Democratic Richmond Mayor LeVar Stoney has been talked about for a while as a potential 2021 candidate for governor of Virginia, but he has a potentially competitive re-election campaign to get through first.
City Councilwoman Kim Gray announced that she would challenge the incumbent last month. Attorney Justin Griffin, who is a first-time candidate, also entered the race this week, and more contenders could join ahead of the June 9 filing deadline. And as we’ll discuss, Virginia’s capital city uses a very unusual electoral system that makes it difficult to handicap this race.
Gray played a major role in last year’s successful effort to rename Richmond’s historic Boulevard for the legendary tennis player Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native who is the only black man to win the titles at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open. Stoney and Gray were on the same side in that high-profile campaign but they’ve often battled on other matters, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch described Gray as “Stoney’s most vocal critic on the City Council.”
Back in February, Gray succeeded in putting together a majority on the Council to kill Stoney’s $1.5 billion Navy Hill redevelopment plan, which Robinson called the mayor’s “signature project.” Navy Hill backers argued that the effort, which was intended to create a new coliseum as well as affordable housing and retail, would “transform” downtown Richmond and lead to more jobs and revenue. Gray and her allies, though, said that the expensive project was too much of a risk for the city, and that its developers had shown too little transparency.
Gray has also opposed Stoney’s attempts to raise meal and real estate taxes, and she used her campaign kickoff to argue that as mayor, “I will not leave the management of the city government to any bureaucrats, appointed or not, or to be directed by the biggest campaign donors.”
Griffin, who announced his campaign on Monday, is also a Navy Hill opponent, and he argued that city leaders had done a poor job preparing for the coronavirus crisis. While it remains to be seen if Griffin will have the resources to get his name out, he could have an effect on this race if he costs Gray some votes, and Richmond’s unusual electoral system could magnify his impact.
All the contenders will face off one nonpartisan ballot this fall, and a candidate needs to win a plurality of the vote in at least five of the nine City Council districts in order to win the contest outright. This means that, just like in a presidential election, it’s very possible for a candidate to win the mayor’s office while coming in second (or potentially even further back) in the popular vote.
If no one wins outright, then the two candidates with the most votes citywide would compete in a runoff six weeks later. However, the winner still isn't the candidate with the most votes, it's the candidate who wins a majority of the Council seats. If no one manages to pull this off (ie, if there’s a tie that prevents anyone from winning at least five districts), only then would the popular vote determine the winner.
This system was first put in place for the 2004 mayoral race, a contest that former Democratic Gov. Douglas Wilder won overwhelmingly, and so far, the candidate with the most votes has always won outright. In 2008, Del. Dwight Clinton Jones won 39-34 and carried five of the nine Council seats, and he was re-elected in a landslide four years later. In 2016, Stoney himself won the popular vote by a narrow 36-34, but he also avoided a second round of voting by carrying a majority of the Council districts.
So, how did this system come to be? While Richmond only started voting this way in 2004, Venugopal Katta explained in a 2017 piece for William & Mary Law School’s Election Law Society that the reasoning behind it goes back decades further. Back in 1969, the predominantly white City Council, whose members were elected citywide at the time, approved a plan to annex part of neighboring Chesterfield County. This move lowered Richmond’s black population from 52% to just 42%, and critics argued it was done to strengthen white voters at the expense of African Americans.
However, as Katta wrote, the plan ran into trouble two years later when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Voting Rights Act required any changes in city lines to be approved either by the U.S. attorney general or the D.C. District Court. Richmond had completed the annexation by this time, but the attorney general’s office refused to approve it. The city finally came up with a compromise where it would elect city councilors by district, and it agreed that five of the nine seats would have black majorities.
The Supreme Court approved this new plan in 1975’s City of Richmond v. United States decision, and for decades, the City Council remained the major force in Richmond politics. The body continued to pick the mayor from among its members (now-Sen. Tim Kaine became mayor this way in 1998), but a series of corruption scandals involving councilmembers led to calls for a strong and independent chief executive.
In 2002, former Gov. Douglas Wilder and former Mayor Tom Bliley called for electing the mayor citywide. However, while Richmond was again majority black by this point, local African American leaders feared that wealthier and better organized white voters would have a greater say over who led the city. In order to ensure that a mayor couldn’t win without substantial black support, the Wilder-Bliley Commission’s plan required mayoral candidates to win five of the nine districts in order to be elected. This plan overwhelmingly passed in a 2003 referendum, and it remains in place today.
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