Richmond’s 6th District election offers experience vs. change

(Photos taken from the candidates' campaign websites: http://www.ellenfrobertsonrva.com/, http://www.mossforcouncil.com/)
(Photos taken from the candidates' campaign websites: http://www.ellenfrobertsonrva.com/, http://www.mossforcouncil.com/)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Election day is coming up in just a few weeks. And while city council elections are getting far less press than the presidential and mayoral elections, 8News is taking the opportunity to inform the electorate about the people who are running in each respective district, where the rubber meets the road in creating the policies that impact residents the most. These range from issues of public security, schools and public works.

8News spoke with each candidate running for city council to discuss matters ranging from existing issues in the city, their proposed solutions to those problems and their motivations and qualifications for running in the first place.

In this edition, we will discuss the election being held for the city’s sixth district which runs from city limits in the north just south of Richmond International Raceway, down Richmond/Henrico Turnpike, 2nd Street and Belvidere in the west, to around Bellemeade Road in the south to the James River, 14th Street, I-95 and Mechanicsville Turnpike in the east.

The sixth district includes Manchester, Brown’s Island, downtown including parts of Shockoe Slip, the area around City Hall and the Capitol grounds, Monroe Ward, parts of Jackson’s Ward, East Highland Park, Whitcomb Court and part of part of Mosby Court.

The two candidates running in this area are Donald Moss and the incumbent Ellen Robertson.

Both candidates were presented with the same general questions about their background, experience, qualifications for office, their priorities if elected, and their ideas for resolving major issues in their district and across the city.

This is what they had to say:

How did you make the decision to run in the first place?

Moss: “I’ve been involved in the local Democratic Party for years now. I was an organizer, first vice chair, helping get good Democrats elected here in Richmond. In the past couple of years my wife and I have lived in the 6th since about 2012. In the past couple of years my neighbors and I have become pretty disappointed with our current representation on city council. We’re going to need a city councilperson that’s responsive, that’s back on track and focused on what matters: schools, roads and public safety. I think we all got tired of sitting on the front porch and complaining about it, so I thought I know a few things about elections and about public policy. Maybe I can stand up and take a shot.

Robertson: “I was elected November of 2003 and that was serving out an unexpired term and reelected in 2004 and have served ever since. Actually, the candidate that was serving at the time, knew that he would not be able to serve out his entire term. And I was very active in the community, I had started a nonprofit housing development community nonprofit corporation. I had assisted more than 300 families to become first time home buyers, renovated some of the most blighted properties in the city of Richmond in Highland Park and was working cooperatively with the school system to set up reading clubs throughout the community to enhance the academic achievements of kids in our schools … So I had been actively involved in community development for about 15 years and when the seat became available, the community petitioned me to run, to serve the greater 6th district and to continue the work we had been doing to build community.”

What do you see as the biggest issue in the 6th District?

Moss: “I’ve personally knocked on about 10,000 doors in this election [as of Sept. 19th], the campaign has probably knocked on another 5-6,000, and what I hear over and over, far and away is education. No matter where you are. My district goes from Highland Park to Hillside Court to Downtown, so every single kind Richmond, every kind of person, every kind of voting block is represented in the 6th. It’s far and away the most diverse district, and everybody is concerned about schools. I got 22 year old Med students worried about these schools, and 70-year-old grandmothers worried about these schools, and folks are tired of them being underfunded. I’m proud to have received the endorsement of the Richmond Educational Association, that’s the local teacher representation group. Unlike the current councilperson, I’ll never vote to take $7.5 million away from schools to give to the Washington Redskins. I’m looking forward to fighting for teachers salaries to attract and retain the best teachers. I just need to work with the next school board and mayor, and not have an adversarial relationship like we’ve had the last couple of years.”

Robertson: “In the 6th district, we have what was ‘The Courts.’ We have Whitcomb Court, Mosby Court and we have Hillside Court. We have in the 6th district some of the most intensely concentrated poverty, the cities jail is located in the 6th district, we also have some of the most thriving economic development in the city if you include Manchester, Downtown, and some of our historic neighborhoods that we have in the district. So, I represent a district that has, in many cases the cup is half full and in many cases, the cup is full. So, the diversity of the district creates some extreme challenges for us … but I think the thing that is costing the city the most is the concentrated poverty that we have and the continual failing of our children receiving a quality education. When children fail, they become parents of poverty, and they also feed the pipeline to massive incarceration. And so, those expenditures create a tremendous impact on the city of Richmond. So my feeling is, the top priority is for us to decrease the poverty and increase the economic growth for the city of Richmond and to get our business straight at city hall so that we are operating a very effective and efficient government.”

How do you plan on better funding Richmond Public Schools?

Moss: “If I recall, school board’s ‘option 5 plan,’ which I support, asks for some $550 million, so it’s not an insignificant amount of money … I’ve heard all kinds of things thrown around. I’ll tell you the first thing we’re not going to do, we’re not going to raise taxes. We already don’t get enough for what we pay now. As a homeowner, I look at my lack of trashcans and I think, $1.19 per square foot, eh? But I really like the measure to move the meals tax revenue entirely to the education fund and I would support a cigarette tax that’s devoted entirely to education funding, I think there’s some scratch there. But we need to make sure the schools that we have are in safe conditions, free of mold and lead. I want to see continuing involvement from the community like the tremendous efforts by “Building a Better RPS.” They’ve picked up a tremendous amount of slack. Personally, I’m the guy that’s in charge of the landscaping and the grounds upkeep at Overby-Sheppard Elementary School, but I’m hesitant to call for too many things because we still don’t have a financial report … They’re going to have to be the number one priority. Some things are going to have to be sacrificed.”

Robertson: “In 2004, or roundabouts, I remember introducing legislation that was a proclamation to commend the schools and their staff for the great job they had done to increase the academic accreditation of schools and I think it was almost all the schools were accredited. In 2004 when we look back on the operational costs, we were doing something where we actually got accreditation … So in 2004, which is the same year that we changed the government, we went to a mayoral form of government. In that time, we have lost our accreditation. And I think the number of schools that were accredited, that was on the front page of the newspaper the other day, it shows a continual decrease in the number of schools that were accredited. When we look at the funding trend, we can see that there have been stagnation in funding, and we can also see where there has been an uptick, an increase in funding, for the school system. So, I think that the reality is that the city of Richmond is not getting its fair share of funding that the state is obligated to provide for education, and we need to fix that. We are a landlocked city by the general assembly at the state level, we cannot increase our revenues except to … the general assembly has control over the annexation policy. When the state refuses to pay the proportion of funding that is due the city for education, that cost is expected to be picked up by the city of Richmond that has a 27 percent poverty level. Our per capita income is the lowest of our metropolitan areas, and yet, we’re expected to be able to fund at the same level for localities that have a per capita income much greater than ours. We need to be aggressively fighting for revenue and recognize the fact that when you have intense poverty, children that are coming to the school system that are contributing to the lack of academic achievement … Parents are poor that don’t have the resources and when you have the percentage of poverty in the city, then you have the same percentage of poverty in your parents. We need to lock horns, city council, the mayor, and the school board, lock on and recognize that we need to not only think that we should raise the revenue to support the challenge that we face … We must insist that the state must pay its share. It must not pass that cost to the local government to cover … We are at $13,000 plus per child education in the city of Richmond, which is one of the highest in the state, and in comparison, we have the intensity of the greatest concentration of poverty … We have to create a system by which children pass. When we fail children, they are the next generation of families of poverty, and that contribute to mass incarceration, and both are too high a cost for any city to cover … Right now 40 percent of our revenue goes to schools, and 60 percent [goes to everything else.]”

Outside of your district, what do you see as the most pressing issue in Richmond government?

Moss: “I’m focused on what matters: schools, roads and public safety, and that’s pretty much the order I hear things in. Folks don’t like the conditions of the alleys, they don’t like the conditions of the roads … I have a neighborhood in the northern part of my district and it’s been paved once, the first time it was paved about 60 years ago. It’s not been paved again. And of course, we had I believe our 41st murder last night [as of Sept. 19th], we had turned such a corner in this city, and I’m a Richmonder, I remember the 90s, I remember the early 2000’s. And now people notice that the roads are worse, that crimes … prostitution, vice crimes, petty crimes and open air drug markets and that’s because we haven’t funded schools or roads or public safety in the manner that we ought to. We’ve been chasing shiny things, like bice races and breweries and baseball in the bottom. All sorts of nonsense. We’ve got to get back on track with those sorts of things … Richmonders have been taken advantage of for a long time, and we’ve got a great deal of work to do with this upcoming city council. I think the 6th district deserves a full time council person who’s willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work every day for their constituents. I do a great deal of constituent work already. Picking up trash, clearing brush, mowing the lot down by my house. I think what folks want to see is someone who’s willing to do the work themselves if necessary. And I am.”

Robertson: “One of the challenges that I think we face is we have an extreme level of turnover within the administration of the city. As we’ve gone to this new form of government, we have experienced extreme levels of turnover in our executive team, in our executive leadership. The finance department has had … I can’t even count the number of persons we’ve hired to run that department. There’s been major turnover in the social services department, in the IT department, the CAO for the city under the Wilder administration was never affirmed by council, we’ve had an acting, most of the department chairs were in acting positions when Dwight Jones came in. That level of executive leadership turnover has cost the city of Richmond a tremendous amount in the quality of services and the quality of performances. That’s a major, major challenge that needs to be addressed. As we go through this new form of government that we’ve created where we could have a new mayor every four years, which also means in a lot of places that their subject to extreme turnover on the executive level every four years. That’s extremely hard and costly for the city, and it also impacts our performances tremendously. So, those are some operational challenges that need to be addressed … The creation of the wealth building department which I chaired the commission and the legislation to create. The goal is to reduce poverty by 40 percent over the next 10-20 years. It’s something that I’ve also asked for an economic development plan so that we can look at creation of job opportunities. I still believe that the key to addressing our poverty issues is successfully getting people ready and employed in sustainable jobs. We are going to be opening up a social enterprise center [as of Sept. 21] as part of the initiative to reduce poverty in Richmond, within the next couple of weeks which will bring people in and train them in career development and entrepreneurial experiences. The failing of our children in the school system is another pipeline to poverty, if not incarceration. We need to get our school system to the place where we are achieving academically, has got to be our top priority to be able to build the fabric and the strength of our per capita income in the city of Richmond.”

What do you think sets you apart from the other candidates running in your district?

Moss: “Far and away, I’m the progressive in this contest. I bring a level of political professionalism that I think this district has been sorely missing. I mentioned earlier, Ms. Robertson voted to take $7.5 million away from our schools and give it to the Washington Redskins, she voted to freeze police and fire pay multiple times, she voted against protecting LGBT Richmonders from discrimination, these are stark contrasts. I would not, and I will not support any measures like that. This is a grassroots campaign. We’re a blue collar group over here, we do work. I like Ellen perfectly well, and I don’t think she’s very happy with me right now, but you know 13 years is a long time. It’s a long time. It’s time for something new. It’s time for a change.”

Robertson: “I can only speak for myself. I am an urban planner by profession, I have 15 plus years of experience in community development. I transformed a community that was the highest assessment value of a 2,000 plus square foot house was at less than $50,000 when I started my community development initiative. Through strategic well planned, no displacement, no gentrification, 300 moderate income families became first time home-owners and we changed the property values to $150,000 and above, in the time that I ran the nonprofit organization that we started in this neighborhood. We have built community, we have built parks, we have built trails, we have restored the most blighted properties in the community through this initiative. I served as the executive director and founding president of the board from the inception of the nonprofit organization. When I went to city council, I introduced the legislation to form community policing and to shut down open air drug markets in the city of Richmond. This ushered in community policing and we reduced the homicide rate to figures much less than what they are today. That was one of the first pieces of legislation that I passed. I am the patron of the legislation to form the anti-poverty initiative, I have chaired that initiative from the beginning. We have a department now that focuses on nothing else but addressing poverty through workforce development, through free education initiatives and increasing public transportation access to jobs. I am the patron of creating an affordable housing trust fund that has leverage, there is $1 million we have leveraged over $153 million in additional affordable housing throughout the city of Richmond. I do this work full time. I understand the financing of the city, I have served as the chair of the finance committee for the last eight years. I have served as the vice president of council. I have chaired the land use committee I’ve served on the city’s planning commission, I was the first African American female to chair the planning commission before even coming onto council. I do this work because I recognize the need to build a city that provides economic opportunities for all people, supports all the local developers and has patron papers to increase tax incentives to spur most of the development that has taken place downtown and in Manchester. I know this work, I know what it takes to do this work, I am willing to face reality, and I believe in putting together effective solutions to get things done.”

Anything else that you’d like to share about yourself, this upcoming election or your candidacy?

Moss: “We’re the hardest working campaign in Richmond. You ask anybody who’s running for any position in this city and they’ll tell you that. I believe in my heart that this city, the people are getting it done. The regular folks are opening businesses, they’re getting it done, they’re getting degrees. The local government is not keeping up. And that’s not acceptable. And I love Richmond, this is my home. I love this place. This is the best city in the best state in the best country in the world. And we’re going to get it turned around.”

Robertson: “I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of it. I’m pleased to see that Richmond is changing, and Richmond is becoming a destination place that people want to come and people want to live. There are a few things that really need to be addressed. We need to fund our public works department we need to clear the streets of potholes, we need our grass cut, and general operational duties have to be addressed. Beyond that, we need to have a broader vision to make sure that we are continuing to grow the city so that every citizen has a decent respectable community to live in, and that opportunity for employment and starting businesses is in place. I believe we can do that, and I have the expertise, and the experience, and the will, the political will, to make that a reality.”

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