious bloody nose).
“I’m just tickled pink,” Jones says at Havana, long before the real party begins. “Things are moving in the right direction.”
A year ago, some argued that City Hall was directionless. Missteps have plagued the first three years of his administration, from the bungled city jail contract to delaying plans to build new schools, and the laggardly pace of the mayor was expected to spillover into an 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 not to read 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. Outgoing School Board member Dawn Page, who garnered the mayor’s support for the 8th District City Council seat, loses handily to incumbent Reva Trammell. Trammell, by some measures, is a close third to Jewell’s and Tyler’s thorniness.
“People in each district win on their own merit,” Williamson says.
And it doesn’t mean that City Council will throw roses at the mayor. 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,” Baliles says. “Whoever’s leading the way, whether it’s me, the mayor, or anyone else – I’ll be out there.”
Still, one can argue that Jones is getting another four years with a clear mandate -- and a sizable stick -- to make serious progress cleaning up a perpetually underperforming inner-city school system.
David Hicks, senior policy advisor to Jones and expected mayoral candidate in 2016, says this election may have finally provided his boss with “lockstep policymakers and administrators” when it comes to fixing schools. It was, after all, the one issue that permeated all of the council and School Board races.
Jones couldn’t agree more.
“People don’t care about anything more than they care about schools,” Jones says. “People don’t want us fussing. They want us producing.”
For Jones, the table is set.