Who’s in Charge Here: Berry, Stoney fight for Morrissey voters

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — On Tuesday morning, mayoral candidate Levar Stoney held a press conference to announce he was being endorsed by former Richmond Mayors Henry Marsh and Rudy McCollum. This event followed on the heels of Jack Berry’s campaign announcing an endorsement Monday from former City Councilman Chuck Richardson.

Voters don’t really put much stock in endorsements. Support for a candidate from a prominent figure is usually more effective early in a campaign, as a signal to elites to get behind them. Big-money donors and other public officials can be convinced to support someone if they see their peers doing so. (It’s like investing. No one wants to be the first dollar in the pot, but they often will put their money in if they see others are willing to take the risk.)

So endorsements are not always as big of a deal as campaigns make them out to be. This is especially true with Berry’s endorsement announcement; Richardson, while popular during his time on the Council, stepped down due to a heroin distribution charge in 1995. That’s not exactly the kind of resume you look for when seeking political endorsements.

But we shouldn’t ignore this week’s campaign events. There is something else going on here, based on the dynamics of this particular mayor’s race. Both Berry and Stoney are trying to send a signal to a particular kind of voter: African-Americans who support Joe Morrissey.

Morrissey’s polarizing presence as the front-runner in this race is old news by now. (Although the august international magazine The Economist just reported on it this week!) While many voters are turned off by his scandalous record, some see him as an authority-defying fighter. The two views of Morrissey split largely down racial lines.

This is in part due to the idea of “two Richmonds” that, to his credit, Morrissey among others has articulated most clearly during this campaign. As The Economist piece noted, Morrissey appeals “to an enduring sense among many African-Americans that they are — and remain — outsiders, overlooked by the white-dominated business class” that drives city politics. Although we should be wary of a Trump-Morrissey comparison, both candidates have a similar kind of go-for-broke appeal for voters: if you’re not getting anything from the current political system, why not shake it up by choosing the wildcard in the race?

It is exactly this kind of thinking that Berry and Stoney want to change, and the endorsements this week are undoubtedly part of a larger effort from both campaigns to reach out to African-American voters. Richardson is still popular in the majority-Black 5th district that he represented in Council; Marsh was the city’s first Black Mayor. (No matter what the Morrissey campaign says.)

According to his supporters, Stoney has the right life experience and – to put it bluntly – skin color to make this appeal work. But his lack of experience and familiarity with city government have led to skepticism among some as to whether this appeal will only be — well, skin deep.

Berry’s case is even harder to make. People who know Berry, who is white, believe he is genuinely committing to helping all citizens of Richmond. But his background as head of the economic development organization Venture Richmond — skeptics have referred to the group for years as “Vulture Richmond” — raises questions about his credibility beyond the “white-dominated business class.”

The choice for voters, especially those who are part of the #NeverJoe contingent of the city, is not an easy one. With City Council members Michelle Mosby and Jon Baliles still waging active campaigns, Morrissey critics worry that the multiple candidates will split enough votes that Morrissey wins the mayoral race outright. (Thanks to Richmond’s less-than-stellar record on race, a candidate must win a plurality of votes in five of the city’s nine election districts to avoid a runoff.)

A neighborhood website, Manchester’s Dogtown Dish, even called Tuesday for the three candidates trailing Morrissey (Berry, Stoney, and Baliles) to work out some kind of deal to allow a single challenger to emerge. Dish publisher Michael C. Hild put it bluntly: “Would you like to be known as one of the Richmond Three who banded together to save the City, or as one of the three megalomaniacs who failed Richmond?”

Whatever Hild and other #NeverJoes might think of them, Berry and Stoney surely do not see themselves as megalomaniacs, and they are both unlikely to drop out of the race in favor of the other. Both campaigns have a plan to win over Morrissey voters. We’ll find out in just two weeks if either plan worked.

Richard Meagher teaches politics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, VA. Follow him on Twitter at @rjmarr. Follow his blog here.

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