Richmond Mayor Candidates Lay Out Competing Visions in Contentious Debate
With the general election less than one month away and many residents having already cast their ballots, four Richmond mayoral candidates made their pitches to voters at the ChamberRVA Mayoral Forum Tuesday night.
On stage were Kim Gray, who currently represents the 2nd District on City Council, Justin Griffin, a small business lawyer who rose to prominence following his opposition to the Navy Hill project, Alexsis Rodgers, an advocate who works as Virginia director for Care in Action, and incumbent Mayor Levar Stoney.
The candidates received questions, several from VPM’s Citizens Agenda, on a range of issues including COVID-19, schools and affordable housing. Rodgers and Stoney wore masks, Rodgers even while speaking; neither Gray nor Griffin wore face coverings on stage.
Stoney, the front runner in two polls commissioned by undisclosed people, found himself under fire early in the debate, with both Gray and Griffin questioning his leadership as mayor.
In her opening statement, Gray said she was running "to end the corruption and cronyism and lack of common sense when it comes to City Hall," and accused Stoney of corruption in awarding the contract to remove Confederate monuments in the city. Stoney denied that a campaign donation by the contractor influenced his decision. The mayor has maintained that he was not involved in the procurement process, and says multiple firms were invited to bid but rejected the contract.
In response, Stoney said Gray has tried to delay or stop monument removal, and brought up Gray’s donors, who include Evan Morgan Massey, a Monument Ave homeowner who sued to prevent statue removal, and former Republican Delegate Manoli Loupassi. “Ms Gray has always been an impediment to change, an impediment to progress in the city of Richmond, and you see that now in the championing of her campaign backed by Republicans,” Stoney said.
Griffin criticized both the mayor and city leadership more broadly, saying he “is fed up with our city government failing us in every conceivable way.” He described himself as “an outsider” whose background in accounting gives him the tools to reform the city budgett.
On law and policing, Griffin, Gray and Stoney formed somewhat of a consensus, with Rodgers in opposition. The first three agreed that protestors breaking curfew should be prosecuted, and that the decision to release the names of indicted officers should be left to the Commonwealth’s Attorney.
Rodgers dissented on both issues. She said the police should be named, “the same way, unfortunately, we've seen protesters get named before they're even convicted of a crime.” She said the curfew was inappropriately implemented, and had a disproportionate impact on people of color. Rodgers also supported a reassessment of police funding.
Gray and Griffin both said they were against defunding the police, with Gray noting her opposition to a defunding proposal brought to City Council recently.
Rodgers pushed back on Gray, saying the proposal was not a measure to defund the police, but rather a reassessment and realignment of funding, and questioned if Gray had read the brief. Gray responded, “I find it incredibly ironic that someone who never attended a single council meeting prior to announcing that they were running for mayor would say anything about a piece of legislation that was put before me.”
Rodgers would return to that comment later, calling it a lie.
Education was a sticking point between the candidates with Griffin and Gray criticizing the current administration. Griffin rated the job performance of Superintendent Jason Kamras, a Stoney appointee, an “F” citing a decline in graduation rates. Gray gave him a “D-,” saying communication from the district has been poor during the COVID-19 pandemic, and virtual learning has been hard on students.
Stoney and Rodgers both painted a more positive picture of the schools. Stoney gave Kamras a “B+" and highlighted the building of three new schools in the city, which he noted Gray voted against. Gray disagreed with Stoney’s characterization, saying, “I have championed building new schools, I did not champion taxing to death our restaurant industry.”
Stoney used an increase in the meals tax to increase Richmond’s debt capacity in order to borrow roughly $146 million to build the three schools, one fewer than promised with the meals tax increase proposal.
Rodgers gave Kamras’ performance a “B,” but said the district needs to be more transparent and that she would fight to fully fund the school system if elected.
Election day is November 3, 2020, but voters are encouraged to cast their ballots early, either in person or by mail. More information about the 2020 election can be found on the VPM elections page.
*David Streever contributed to this reporting.