Levar Stoney hopes his personal story and vision for the city resonate with voters

A speaking engagement on a rainy Monday morning brings Levar Stoney to the basement of a church in the East End, where two dozen elderly African-Americans have gathered for a health and wellness program.

After joining in the group’s exercise routine, Stoney delivers brief remarks centered on his background. He is the product of teenage parents. His father and grandmother raised him in Yorktown. Hailing from a family among the working poor, he stood in the free- and reduced-price lunch line at school and managed the family budget at home. Ultimately, he became the first person in this family to graduate from high school, and eventually from college. This is why he’s running to become Richmond’s next mayor, he tells them before pivoting to his platform.

That Stoney’s personal story forms the foundation of his pitch to voters serves both practical and strategic purposes. He is a newcomer to city politics, so an introduction is in order. But beyond that, the candidate believes his background makes him uniquely qualified for the office to which he hopes voters will elect him.

In response to a question about what sets him apart from the other seven candidates, Stoney responds, in part, “I know education is the only reason I’m standing here before you all today. The only reason I’m standing before you all today is that I had a grandmother and a father who told me every single day that I mattered — every single day — and I could do anything I put my mind to. My fear is that’s not happening enough in Richmond. I think we deserve a mayor who tells our children they matter, tells our families they matter … I think that’s what sets me apart: my story.”

Stoney, 35, has never held elected office, but he is no stranger to politics. U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, during his tenure as Virginia’s governor, tapped a 26-year-old Stoney to head the state’s Democratic Party. His stint coincided with the 2008 presidential election, which saw Virginia turn blue for the first time in more than four decades.

Stoney left the state party gig to join forces with Terry McAuliffe, and was instrumental in McAuliffe's successful gubernatorial campaign in 2013. Once in office, McAuliffe hired Stoney as Virginia’s secretary of the commonwealth. He was the first African-American to serve in the position, which swears in political appointees to boards and commissions. While in the role, Stoney helped restore the voting rights of 18,000 people convicted of felonies, more than the previous seven gubernatorial administrations combined.

Stoney resigned from the governor’s cabinet in April, then announced his long-rumored mayoral bid a few weeks later. Since then, several local organizations have endorsed him, including the Home Building Association of Richmond, the Richmond Education Association and the Richmond City Democratic Committee. He also has the backing of his former boss and a slew of state Democrats.

Bill Pantele, a former president of Richmond City Council and runner-up in the 2008 mayoral election, says he is supporting Stoney because the candidate’s career “exudes leadership,” which Pantele believes is necessary to set City Hall straight.  

“I really think what Richmond needs now is someone who has that ability to bring the silos together and inspire the people inside of them to get to a better place,” Pantele says. “I think that Levar’s demonstrated talents, reputation and infectious enthusiasm made him a clear choice for me.”

That Stoney has establishment support and resources, but doesn’t have to answer for local government’s current woes, like some of his opponents, is advantageous, says Rich Meagher, a political science professor at Randolph-Macon College. Stoney also has as much, if not more, cross-racial appeal than his opponents, Meagher adds, making him a serious contender in all nine voter districts.  

“He can appeal to white and black voters. He can appeal to West End and East End voters,” Meagher says. “I just don’t know if he has enough to time to do that or if people are going to buy the story.”

As of September, Stoney had raised $610,000, shattering the previous mayoral fundraising record by $110,000 – with two months until Election Day. He has assembled a formidable campaign, complete with contracted research and marketing firms, former presidential campaign staffers and dozens of volunteers. The operation will make use of phone banking, door-to-door campaigning and television buys that will tally in the hundreds of thousands by the time Nov. 8 rolls around, all to address what could be Stoney’s crucial flaw: Most voters don’t know who he is.

An August poll conducted by Christopher Newport University showed Stoney running fifth in the field of eight candidates with 7 percent of the vote citywide. The same poll found that three out of five voters had no opinion of him. Stoney’s camp is critical of the poll’s findings, citing its high district-level margin of error (roughly between 13 and 16 percent). However, they don’t contest the name ID finding. In fact, Stoney says he was “totally encouraged” by it.

“If it just takes people getting to know who I am and I’m running against three people who have been elected, and multiple people who have been here 30-plus years, that’s pretty good,” Stoney says. “I’d rather be me than anybody else in this race.”

Several candidates have seized on Stoney’s lack of governing experience as his biggest weakness. They’ve also questioned his motivations for running, implying or outright questioning whether he is interested in the mayoralty solely to pad his resume for later pursuit of higher political office. The stepping-stone criticism grew louder thanks to a gaffe Stoney made in his first candidate forum in June, when he said he would be a “hands-on, visible and transparent governor.” In an interview, Stoney says the mayor’s job won’t be the “capstone” of his career, but that doesn’t mean he won’t fully focus on the needs of the city if elected.

Then there’s Joe Morrissey, the front-runner, according to the CNU poll. The former commonwealth’s attorney and state delegate has taken a keen interest in jabbing Stoney at forums and in the press. Stoney has counterpunched when necessary, but his advisers are reluctant to run a full-blown negative campaign targeting Morrissey for fear it could backfire. They also believe presenting Stoney as a fresh face with a positive vision will ultimately be enough to prevail. Who the front-runner is attacking, not necessarily what he is saying, speaks volumes, Stoney says.

“If folks really, truly believed in what the poll said, then I would never be queried or attacked, right?” he says in an interview. “I think they see what many people in this city see, that we have more of an upside than any of the candidates in the race. We’re the one candidacy that threatens the status quo of the culture that has robbed City Hall for many years of a forward-looking vision.” 


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