October 29, 2019 News & Features » Cover Story

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Taking the Fifth 

In a too-close-to-predict race, whoever wins the 5th District City Council seat could influence the biggest economic development proposal in Richmond history.

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Gloomy darkness falls outside the gothic St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Oregon Hill, just south of the Downtown Expressway. It’s Thursday, Oct. 24, and casually dressed Thad Williamson campaigns at the spikey front gate.

He is the only one of seven candidates in the Nov. 5 Richmond 5th District City Council special election who’s engaging potential voters as they enter the church.

But folks aren’t here for another candidate forum. It’s the final district meeting being held by Councilman Parker Agelasto, who has represented the district since 2013. The popular incumbent is leaving City Hall on Nov. 30 following criticism from many directions, as well as legal challenges, after he confirmed that he and his young family had moved from the district he represents.

click to enlarge Six of seven candidates for City Council attempt to differentiate themselves Oct. 10 at the Richmond Mayorathon-sponsored debate at the Randolph Community Center. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Six of seven candidates for City Council attempt to differentiate themselves Oct. 10 at the Richmond Mayorathon-sponsored debate at the Randolph Community Center.

Tonight, Agelasto updates his constituents, seated in pews, on such nuts-and-bolts issues as bridge repairs and street repaving, and offers parting thoughts on how racial diversity can better be achieved in public schools. For the evening’s main event, Agelasto introduces a planning representative from the city and key players with NH District Corp. to discuss a hot-button topic, not just in the 5th District, but citywide: the complex, $1.5 billion plan for replacing the Richmond Coliseum and pumping tax-generating, mixed-use development into underutilized and adjacent downtown blocks.

Suddenly and unannounced, amid the sometimes contentious back and forth between the developers and audience members, Mayor Levar Stoney clomps down the center aisle and stands at the front of the church, arms folded. When the presenters don’t miss a beat, after a few minutes, Stoney breaks in and reads an official proclamation acknowledging Agelasto’s service to Richmond. The men embrace. It’s a “Godfather”-like moment.

By now, candidate Thad Williamson has settled into a rear pew, where he checks his phone regularly. Only two of his six opponents are in the church tonight, Stephanie Lynch and Jer’Mykeal McCoy. It may be no coincidence that the three candidates at Agelasto’s farewell are considered by many observers to be frontrunners in the too-close-to call race, due in part to being top fundraisers. Williamson has raised $22,558, Lynch $22,421 and McCoy, $18,100. Democratic Socialist Nicholas da Silva is fourth with $8,379 in the latest reports.

As the trio of candidates listen and observe the proceedings, each may be making mental notes if they take the 5th District. What would they look like conducting district meetings? How would they handle the grumps and naysayers? And what will their positions become regarding plans for a new coliseum and Navy Hill redevelopment?

“Many are positioning themselves as the candidate who is the most against the redevelopment project,” says Jimmie Lee Jarvis, a Richmond City Democratic Committee member, veteran of numerous local political campaigns, and Carytown resident.

Among the candidates’ respective stands on the issue, Williamson is more nuanced than his opponents. In one of the debates he reminded the audience that 30,000 Richmonders are living in poverty.

“For them, having several thousand new jobs downtown would be potentially life-changing,” he says, stressing, however, that the final proposal must include certain economic development criteria including a broad cross-section of community input, affordable housing and provisions for minority contractors.

Candidate Lynch, on the other hand, suggests later that the project is convoluted and that the city might sell the vacant properties to developers and let market forces take hold.

Stoney leaves before the meeting ends.

The view looking west from the Robert E. Lee Bridge is a panorama of the James River and the adjacent park system as they wind through the middle of Richmond’s 5th District.

The continuous canopy of foliage shields the district’s necklacelike chain of neighborhoods and parks that extends west to the Powhite expressway and Interstate 195 on the north side of the river. Here are Oregon Hill and the lower Fan District, which includes a vote-rich swath of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Monroe Park campus. Farther west are the Randolph, Byrd Park, Maymont, and Carytown neighborhoods. Lining the river’s south bank are Springhill and Woodland Heights, with a section of Swannsboro to the south.

click to enlarge A river runs through it: Richmond’s picturesque 5th District is split by the James River, shown here from the Lee Bridge.  The Dominion Energy corporate headquarters is at right and the 2000 Riverside apartment complex is on the left bank. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • A river runs through it: Richmond’s picturesque 5th District is split by the James River, shown here from the Lee Bridge. The Dominion Energy corporate headquarters is at right and the 2000 Riverside apartment complex is on the left bank.

The 5th District population is 49% African American, 43% white and 3% Latino. There are no major public housing projects and with the younger than 18-year-old population only 14%, there is no public high school. Nonetheless, public education, parks and general environmental issues have been focuses of the campaign. This is the only council race on the ballot on Tuesday and the seat is for only a 13-month term that begins Dec. 1.

There are seven personable candidates, including two with a possible name recognition advantage, former City Councilman Henry “Chuck” Richardson and former city School Board member, Mamie L. Taylor. Despite not being a presidential election year, such as in 2016 when 11,000 voters cast ballots in the district, higher turnout is expected than usual since the entire Virginia General Assembly is being elected in contests gaining national attention.

This City Council race may also predict who’ll run for a full council term in 2020 when all districts and mayoral candidates will be on the ballot. Chuck Richardson has said that he is only running to complete Agelasto’s term.

The race has been keenly watched since the winner will join eight City Council incumbents as deliberations on Navy Hill ramp up steeply. To various degrees all seven candidates have expressed not just wariness, but in many cases, outright opposition to the proposal. Seven affirmative votes on council are required for the project to proceed.

At an August debate at Fifth Baptist Church in Randolph sponsored by the Richmond Crusade for Voters, the six candidates present gave their positions.

“I have concerns about the housing part,” said Jer’Mykeal McCoy. “How do we want our city to grow? How do we invest so there are dividends for the next generation?”

“Most cities are moving away from putting up coliseums,” said the Rev. Robin Mines, “I’m concerned that the financial burden will fall on the city. … There’s no parking to support a coliseum and there’s not enough information.” She added, “Let’s not be too quick to embrace shiny objects.”

Nicholas Da Silva was even more direct about how he’d vote: “No, unequivocally. Of all the doors I’ve knocked on, 90% said `No.’ This has been pushed on a community with no input.”

click to enlarge Mayor Levar Stoney and outgoing 5th District City Councilman Parker Agelasto at the Oct. 24 residents meeting at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Oregon Hill. The winner of the Nov. 5 election will complete the remaining 13 months of Agelasto’s term. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Mayor Levar Stoney and outgoing 5th District City Councilman Parker Agelasto at the Oct. 24 residents meeting at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Oregon Hill. The winner of the Nov. 5 election will complete the remaining 13 months of Agelasto’s term.

“I voted against the Project 1 project,” said Chuck Richardson, a reference to the last major downtown public redevelopment project north of Broad Street downtown, which was developed during his term on City Council from 1977 to 1995. The development, which failed and some of which has been demolished, included the Sixth Street Marketplace, an enclosed mall and an office building.

Williamson, a member of Stoney’s inner circle, hedges.

“It’s complicated. … It should not have been done this way. … It is lacking public buy in. And there is the question of who owns downtown? It’s too early.”

Stephanie Lynch said she is a definitive “no” vote.

“Community members have had no input,” she says. “There’s not enough information. We have a history of building in the shadows and not in the sunlight.”

In the sprint to Election Day, observers and participants say the campaign has been low-key and first-time candidates are working hard to establish name recognition.

“They are not taking others on. It has been really, really polite,” says Sven Philipsen, Stephanie Lynch’s campaign manager and a veteran of other local campaigns.

This spirit was exhibited at Agelasto’s final district meeting at the church when candidate Robin Mines telephoned one of her opponents and asked him to extend her apologies for not attending; Williamson did so, courteously.

“All are intent on getting their names out,” Philipsen continues, “Chuck Richardson and Mamie Taylor have an advantage since they have served on City Council and the School Board, respectively.”

Woodland Heights resident Derek Tresize, a fitness trainer who lives on Forest Hill Avenue, says he’s seen considerable candidate interactions on his block. “My wife had a nice long chat with Taylor and was impressed. Da Silva came by and spoke with me and I found him articulate and very focused.”

Twelve blocks away at West 20th Street and Stonewall Avenue in the compact Springhill neighborhood situated just south of the Lee Bridge along Riverside Drive, Ann Mays, who’s lived in the neighborhood for 50 years, sits on her front porch and reads a newspaper. Within her range of sight are three political yard signs. The Nicholas Da Silva post is deep pink and black with conjoined hands and a rose, a workers of the world unite aesthetic. Richardson’s full color poster includes his image in profile, a photo obviously taken decades ago. “I’d use that photo too, if I had that head of hair,” quipped an opponent’s staff member.

Mamie Taylor’s signs, in contrast, are understated with her name in green and a stylized swoop to signify the James River.

“I’m not sure who I’m voting for,” says Mays on her porch. “None of the candidates have dropped by.”

Leslie Bawler, 27, who works at the Virginia Commonwealth University’s Medical Center strolls by toward a GRTC bus stop: “I’m registered but I’m going to go online closer to Election Day to see where they stand.”

Bob Holsworth, founder of the consulting firm Decide Smart and former director of the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at VCU, says the race is too close to call.

“The diversity of the district and the number of candidates could well enable someone to win with a relatively small slice of the electorate,” he says, adding one other observation.

“It’s actually great to have an election where there’s no public polling.”

The Candidates

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Nicholas Da Silva

Self-described as a working-class activist and organizer, Silver Spring, Maryland, native and VCU graduate Nicholas Da Silva lives in Randolph and, at 21, is the youngest candidate.

He comes across as earnest and thoughtful. Appearing at debates in a dark suit, he might well be mistaken for a young man attending his church confirmation. Many have complimented his hustle. “He’s knocked on more doors than anyone else and I like that,” says an observer who works with an opponent and asked not to be identified.

Da Silva says he has knocked on 5,000 doors and distributed and collected some 500 questionnaires from residents.

“It’s time to get Richmond out of the pocket of developers and property managers,” he says. “We must empower renters to resist unfair treatment from their landlords.”

Again, his stand on the Navy Hill redevelopment is not in doubt: “No coliseum until every school is renovated, every teacher gets a raise and every student has textbooks.”

Da Silva also stresses the ongoing issues of climate change, the need for public housing and police accountability.


click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Stephanie Lynch

A native of Woodbridge, VCU graduate, social worker and resident of Woodland Heights, Lynch is director of government affairs, strategy and development for Good Neighbors, a nonprofit organization that provides mental health and disability services.

Running as a Democrat, although this affiliation won’t be indicated on the ballot, she says that providing quality education for every student in every neighborhood is her top priority “on both sides of the river.”

She wants to expand access to health care, with school-based health centers being a special focus. She wants to expand the city’s parks and protect existing green spaces. Due in part to her advocacy work, Lynch has established working connections with state officials.

“I have been very impressed with Stephanie Lynch who has run a campaign that resembles the Democratic women who have been very successful recently,” Holsworth notes. “She has also done a good job connecting with VCU students.”

Her colorful campaign posters include childlike illustrations showing traditional houses in a variety of styles that could line 5th District streets. These signs may reflect her demeanor, smiling and approachable.

However, as she says: “Action is important. I’m impatient.”


click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

 

Jer’Mykeal McCoy

Charismatic and polished on the stump, Jer’Mykeal McCoy is a native of Knoxville, Tennessee, and a resident of Swannsboro West. With an undergraduate degree in mass communications from Tennessee State University and a master’s degree in sports industry management from Georgetown University, he is business development manager at Schutt Sports.

Campaigning as a Democrat, McCoy served on the advisory council for Richmond 300: a Guide for Growth. He believes that everybody in Richmond deserves to live in a home that is safe and affordable. Holsworth notes he’s been “energetic and did a good job fundraising.”

The first-time political candidate says: “I will collaborate with builders, housing advocates and residents to ensure no one is left behind when it comes to housing. The city needs smart economic growth that works for everyone. I will not rest until Richmond Public Schools has the resources to fix broken infrastructure, pay teachers what they deserve and provide year-round support for students.”

McCoy is president of the Urban League of Greater Richmond Young Professionals.


click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

 

Robin Mines

The Rev. Robin Mines, eloquent and understatedly elegant, comes across as deeply centered and sensitive. She is an associate minister at Hood Temple A.M.E. Zion Church, a prominent congregation in Jackson Ward on West Clay Street.

She stresses being a native Richmonder and a longtime resident of East Swansboro in the 5th District. She attended George Wythe High School and has been active in its alumni association. She is a veteran of the Air Force. This is her first run for elected office.

“I am pushing for church collaborations … to pull together on missions across the community,” she says, adding, “Our schools are the most important issue, funding our schools and attracting great teachers.”

Often embracing broad, philosophical issues, she told a gathering at the Randolph Community Center: “I’m challenging you people. We need to cross racial and denominational lines. If we don’t change, we’re going to end up in the same place.”


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Henry W. “Chuck” Richardson

Byrd Park resident Chuck Richardson represented the 5th District from 1977-1995. Its boundaries have since changed.

“This is my 10th re-election,” he says with a twinkle in his eye and a practiced charm, “I served on council for 18 and one half years, so there is some accountability. My looks have changed, but my devotion to the city of Richmond has not.”

“I’m not sure how many ‘original fifths’ are left in the district,” Holsworth says.

“There will be a new mantra of respectability, someone who has experience. That’s chief,” he tells a forum audience at Fifth Baptist Church.

In 1995 he resigned his seat after arrest for heroin distribution.

“It’s a medical problem with a criminal element of effect, and we should treat it that way — we don’t.” His voting rights were restored in 2016. On his campaign posters, Richardson says that the letters that comprise his nickname, Chuckie, stand for courage, honesty, unique, character, kindness, integrity and experience.

It was Richardson who challenged Agelasto’s qualification to retain his council seat while not living in the 5th District.


click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/FIle

 

Mamie Taylor

Having served one term in the 5th District as a member of the Richmond School Board from 2012-2016, Taylor missed re-election in a close race. She has greater name recognition than some of her competitors.

She doesn’t mind tossing in some religious words of praise as she appears on the campaign stump. Having graduated from high school in Clinton, Maryland before graduating from VCU, she was an English and journalism teacher at South Side Richmond’s Huguenot High School.

“I’m working for the culture of the city,” she tells Style.

She is concerned about the condition of the city’s public schools and fears curricula is not being aligned with instruction. This leads to children not being prepared for work, the military or higher learning.

“There are those that put corporate interests above the interest of the people.”

Correction: We incorrectly reported the high school she attended in the original version of this story and she clarified several quotes.


click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

 

Thaddeus “Thad” Williamson

Thad Williamson, a resident of Byrd Park, was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but moved as a child to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “I’m a Tar Heel all the way,” he says.

He is campaigning for economic opportunity and to improve the Richmond Public Schools. As the first director of the city’s Office of Community Wealth Building, he helped residents find jobs and therefore strove to reduce the poverty rate. This effort grew out of the Maggie Walker Initiative for Expanding Opportunity and Fighting Poverty.

An associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond, he is a recognized policy expert who served as a senior advisor for Mayor Levar Stoney. Some feel his temperament would be most like Agelasto’s.

“I wouldn’t necessarily call [Williamson] the front runner. He is certainly perceived as the mayor’s candidate and that has increased his visibility,” Holsworth says.

But his steady support of many of Stoney’s proposals has made some wonder whether he would support raising real estate taxes.

“I am not running on raising taxes,” Williamson told freelance journalist David Streever in an interview with Style several weeks ago. He also cited an independent analysis by Virginia Commonwealth University in 2017 that found city spending was on par with other Virginia cities, so he disagrees that city government is unreliable and wasteful.

“Real estate tax hikes should be a last resort,” Williamson says, before elaborating: “It’s politically expedient to just say no to taxes, but you can’t simultaneously be for more services, no new tax revenues and no development. We need to look at more progressive taxes, even go to the General Assembly. What’s the point of creating plans to improve our schools if we’re not going to fund them?”

In mid-October, Williamson announced that the KML Regional Council of Carpenters as well as International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 666 had endorsed his campaign.

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