It was a day when promise, change and educational equity were supposed to be the featured items on the menu.
But Jason Kamras’ first day as superintendent of Richmond Public Schools — and Mayor Levar Stoney’s high-profile push for a new funding stream for school construction — was upstaged by an email from one of the mayor’s political allies.
The table had been set for Stoney to campaign in earnest to increase the meals tax to 7.5 percent from 6 percent to generate funds for the city’s ramshackle schools. Kamras — with the mayor at his swearing-in ceremony — voiced support for the meals tax increase.
But an unavoidable subtext of Thursday morning’s ceremony was an email that former interim Richmond School Board member Cindy Menz-Erb sent out urging a boycott of Richmond restaurants that did not support the meals tax.
Menz-Erb was appointed to the School Board in March to replace Jeff Bourne, who moved on to the House of Delegates. She was Stoney’s choice to retain the 3rd District seat in the subsequent special election, but she was defeated by Kenya Gibson. The mayor promptly nominated Menz-Erb to serve on a component of his Education Compact.
On Wednesday, Menz-Erb asked the recipients of her email to contact their council representatives and urge them to vote for the meals tax increase. Recipients were asked to “only patronize restaurants who support the meals tax.”
Stoney, in a Facebook post Thursday, acknowledged that his proposal “has generated strong feelings on both sides” but added: “I do NOT support penalizing anyone, or any business, for their beliefs. In fact — I feel the exact opposite. We have an opportunity to rally around our ENTIRE restaurant community to show them that strong restaurants can help us build strong schools.”
Menz-Erb — no surprise here — withdrew from consideration for the compact. But whether she went rogue or not with the boycott idea, the mayor owned at least a portion of the fallout.
Welcome to Richmond, Mr. Superintendent. Just your typical day in River City.
Stoney, our millennial mayor-about-town, is a habitué of some of RVA’s more popular establishments. Moving forward, he may want to hire a food and drink taster.
Or as one social media poster quipped, “I don’t think Levar M. Stoney is going to have the best time dining out in 2018.”
But seriously, folks: A boycott would have been a non-starter. Richmond-area residents love their dining too much. And if restaurateurs were skeptical of the meals tax increase before the email, this blunder promises to harden their resolve.
It’s easy to be skeptical about the mayor’s expressed noninvolvement, and folks on social media were dusting the scene for his fingerprints. How could someone in his circle veer so wildly off-message?
On the other hand, the boycott was such an awful idea that it smacks of political malpractice. What mayor would undermine his own tax base or co-sign a declaration of war on a dining community that’s a major source of civic pride?
Or more to the point, why would he need to?
The condition of Richmond’s school buildings is indisputably deplorable. The more dubious aspects of the facilities fix on the table merit debate. But the fuss over the meals tax increase should be filed under “First World problems.”
The ongoing construction of our bus rapid transit system has damaged restaurants. The sluggish makeover of the 17th Street Farmers’ Market area into a plaza is potentially lethal to some adjacent establishments.
This meals tax increase?
I just don’t see it.
As someone who lives in the ‘burbs, the meals tax represents the closest thing Richmond has to a commuter tax. Most weekdays during lunchtime, I do my bit for the old hometown, with nary a hint of sacrifice.
On more than a few weekends, my wife and I schlep to an eatery in Church Hill, the Fan or Carytown. Never, in our deliberations prior to making a reservation, does the meals tax come up. An extra 75 cents, a buck or $1.50 on our bill will not be a deal breaker.
Let’s be clear: This is a tax on patrons, not restaurants. It’s the most painless and progressive way for a credit-strapped city to raise money without punishing those on the economic margins. It’s a way to get suburbanites — and even visitors from other cities and states — to support the city’s schools.
But that boycott talk was clumsy, at best, and potentially poisonous in changing the hearts and minds of these businesses. And this matter is dangerously close to becoming that most Very Richmond of episodes — the racially polarizing issue.
Surrounded by black restaurateurs, lunching on soul food to the backbeat of Earth Wind & Fire, Marvin Gaye and Erykah Badu, the mayor rightly lamented the racial and socio-economic disparities that plague the city’s educational system. But the stagecraft was a noticeable departure from Stoney’s One Richmond messaging.
“You have been a part of the ascension of Richmond,” he told the half-dozen or so African-American restaurateurs. But despite Richmond’s thriving restaurant scene, “we all know there are some true divides in our city.”
No doubt. We live not in two separate Richmonds, but three: one black, one white, one Latino, separate and unequal to a great extent. Black students in Church Hill attend an appallingly tumbledown George Mason Elementary; Latino students on the South Side inhabit a teeming Greene Elementary campus dotted with modular units.
If any issue requires a One Richmond response, this one does. It would be a shame if it pitted black restaurateurs against white restaurateurs.
Yes, Richmond’s largely impoverished school district is 88 percent minority. But the school district’s facilities and its academic performance will not be enhanced without everyone buying in. And RVA will thrive only to the extent Richmond’s schools also become something we can brag about.
The meals tax increase represents one step RVA can take to help the Richmond that lags behind.