Candidates address RPS, COVID-19 response, protests and corruption in first Richmond Mayoral Debate

Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The first general debate of the Richmond mayoral race, held Thursday at Virginia Union University and hosted by 8News and the university, gave voters a chance to see the candidates face off and address the specific issues affecting city residents ahead of Election Day.

Mayor Levar Stoney is seeking reelection in a five-way race with one notable city official, Councilwoman Kim Gray, and three first-time candidates: Alexsis Rodgers, Justin Griffin and Tracey Mclean. In order for a mayoral candidate to take the seat, they must win at least five of the city’s nine districts.

Gray, who represents the city’s 2nd District, has been critical of Stoney’s proposal to redevelop downtown Richmond with the Navy Hill project and called for a special prosecutor to investigate the mayor’s handling of the removal of the city’s Confederate statues. The councilwoman has raised a little more than $255,000 since announcing her run for mayor, bringing in about $162,000 in the last two months, the latest campaign finance report shows.

Rodgers, the Virginia state director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance who served as Gov. Ralph Northam’s policy director when he was lieutenant governor, raised more than $122,000 in the latest filing period. She received 505 individual donations of $100 or less for nearly $19,500, more contributions under $100 than the other candidates combined, highlighting the grassroots campaign that Rodgers has touted.

Griffin, an attorney, and Mclean, a small business owner, have not raised as much money as Stoney, Gray and Rodgers. Griffin has campaigned on improving Richmond Public Schools, roads in the city and developing a new standard to ensure Richmond residents “get quality, timely services from the city.” Mclean’s platform has been focused on providing financial transparency, informing city residents and unifying communities.

The two-hour debate was moderated by former Virginia governor and VUU alum, L. Douglas Wilder, and 8News anchor Juan Conde. Topics discussed included the voting process amid a pandemic, race, and the removal of Confederate statues throughout the city.

Here are the rules: Questions from the moderators and questions from viewers where each candidate has one minute to answer. Lightning round, where candidates have only 30 seconds, to answer.

WATCH THE FULL 2-HOUR RICHMOND MAYORAL DEBATE BELOW:

You can find the questions and the responses from each candidate, which have been edited for clarity and length, below:


“Which city services, do you feel, the city provides most efficiently and effectively and which are the services that cause you the most concern?”

Alexis Rodgers: Overall, we need to be improving access to city services across the board for diverse communities. So we know right now that if you don’t speak English primarily, good luck interacting with city government, whether that’s getting a permit or paying your taxes, or even registering to vote.

Councilwoman Kim Gray: It’s a difficult question, because as a councilperson I get a lot of complaints about city services. One of the areas that I get a lot of positive feedback on is the trash service and the politeness of the gentleman and women who pick up our trash. They are always very diligent and interactive with our community.

Justin Griffin: The department I have gotten the most positive feedback on, when out talking to constituents across Richmond, is the parks and rec department. But other than that, just about everything that we deal in the city government is failing us. We have seen our city destroyed over the last few months, our schools are the worst in the state, our roads and sidewalks crumble and the rest of city services are frankly pathetic.

Tracey Mclean: I want to say the transportation service right now, is absolutely a lot better than it has been. But everything else, across the board, is not equitable for everyone. None of the services will be equitable for our community until we get the right person in office.

Mayor Levar Stoney: I think our most effective and efficient service we have in the city of Richmond is the work of our sanitation workers. They were there during the pandemic, on time, to pick up our garbage and we also have expanded over the time, as well, on the collection of our leaves. I’m also very impressed, also by the collection of our taxes.


“Do you see any evidence of cronyism or corruption affecting city government?

Gray: Absolutely, and that is the motivation for my running. I would like to end the corruption, cronyism and lack of common sense problem solving for our citizens. The cronyism, I’ve gone to our mayor, Levar Stoney, about and was laughed out of his office and it wasn’t an issue until the inspector general came in to say, there’s nepotism happening, people hiring their relatives, paying them higher rates than others.

There is questionable contracting going on with respect to our large, our school contracts and the removal of monuments. That $1.8 million shell contract that went to a shell corporation who we later found out was a political donor and colleague of the mayor. So, there is definitely an air of corruption and cronyism at city hall.

Griffin: I would say yes, I think it’s pretty evident from anyone who watches and pays attention to city hall. Myself, as you heard in the opening, I have an accounting background and I have been perusing around through the many audits and internal budgeting that we have here in the city. And I’ve been posting on our social media, an example of, I call it “we deserve better” example every day. A lot of that is mismanagement and waste but we also see a lot of problems with cronyism and insider dealing.

We saw it a lot with the coliseum proposal and that’s how I first got involved into city politics, was opposed to that project. And one of the things was, that it was so narrowly tailored that only one company was able to respond. So we did not get the best possible deal for Richmond.

Mclean: A lot of the discussion about the monuments, actually knowing about the $1.8 million and to see that it was sent to a shell company. I noticed a lot of family members being hired also but with that being said it’s things that we can correct and not continue to go back-and-forth with one another.

Rodgers: I think every day city employees go to work trying to do their best for the city and for our community overall. I would say that we’ve seen examples of mismanagement and issues of transparency in our government, certainly from the mayor’s administration but also, I would say, within the police department. We’ve seen issues of police response to peaceful protests and I wonder if we should be sending our law enforcement officers into scenarios where their not necessarily needed.

Stoney: A long-time trope of governments like the city of Richmond, governments ran by those who are African American, black, there’s always been cronyism and corruption and I think if you see that play out right here locally. I’ve become a partner with the auditor, we closed out more audit findings than any administration that has ever served. Also, when those, when people did exhibit misconduct, it was me who separated them from their employment.

Those monuments were racist, those Confederate monuments were racist and they were removed because of public safety reasons. And we got a better deal on those monuments, $1.8 million, then any other city. New Orleans, Dallas, you name it.


“The coronavirus pandemic has strained city schools and public health systems, how can you make the most of our financial and administrative resources?”

Stoney: When the pandemic struck back in March, I proposed, early before the pandemic, a budget that was bold and robust. Had to cut back by $30 million. We cut spending, we froze spending, all discretionary spending and we also stopped hiring as well. And at the end of the quarter, we ended up with a $13 million surplus. We did exactly what people do in their homes, we cut back on our spending because we knew we were heading into tough times. That’s how you mind the budget and mind the dollars for the taxpayers and that’s exactly what we’ll be doing as we move forward.

Griffin: I would say that I’m absolutely the best person in this race to extend our financial resources. Again, if you look at my social media, many, many examples of waste. If you look at the $13 million budget surplus, that Mayor Stoney just talked about, I think that shows to me that our city government is loaded with fluff. If we can be facing a coronavirus pandemic that shuts down our businesses and still have $13 million in fluff and surplus in that, then that’s $13 million that should be directed towards our priorities, like our schools and our neighborhoods.

And going back to those audit findings, Mayor Stoney is talking about closing out the most audit findings than any administration recently, well he’s still only closing out 55 percent of those. For me, 100 percent or bust. So, we have to clean up city government, we have to use our dollars efficiently because that’s what our people deserve.

Mclean: We actually have to give the resources to the people. A lot of people have been saying and stating about giving money to schools. We are in the midst of a pandemic and we also will possible see a second wave. In case we see a second wave, we definitely to be already ready.

We need to take the money to add resources for that, we have eviction and homelessness problem, so we need to make sure the people get the money. If it’s $13 million of surplus, $13 million need to go out to the community.

Rodgers: I would start with the fact that we still have an interim chief administrator officer, and I would, you know a year or so ago when that position became vacant, made sure that we prioritized having a permanent selection for chief administrator officer who is charged with the management daily of city hall. It’s important to me, as mayor, I’m working closely with the daily administration of our city government, that means having someone that everyone in city government sees as the leader aligned with my vision.

We have to make sure that in addition to the city funding that are limiting resources, we’re being collaborative and innovative about partnerships with the community and nonprofit organizations that want to serve Richmond and bring us together during these really difficult times. At the state government level, I’ve been advocating for paid sick leave and paid family leave for workers who desperately need it for times like these. It’s going to take an innovative and kind of, holistic approach to make sure Richmond recovers in a more equitable way at the end of this crisis.

Gray: Right now we have failed hundreds of students, if not thousands, in our city who don’t have basic broadband access or computers to access their classrooms. That’s an epic failure. We’ve known since March and these students haven’t had any contact with their schools or teachers in several months and this is a education crisis for our city.”

The CARES Act funds, the federal funds that came, that were infused to help us stay afloat, we dragged for months. I put in legislation to provide for grants for PPE and resources for businesses to be able to reopen in the new normal. So, those grants that should be available to our businesses are not.


“Are you satisfied with the expenditure of funds and priorities established by RPS?”

Stoney: Under my time, under my leadership, we’ve put more dollars, roughly $30 million into Richmond Public Schools. That’s the most in a generation, we’ve also expanded after school programs for each and every elementary and middle schooler. And we built three new schools in Black and Brown communities.

Mclean: I’m partially satisfied, I can honestly say we are discussing everything as if tomorrow is the same day as last year. We have to realize that we are in a pandemic and we have to treat our questions as so.

We would need more actual teachers that are willing to do more outside teaching. We need change the budget a little, tweak some things to make it work for the pandemic.

Rodgers: I do appreciate the priorities that were established in “Dreams for RPS,” I do think we need to go further to fully fund the initiatives that are outlined and make it even more equitable for our community.

We are experiencing a pandemic that is pushing out, making it more difficult for young Black and Brown students and their families to support their learning. In order to not just make sure we survive the current environment of virtual learning, but come out and are going back into schools that are inclusive and equitable for every young student.

Gray: I have to say no as an RPS parent and as a city councilmember, we have historically funded schools and the results are going backwards.

Griffin: I would say absolutely not, because it’s not working. From the class of 2016 to the class of 2019, our graduation rate dropped from 80 percent to 70 percent. We need a new holistic approach to our school system. First, we need to actually fix the buildings.

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