OPINION: Balance of Power

How will the election reshape City Council?

The Richmond City Council will definitely look differently after the November election. Kim Gray will no longer represent the 2nd District although she’s hoping to occupy an office at City Hall instead. Chris Hilbert is retiring after 15 years in the 3rd District seat.

Some of their colleagues might be on the way out also – but much less willingly.

Only Kristen Larson (4th) and Mike Jones (9th) are running unopposed for their second terms. Instead, it is the members with the longest tenure who are facing stiff challenges from political newcomers.

In the 6th District, upstart Allan-Charles Chipman is trying to unseat 16-year vet Ellen Robertson. Cynthia Newbille, in office since 2010, is facing Joseph Rogers. Both challengers are young progressives, endorsed by the grassroots coalition Richmond for All. And Reva Trammell, who has represented the 8th District for 18 of the last 22 years, is engaged in a battle royale with BLK RVA organizer Amy Wentz – more on that in a moment.

Even Andreas Addison and newly elected Stephanie Lynch are facing challengers, although Lynch’s opponent is Jer’Mykeal McCoy, who finished a distant sixth place to her in last year’s special election in the 5th District. McCoy and Mike Gray, who is running against Addison in the 1st, seem like fine candidates. But they do not have a signature issue or clear reason to dislodge the incumbents, and so have a tough road ahead.

The 6-7-8 races, however, not only present a more clear opportunity but also reflect a generational divide in the city. The tenures of Newbille and Robertson are based in older, entrenched support systems. They rely in part on the city’s aging Democratic machinery, but also on a more personal network in their districts, as befits the retail level of constituent service that often provides the basis for council campaigns.

No one has been better at retail politics than Trammell on the South Side. She famously ignores the internet, but she hands out her cellphone number everywhere and remains readily available – at least to some. She also has a colorful history of controversial episodes, most recently with a racist caricature cookie jar revealed in a rare social media photo. She seemed unmoved by any electoral pressure to offer a more public face in response to the quarantine and protest, largely disappearing from the scene this spring and summer.

Amy Wentz has been campaigning for years to dislodge Trammell. She, and other challengers like Rogers and Chipman, hope that the networks these entrenched politicians have built are too insular and ossified to protect their incumbency. Wentz particularly has argued that too many people are currently left out of Trammell’s circle. Her success in convincing some voters of this has made the 8th the most expensive race in the city, second only to the mayoral election.

In general, the City Council has operated as a conservative institution, with a small c, preferring incremental changes to any kind of bold vision. Much like the city’s School Board, our legislative leaders often choose to defer to the administration for direction and leadership. Council watchers know that their go-to move is to continue or postpone legislation. The council’s rejection of the mayor’s Navy Hill development proposal last year was a rare exception to this more passive role.

Part of the problem is that there rarely is a bloc vote in council chambers, with a group of legislators sharing a clear ideology or common vision. Instead, alliances are often pragmatic; the Navy Hill opponents, for example, included the progressive Lynch, the sensible Larson, and the conservative Hilbert, plus the mayor’s chief political opponent in the upcoming election. Plus Trammell, who dislikes the mayor so much she would probably vote against a birthday cake for him.

The 2020 election offers an opportunity to upend this dynamic, instituting a reform-minded alliance. For example, the Black Lives Matter protesters found allies in Lynch and Mike Jones, but those two – an interesting alliance in themselves – often found themselves on an island. Could they get support from new progressive members in calling for criminal justice reform, as well as other issues?

This election season is probably more uncertain than any other. With the national election looming over this fall, local candidates might be fighting for attention that is currently going to Biden vs. Trump and local congressional races. The quarantine threatens turnout, while the Black Lives Matter protests have divided the city. Polling at the municipal level is nonexistent, so it’s hard to get a feel for any particular council seats.

Still, one option is a progressive wave that sweeps a whole new generation of political actors into office. Another is that the old guard circles its wagons and fends off the progressive challenge. The most likely outcome is a split between the two – just as the city is transforming over a generational divide, so might the City Council be divided, with some new voices mixed in with familiar ones.

If so, the council will likely still default to its cautious ways, with some initial moves toward reform. Such a dynamic would make the mayor’s race doubly important, as the city’s chief executive will likely remain the most important actor in city politics. Still, as Navy Hill showed, the council can still at least throw a wrench into the mayor’s plans. If the election goes the progressives’ way, we may see a whole new toolbox. S

Richard J. Meagher is an associate professor of political science and the author of “Local Politics Matters” (Lantern, 2020).

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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