At least in political circles, Levar Stoney’s plan to run for mayor was one of the worst-kept secrets in Richmond for the better part of a year.
Now that his campaign is well underway, Stoney says it’s hard to pin down the precise moment he decided he would seek office. But he says he knows what motivated him to make the leap.
“This is a city where a quarter of its residents live under the poverty line,” said Stoney, who lives downtown.
“I started to see some of the infrastructure failures, whether it’s the streets or the schools, and I’ve always been one of those guys who’s been like, ‘You know what, either you’re going to complain about it or you’re going to jump in the arena.’”
Stoney has worked in politics since graduating from James Madison University in 2004 and moving to Richmond to work as a fellow in Gov. Mark R. Warner’s office.
He worked on a handful of Democratic campaigns, including R. Creigh Deeds’ run for governor in 2009. From 2006 to 2009, he worked for the state party as political director and then executive director.
At this point, Stoney perhaps is best known for his work with Gov. Terry McAuliffe, for whom Stoney served as an adviser since 2010 and deputy campaign manager during the 2013 gubernatorial election.
After his election, McAuliffe appointed Stoney to be his secretary of the commonwealth, a position responsible for making appointments to hundreds of state boards and commissions. Stoney was the first African-American to serve in the role.
His appointment briefly drew scrutiny when House Republicans questioned an incident in Wisconsin in which Stoney lied to police about Democratic Party interns and volunteers who had slashed the tires of a GOP campaign van. At the time, Stoney acknowledged the incident and called it a mistake.
Outside of political circles, the secretary of the commonwealth isn’t exactly a well-known position, though Stoney and McAuliffe made news just as Stoney was stepping down to run for mayor by issuing a blanket restoration of voting rights to about 206,000 felons.
The action has drawn criticism from state Republicans and some prosecutors, but Stoney defends the action as the “right thing to do.”
How does a longtime, behind-the-scenes operative parlay that experience into running a city?
Stoney said the rights restoration shows he has the conviction necessary to take on a huge, important task.
“When I look at City Hall, I see a place that is in need of a person that is going to motivate from the top down, inspire from the top down, and get the job done,” he said.
“I think what some people miss is this election is a whole lot more about who can transform the city than just qualifications. When I was executive director of the Democratic Party, I recruited, hired and managed a team of nearly 100 people. We got President Obama elected in 2008. I think that’s management experience right there.”
As mayor, Stoney said his first act would be to perform a comprehensive performance review and audit of all city departments.
“I want to see who the top performers are and who are the underperformers,” he said.
On Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ proposal to raise the city’s debt ceiling, he said he supports the concept but would not consider raising taxes — a step the city’s financial adviser has said is necessary to pay off any additional debt — unless every other option is exhausted.
“Have we fought for our fair share from state government?” he said. “Have we teamed up with the federal government to bring dollars back to Richmond and, number three, have we gone out and found those philanthropic dollars ... to help augment our current financial situation?”