If you followed our Dogtown Dish Mayor’s Poll, you already know Levar Stoney had a very strong showing. I recently sat down for coffee with him. Having not met Levar before, the meeting provided an opportunity for me to hear his story.
Levar also agreed to answer a list of questions as a follow up to our meeting. Here is what he had to say.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Hampton Roads. My father was 19 and my mother was 16 when I was born, so my grandmother had a big hand in raising me. With the help of my grandmother’s Social Security check and my father’s work as a custodian, we made ends meet. We didn’t have much – I benefited from the free and reduced lunch program at school – but my parents always told me I could do anything I put my mind to. Thanks to their encouragement, and support from teachers and coaches, I went on to become the first in my family to graduate from high school and then go on to graduate from college too.
In what area of the City do you live?
Currently I live off the Canal Walk. Like many young professionals flocking to the city, I enjoy the downtown atmosphere. I first came to Richmond after graduating from James Madison University. After college, I begged my way into a Fellowship with then-Governor Mark Warner’s office. During those few months I stayed in the MCV dorms. I had just enough money to live off of ramen noodles and canned stew. I didn’t care – I was just so excited to finally be here. Over the years I have been able to experience the breadth and depth of the city. I’ve lived in the Forest Hill, Church Hill, and Shockoe Bottom neighborhoods.
In your career, what is your greatest accomplishment?
I have dedicated my adult life to public service. For me, it’s about two things: giving voice to the voiceless, and righting the wrongs. I was able to do both of those things every day on Capitol Square working for Governor McAuliffe. In particular, restoring the civil and voting rights to individuals who had paid their debt to society was one of the most rewarding accomplishments anyone could hope for. Before the Governor’s historic announcement on April 22nd, we worked together to individually restore the rights of more than 18,000 Virginians–that is more than the past seven administrations combined. Behind each of these benchmarks there were stories to be told. I remember the story of a Vietnam veteran, James Ray, who had his rights restored during my tenure as Secretary of the Commonwealth. James was convicted of a non-violent felony and cried tears of joy when his rights were restored. Under the process that was in place, this man needed to beg to have his voting rights restored – a right that he risked his own life to protect for others.
Tell us why you believe you are qualified to be Mayor?
This race is about more than qualifications. It’s about who will transform City Hall, and thus, the city. It’s about who has an optimistic, forward-looking vision. It’s about who is willing to bring Richmond into the 21st Century and think about what the city looks like 30 years from now. We’re in an Xbox era, but there are people in government still using Ataris.
I’ve transformed each role that I’ve held in public service. At 26, then-Governor Tim Kaine tapped me to be the Executive Director of the Democratic Party of Virginia (in 2008 – a historic year for Democrats). In 2013, I worked tirelessly to prevent Ken Cuccinelli from taking up residence in the Executive Mansion. After the campaign, I was appointed and confirmed by the Virginia General Assembly, with bipartisan support, as the first African American Secretary of the Commonwealth. In all of these positions I managed multi-million dollar budgets. I recruited, motivated, and managing diverse, talented and dynamic teams. And I transformed the culture by demanding accountability, efficiency, and transparency. And by the way, we had fun while we did it.
As a member of the Governor’s Cabinet, I was a leading voice in an administration that fired on all cylinders – investing over $1 billion in public education and working with the private sector to attract over 150,000 new jobs to the Commonwealth. Specifically, as Secretary of the Commonwealth, I led the largest, oldest, and most public facing office of the Governor’s cabinet. In that position, I was responsible for insuring that various responsibilities aimed at serving the needs of the public were completed in a timely manner. When the Governor approached us with a historic task of restoring the civil rights of over 220,000 Virginians – we developed a strategic plan, and we got it done.
What is your priority list for the City if you are elected Mayor?
The next mayor will face many challenges, but there are three main issue areas I’m going to focus on from day one. First, strengthening our schools. For me, education was a ladder to opportunity and a foundation for success. Like many of the kids in Richmond, I understand what it feels like to want. I think every child in the city of Richmond deserves that same opportunity no matter what zip code or what neighborhood they live in. Improving the quality of life of our children is the social justice issue of our time and the people of Richmond deserve better. We need a Mayor who can actually reach across the aisle to City Council, to the School Board, and say, “you know, I’m not just going to write you a check – I’m going to team up with you to actually achieve some of the goals you have. How about I open the doors to City Hall and surround every child with every wraparound service we have available?” It’s time we stop fighting and start focusing on improving the quality of life for our children.
Second, I’m going to focus on promoting public safety. We’ve made some serious strides in public safety. There’s no doubt this is a safer place to live in than it was in the 1990’s. However, we need to be vigilant now more than ever against gun violence in the city. We also need to work with Chief Durham to put more officers on the streets so we can ensure that the community policing that got us to where we are right now continues.
Lastly, none of this will happen without bringing a new approach to City Hall. A City Hall that cares about the basics. That means filling the potholes and cutting the grass. With me, you’re going to get a visible, hands-on, transparent Mayor. The buck will always stop with me. I’m going to be the chief accountability officer. That’s why I have already called for a comprehensive performance review of every city department, from top to bottom in my first 100 days in office. I’m going to see who the top performers are, and who the under performers are. I have also called for a full audit as well – I want to know where we can find dollars to invest back into public education. It has to be done. We have to do the basics of blocking and tackling. And guess what? We’re just not doing it right now.
The City has been criticized for its use of tax dollars for private development projects such as the Redskins Training Facility, Stone Brewing, etc. Do you feel these projects were in the City’s best interest as they are structured? What do you feel the role of the City should be for economic development activities?
I think it’s great that companies like Stone Brewing and the Redskins are setting up shop in Richmond, but I know we could have gotten a better deal for the city’s taxpayers. The city should take an active role in economic development – but that means making sure we’re not just rolling out the red carpet for the Redskins and Stone. We have to do a better job in rolling out the red carpet for our small, locally-owned businesses to thrive in the city as well.
The Economic Development Authority has been widely criticized as a non-transparent entity that does business on behalf of the City but avoids the same rules and protections that normally apply to official City business. Do you believe the Economic Development Authority should continue to exist? Should it be eliminated? Should it be changed?
In order to attract and retain business in this city, we need to be competitive with our surrounding localities, all of whom have an Economic Development Authority. The EDA should work in conjunction with the Administration and Council to help create new jobs, expand the tax base and diversify the economy of the City of Richmond. State law gives the EDA certain powers that the City itself does not have. I agree it could be more transparent and it will be in my administration, while still protecting the sensitive nature of business negotiations with the private sector.
The City has a track record of selling City owned real estate to developers in a closed door process and often at below market rates, rather than simply auctioning City property off to the highest bidder with an accompanying development contract. This whole process as it currently stands seems like it is highly subject to abuse. If elected Mayor, would you be open to changing the city owned real estate disposition process and if so, how would it work?
As mayor, I intend to work very closely with the business and real estate community to get the best deals possible for the city and its taxpayers. We need to be aggressive and make sure deals are a win-win. We should let the past be prologue and work to be vigilant stewards of the taxpayer’s dime.
Mayor Jones just announced the need to dip into the City’s emergency fund, and proposed raising the meals tax, real estate tax, personal property tax, implementing a cigarette tax, etc. Are you supportive of any of these proposed tax increases? If so, which tax increases would you support?
If we have to raise the debt limit, the responsible thing to do would be to raise projected revenue for the city simultaneously. It would be irresponsible to increase our debt limit without having the income to pay off our existing bill.
But, the next administration must exhaust all our options before considering raising taxes on residents. Let’s be clear, raising the debt limit is a “break the glass in case of emergency” situation that we don’t want to be in to begin with.
That’s why on day one of this campaign, I called for a comprehensive performance review and audit of every department of City Hall. Here’s an example: Richmond collects 96% of taxes owed by residents. That seems pretty good right? Wrong. Our neighbors across the Commonwealth collect 98% of their taxes. If we became competitive with our peers, that would add an additional $5 million per year for the city for schools and basic services.
The next administration will need to tackle the problems in our finance department: hiring, motivating and retaining quality staff so that we can assess, bill, collect, and account for our existing revenue sources, and accurately forecast our future revenue.
We owe it to the taxpayers to be responsible with the City’s finances.
Manchester has seen virtually no basic maintenance from the City in decades, let alone infrastructure improvements. However, private developers, business owners, artists, and residents are flocking to the area and investing in Manchester. Can you understand that Manchester stakeholders are frustrated and feel they are being ignored by the City?
Yes, citizens are making an active investment in an area where the city has not. We need a City Government that is investing in all of its citizens, no matter the zip code. I am running to be Mayor of ALL of Richmond and will govern as such. It’s time for city government to begin matching the investments our friends in the private and nonprofit sectors are making. We need to collaborate with our partners – not work against them. I have regular contact with members of the private sector that have invested in Manchester. Most understand that the issues you discuss have become commonplace in many parts of the City. My administration will take a realistic look at where we are and will quickly establish a timetable for implementing infrastructure improvements throughout the City, including Manchester.
The list of maintenance and infrastructure improvements needed in Manchester is daunting. What do you see as the top priorities for Manchester?
People pay a premium to live in this city, and right now, they’re not seeing a return on investment. So first, we should start with the basics; fixing potholes, improving infrastructure, and focusing on traffic safety. Beyond that, we should commit to connectivity – thinking about how we can better improve and expand public transportation to make Manchester more accessible. I am also committed to following the basic principles set out in the Richmond Downtown Plan, the Old Manchester Neighborhood Plan, and the Riverfront Plan. Together, these provide for Manchester to be an integral part of the central business area of our City, while at the same time providing connectivity, alternative access over the James River, a variety of housing types and maintenance of the urban quality of the neighborhood.
It seems as if the City of Richmond’s Police Sector 112 is so geographically diverse being that it is spread across both sides of the River, that the lieutenant in charge is seemingly assigned an impossible task. Manchester seems to suffer as a result. Are you open to redrawing the police sector map, so Manchester can have a more focused police presence?
I believe the current lieutenant, Bill Brereton, is doing a great job. I understand the need for more officers, and I am committing to working with the RPD to focus more on the needs of Manchester as a growing residential and commercial area. I would recommend that the RPD explore the creation of a “Manchester Unit,” which would be a small group of officers who would focus solely on Manchester rather than the whole sector. This already exists for other areas of the city and would be an important step in crime reduction for the neighborhood.
Do you see the Manchester side of the City Riverfront Plan being acted upon if you are elected?
Absolutely. I think it HAS to be!
I often refer to Manchester as a City within a City. It has incredible opportunity for increasing the tax base, jobs, and population growth for Richmond if the City Administration would make it a priority and invest in it. If you are elected, would you be open to creating a Manchester czar, task force, or some form of official representation within the City Administration to focus specifically on Manchester specific problems and opportunities?
I’m not going to need a “czar” – I’m going to be in the community myself. I’m going to be hands-on, visible, and transparent. I am committing to holding office hours in all nine districts. I plan to govern like I campaign – being out in the community, knocking doors, shaking hands, and addressing citizens concerns. My office door will always be open and I look forward to seeing and hearing from the Manchester community on a regular basis.
Anything else you would like to share?
I love Richmond. Richmond is my home. I love that families and businesses are looking to move here, we have great landmark destinations, and a wonderful education institution in VCU. But there are some things I don’t love. I don’t love that 26% of the people live under the poverty line. I don’t love that 40% of our children live under the poverty line. I don’t love that our infrastructure is crumbling all around us – whether it’s the schools or our streets. I don’t love the fact that we have high grass everywhere. I don’t love that it’s so difficult to start a business in the city of Richmond. For me, public service and politics has never been about having a title. It’s about improving the overall quality of life for the citizens we serve. I can’t sit on the sidelines, not when the stakes are this high. I truly believe that Richmond is at a crossroads. We can get to the next level, despite the issues we need to address, but first we need to ask ourselves a question: do we accept more of the same or do we choose something different? We cannot run government the same way it was run 20 years ago and obsess on why we can’t do things. We need to embrace innovation and new ideas. I’m the eternal optimist – and I know that Richmond is ready for a change. I invite all of you to learn more about me and join this campaign for the future.