What lessons do last week's elections offer for the future of the Richmond region? More than you might think.
The election of Tim Kaine — a former governor, City Council member and mayor of Richmond — to the U.S. Senate is an underappreciated milestone. My unsolicited advice for the senator-elect: Read and take to heart veteran journalist Hedrick Smith's new book, "Who Stole the American Dream?" It's a comprehensive, highly readable one-volume overview of how the politics of the last 40 years produced an economy marked by dramatically higher inequality, higher insecurity and lower social mobility than the economy of the postwar generation.
Virginia voters gave Barack Obama the benefit of the doubt on the economy, but moving toward full employment and taking steps to restore economic fairness still must be the Democrats' top priorities in converting their opportunity to govern another four years into a lasting political majority.
At the local level, the biggest intrigue surrounds the School Board, which will feature seven new members. Kim Gray, an outspoken critic of the status quo who often was on the outs with her colleagues in her first term, sailed to re-election on a night in which the other two incumbents facing challengers, Maurice Henderson and Norma Murdoch-Kitt, were defeated handily. At first blush the new board seems to have a mandate to pursue dramatic changes in the city's schools.
Dramatic changes are certainly called for at the middle and high schools, where achievement levels remain abysmal. But my unsolicited advice to the new board is to exercise some patience the first few months in office and undertake the work of understanding the Richmond Public Schools, their strengths and weaknesses, and what has and hasn't worked in school reform efforts pursued by other cities nationwide. Diagnosing what's wrong is much easier than figuring out how to constructively respond.
For that reason, the newly elected board would do well to read educational historian Diane Ravitch's "The Death and Life of the Great American School System." Ravitch takes a critical look at the testing-based public school reform of the last 20 years and concludes that too often it has failed low-income children. A school board that has read and processed Ravitch's book would be less likely to act rashly and duplicate the mistakes cities have made elsewhere.
City Council will welcome two and probably three fresh faces with the election of Parker Agelasto, Michelle Mosby, and Jon Baliles, who led by a handful of votes at press time and likely was headed into a recount. Mayor Jones is expected to have a stronger coalition in moving legislation through council.
As always, the question is finding the right balance between having a City Council that's moving the ball legislatively rather than stuck in gridlock, and having a council that makes sure all the difficult questions are asked. With the departure of Marty Jewell and likely Bruce Tyler, the job of being the council member who's willing to do his or her homework and ask tough questions of the administration is vacant. Charles Samuels, having survived a tough re-election challenge, might well seize that mantle in his second term, albeit in a different tone than his predecessors.
The biggest lesson to draw from last week's elections, however, concerns the regional and statewide picture. Everyone knows that Richmond is a key part of Obama's base in Virginia. It's equally significant that Obama, once again, more than held his own in Richmond's immediate suburbs, carrying Henrico County with an impressive 55 percent of the vote and claiming a very respectable 45 percent in Chesterfield County, a tea party hotbed.
Adding the four core localities of Richmond and the counties of Henrico, Chesterfield and Hanover, Obama carried the Richmond region by a margin of more than 35,000 votes, or 53 percent.
This isn't your father's Richmond, a center of social rest where few pressed for change, a place where newspaper editorialists could spin out conservative ideology day after day confident that they were speaking to, and for, a silent majority.
Today's Richmond is a place where plenty of people — indeed a majority — favor progressive change, but doubt that their existing local and regional institutions have the capacity to deliver it. The city-county divide, combined with state limitations on municipal innovation, continues to segregate residents by income and race, make educational opportunity a function of geography, and limit localities' incentives to engage in meaningful cooperation.
In this context, re-electing a president isn't enough to bring about real change.
First, the Democrats must make winning back the governor's office a priority. Here are two key issues that could be the basis of a successful progressive gubernatorial campaign in 2013: supporting Medicaid expansion (i.e., Obamacare) and supporting basic voter rights, including automatic restoration of felons' rights, early voting and adequate voting machines in all precincts.
Victory on Medicaid would directly improve the lives of many thousands of low-income Virginians. Bolstering voter rights would permanently alter and improve the architecture of democracy in Virginia.
Second, Richmond leaders must engage the suburbs on the vital issue of public transit expansion. Twenty years ago, the politics of expanded transit was that of a liberal, high-poverty city approaching its conservative, more affluent neighbors and asking for a favor. All that was needed to kill the initiative was to insinuate that bus service would bring crime and urban social problems to the counties.
Today, it's reasonable to assume that if suburbanites are happy to help elect a black man for president, they can handle blacks and other job seekers from the city coming to the suburbs to look for work, and that they can comprehend the regional benefits of an improved transit system.
The old assumptions about the contours of Richmond politics have been shaken by this year's election results. With effective and proactive leadership in the city and counties, more change is possible here and now — if we're willing to seize the moment. S
Thad Williamson is an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.