A Time for Choosing: The Case for Levar Stoney (by Thad Williamson)

10/18/2016 5:15 AM by

by Thad Williamson, Associate Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond

In three weeks, Richmond will elect its next mayor.

Richmond voters have had ample opportunity to study the candidates—in forum after forum, policy questionnaire after policy questionnaire, television interviews and even ad spots.

As a Richmonder, I have to say I am quite proud of the tone and substance exhibited in all the forums. Key concerns such as education, poverty, and improving City Hall, as well as numerous other issues, have been addressed. And as a political scientist, my faith that local politics is the truest form of democracy—the scale where politics can (at least some of the time) be a conversation among friends rather than a partisan war, and where voters can actually learn and make informed judgments about the strengths and flaws of potential leaders—has been vindicated by this election season.

But now it’s time to choose.

The new mayoral poll released by ChamberRVA this past weekend shows clearly it’s a three-person race. We now know with a pretty high degree of certainty that our next mayor will be either Jack Berry, Joe Morrissey or Levar Stoney.

Of those three men, Levar Stoney is the best positioned to be the mayor and leader for all Richmond that this city so urgently needs. His candidacy represents not the divisions of the past but the prospect of a city that moves forward together to address our common problems. Let me explain why.

1. Doing the Job of Mayor

Here’s one reason each and every person who actually filed to run for this position and made the effort to wage a serious campaign deserves your respect: it’s a bigger bear of a job than most citizens can even imagine.

I had the unusual opportunity to work in City Hall and lead the launch of the Office of Community Wealth Building, the City’s new poverty-fighting agency. The very nature of the work involved engaging with multiple agencies within city government as well as with RPS and RRHA on a regular basis. And it involved a lot of interaction with the Mayor and the Chief Administrative Officer.

Here is my conclusion about the current state of City Hall: There is a lot of dysfunction, much of it related to processes that don’t work. But there are also many good people there who want to serve the community and the public interest. And with a great deal of effort and persistence, it’s possible to do good work and get things done.

Part of the job of the next mayor must be to make City Hall a better functioning place where great people want to work (more on that below). For now, consider just a few of the key responsibilities of the Mayor:

  • Setting goals and benchmarks across all policy areas
  • Making tough decisions about the top priorities given perpetually scarce resources
  • Holding the CAO accountable for the execution of priorities and the general functioning of city government
  • Communicating with residents about what the city government is doing
  • Advocating for the City’s interests in the regional and state arenas
  • Working in continual dialogue and cooperation with City Council so that ordinances get passed to allow priorities and action steps to move forward and to improve the functioning of city government
  • Building and maintaining strong relationships with key partner agencies—especially Richmond Public Schools
  • Ability to make good decisions—quickly, in real time, all the time; and closely related, ability to discern good advice and good information from bad.

There is, of course much more—the ribbon cuttings, the speeches, the press inquiries. And the existential fact that one is never a phone call away from learning about—and having a responsibility to respond to–yet another tragic act of violence in this City.

When you’re the Mayor, you’re on the hook for all of it, and rightly so. It takes uncommon strength of character to do this job and not be consumed by the stress and burden of responsibility, to continue to uphold for one’s self and for others a positive, energetic vision to sustain the difficult work—day after day.

That day-to-day work consists of, in essence, multitasking on steroids. Our next Mayor, to even begin to achieve the goals various candidates have laid out, is going to need to have the energy, passion, and inner strength to come in to City Hall in the morning setting a clear, positive tone; receive and request information, make some decisions while continuing deliberations on others; meet with a variety of people internal and external to the organization; interact with the community and other leaders in the afternoon and evening; and deal with on the fly whatever crisis events (or media inquiries) deliver.

And that’s just one day. The real test is being able to come back and do it again the next day—and the day after that—and come in every morning with a full tank.

So here’s the first thing to know. Levar Stoney can do that, and do it every day.

Here’s what I’ve learned about Levar Stoney over the last few months: He has a crystal clarity about why he is in public service (to right wrongs and include the excluded); deep self-belief; a positive, can-do disposition; not only youthful energy but the self-discipline to make the most of it; the ability to work with other people; consistent progressive instincts; and a healthy dose of ambition.

Voters who have observed the forums will have noted a consistent pattern: When Levar is asked a question, his responses are to the point, substantive, and very direct.

That style of thinking and consistent clarity in communication is a huge asset for a potential mayor. Citizens, and even more so city staff, need to hear a clear direction articulated from the Mayor’s seat. The voluminous work of city government gets done both more rapidly and better when clear direction is provided from the top.

And yes, healthy ambition is a virtue rather than a vice in political leadership. (Don’t let anyone fool you: the Mayor is a position of political leadership, not a business management position.) We don’t want leaders who will stomp all over others, go out of their way to put the screws to others, or violate basic decency in order to advance their own interests. But if someone is driven to do an excellent job in order to demonstrate their capacity in the eyes of voters and enhance their likelihood of being considered for other positions, that is not inherently a bad thing.

In fact, that is exactly the political system that Virginian James Madison played a lead role in designing: one in which public ambition helps supply the energy to drive forward the public interest.

Should he be elected, Richmonders will in Levar Stoney see a mayor who leads by example with his personal work ethic; who takes decisive and informed action to move City Hall forward; and who clearly and consistently explains what the City is doing to both employees and residents.

And who does it not just one day, but every day.

2. The Right Priorities and a Smart Plan

The Mayor’s time is limited. You have to set priorities, both in organizing the daily schedule and in setting goals for the organization and the city as a whole over time.

There is no great mystery as to what voters in Richmond want to see: improved schools, better services, and expansion of economic opportunity benefitting the high level of City residents living in poverty.

At this writing, Levar Stoney is the only candidate who has published a detailed plan addressing educational improvement, reforming City Hall, transportation, economic development, and housing. The plans are unified by the common themes of prioritizing children’s well-being, reducing poverty, and demanding a higher level of professionalism and service delivery in city government.

Readers should delve into the details of the plans themselves. Let me here make four observations.

First, the policy plans are far more detailed than anything offered by a prospective candidate in a Richmond mayoral election since the new system of government was adopted in 2004.

Second, Levar has laid out an ambitious program that both deals with real-life problems the City (and especially the schools) are facing and builds on some of the existing work and initiatives already underway. But the program also allows for flexibility. Take the example of school funding: clearly there needs to be a new approach to both the process and result of funding schools’ operating and capital needs. But the specifics of that approach will need to be hammered out by dialogue and negotiations, not by mayoral dictate or by handing RPS a blank check. A smart program both spells out clear priorities and goals and allows for flexibility of implementation, especially when other actors are involved.

Third, the plans show that Levar has done his homework on Richmond. He’s researched the issues. He’s talked to a wide variety of knowledgeable people. He’s listened to the concerns of everyday residents. You don’t need to have lived here your whole life to understand what the issues are and begin getting a handle in the mayor’s role in driving solutions.

Fourth, the mayor’s role is to set and drive the agenda, on behalf of the interests of the people of Richmond. It’s not to be the police chief, the finance director, or the CAO. The next Mayor can’t possibly be the expert in all those areas, but he or she can know the right questions to ask and set accountability standards and specific goals. Levar has the skill set and drive to do exactly that.

3. Ability to Bring Good People in and Motivate Them to Do Great Work

But being a successful Mayor is not just about holding a team accountable—it’s about picking the team in the first place! Levar will have the ability to attract top quality professionals to work for the City of Richmond. Levar’s experience in state government provides an impressive network that extends, locally, statewide and even nationally.

Richmond benefits most when there is a mix in city government of fresh blood, fresh ideas and experience in other localities, combined with deep local knowledge of Richmond’s peculiarities. Neither “from here”s or “come here”s alone will cut it.

Equally important, City Hall needs to become seen as a well-functioning organization where top-caliber people want to work and can see making a career for themselves. Many of the specifics Levar has in mind have been laid out in his City Hall reform agenda. Let me just add two points here.

First, Levar made one of the best statements made by any candidate in a forum a few weeks ago when he said his goal would be not just to improve City Hall for the time he is mayor, but to change the entire culture of the organization in ways that benefit the city’s residents for the next thirty to forty years. Improving City Hall is not just about changing some directors around. It’s about establishing a different culture of accountability, both in the organization as a whole and within the departments. This is hard work, and not for the faint of heart. But it’s exactly the right goal to pursue. Levar’s ability to communicate directly and clearly will be a major asset in getting that ball rolling.

Second, reforming City Hall needs to be seen not as just an abstract, “good government” goal, but as a moral imperative connected to the needs of the least well off. When city government doesn’t work, it’s low-income residents reliant on those services who suffer most. And when scarce City resources are not used effectively or efficiently, those are dollars that are not being invested in the needs of our kids and families. Levar is committed to making sure everyone in City Hall understands that—and acts accordingly.

4. Ability to Connect Voters in All Districts

Last but not least, of the three remaining candidates Levar Stoney has the greatest ability to connect with residents in all nine districts. This is shown clearly by the poll data, which shows one candidate with virtually no support in the city’s three most affluent districts, and another candidate with limited support in the city’s four poorest districts.

Why does this matter? Richmond is a divided city, by race and income. A key role of the Mayor is to be the unifier of the city—the leader who can speak to and connect both parts of the community, while working to reduce those very divisions and inequalities.

I frankly shudder to think about the consequences of Joe Morrissey being elected in terms of the attitudes of affluent Richmonders, as well as the region as a whole, toward city government.

Jack Berry deserves credit for an honest effort to highlight the needs of schools and issues concerning poverty in his campaign. He is a very decent man and if he is elected all of Richmond should wish for and support his success in the role.

That said, he will face a major if not insuperable challenge winning over the trust of a large segment of the community. This is not a personal criticism, just an observation of fact.

Here’s why it matters. The moral test of our community is whether we can help the many young people in our city who are now struggling or in danger of being lost find their forward pathway and realize their potential. Part of this is about funding and programming, but part of it is about relationships and self-concept.

Levar Stoney exemplifies, through his life story and what he stands for today, what we hope all our children in disadvantaged circumstances would aspire to be. I believe he will be an inspiration to our city’s children, both by who he is and the work he conducts as mayor.

Likewise, there is a policy consensus in Richmond that we need a new model of affordable housing, one that fully meets the needs of current public housing residents well creating diverse, non-stigmatized communities that are better for safety and mental health and connect residents to better educational and economic opportunities.

But here’s what that actually entails. It means being able to walk into an RRHA community and have an honest conversation with residents who are rightly skeptical about plans for change, worried about what’s going to happen to them, and earn their trust. Because of his life experience, his ability to acknowledge injustice while being determined to rectify it, and his ability to communicate clearly with everyone, and perhaps most importantly, his listening skills, Levar Stoney is best positioned to do just that—and not just do it once, or do it when it’s time for a PR offensive, but do it regularly, throughout his entire term.

To truly create a healthier, wealthier and more unified Richmond, we have to mobilize resources and community support around shared strategies to address our entrenched problems, especially with regard to education and poverty. It’s a delicate dance. If those with resources walk away, or won’t even listen in the first place, what needs to and could in fact happen in Richmond—an all hands on deck effort to overcome poverty and improve families’ lives–will not take place. Conversely, if communities most affected are not engaged and listened to as valued equal citizens, change will be frustrated instead of facilitated, at every turn.

It’s the Mayor’s job to connect and unify our community. That requires the skill to have both conversations, and in fact have them not be separate but unified by a common vision of social justice and by clear evidence of personal integrity and commitment. I believe Levar Stoney has the gifts, skills, and most importantly determination to do just that.

He would be a fabulous mayor for the City of Richmond at this point in our history.

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Photo by John Murden via Brookland Park Post

A few weeks ago I published A case for Joe Morrissey. Not an endorsement, it was for me a way of sharing what struck me as an important understanding of his candidacy. After that published, I reached out to others for words on other candidates. The above is Thad Williamson’s response in support of Levar Stoney.

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