The 2016 election will be the fourth since the City of Richmond altered its system of government to make the position of mayor directly elected by voters. This will be just the second genuinely competitive election under the new system, and it is certainly the most unpredictable.

Richmond has seen tremendous change since the 2008 election, including a growing population and a buzzing cultural scene. There is strong consensus that the city is being held back by longstanding challenges that simply must be addressed if Richmond is to reach its potential. These include improving public education, tackling poverty, and improving the efficiency and effectiveness of city government.

This year’s mayoral field includes candidates of diverse background and experience. There are several candidates who have my personal respect and who if elected could bring positive leadership qualities to the city. Voters in Richmond will need to judge carefully concerning which candidate offers both the strongest vision for the city and the greatest prospect for bringing that vision to life.

I have had the opportunity to observe the evolving role of the mayor both from a distance and up close. I believe strongly that the voters acted wisely in creating the position of an elected mayor, and I believe strongly that the mayor can and should play an energetic, active role in setting the agenda and making things happen for Richmond.

I also have experienced firsthand the power and potential of collaboration between different units of government and between city government and residents to take on difficult problems such as poverty. When real collaboration takes place, others want to get on board, from local partners to national funders.

Richmond’s next mayor will need four essential qualities to be successful:

  • The ability to
  • connect and communicate
  • with all city residents;
  • The ability to
  • challenge and change
  • what is wrong within City Hall and follow through on difficult decisions needed to improve city operations;
  • The ability to
  • collaborate
  • with city government’s key public-sector partners, especially Richmond Public Schools, as well as the nonprofit, university, and business sectors, in realizing a
  • common vision
  • . Richmond’s problems are so deep that they cannot be effectively addressed if all oars are not rowing in the same direction; and
  • The ability to
  • champion
  • the city in the regional, statewide and national arenas, to be sure that Richmond gets the resources needed to tackle longstanding problems.

Richmond’s next mayor must demonstrate exceptional leadership in each of these areas, and must articulate and implement a policy agenda that speaks to the city’s most serious needs.

Here it is important to recognize the role of the mayor in Richmond’s system of government. The strength of the elected mayor system is that it ensures that there is one official responsible to the entire city electorate who must be concerned with the welfare of the city as a whole, and must develop and implement policy priorities reflecting the needs of all residents.

The job certainly involves management, but is much more than management. Voters are electing a mayor, not a city manager. By charter, the appointed chief administrative officer (CAO) is responsible for overseeing operations of the entire organization. The role of the elected mayor is to establish policy priorities and hold the CAO accountable for their execution.

This may seem like a modest role for the elected mayor, but it’s not. Richmond has deep and complex needs and problems that are quite different from those facing neighboring localities. Neither small changes nor big changes are likely to be successful if a leader cannot clearly communicate and mobilize support for them in all corners of the city.

Whether the topic is overhauling City Hall, addressing public education, or rallying the community to tackle poverty, Richmond’s next leader must exhibit creativity, courage, determination and tireless energy to successfully drive real change. And he or she also must command respect and support from all corners of the city for that change to be sustainable.

Citizens should be pressing the mayoral field to get specific about policy proposals, as well as specifying how each candidate envisions the working relationships between the mayor and the CAO, the mayor and City Council, and the mayor and Richmond Public Schools. Citizens deserve to know not just the broad priorities of candidates but how specifically those priorities will be acted upon in the next administration. Citizens need to know not only how the next mayor will get City Hall right, but how the next mayor will connect the work of city government to the everyday challenges and problems of residents, many of whom are struggling.

Many of Richmond’s problems run generations deep. In the past decade, however, a newer Richmond has started emerging, a Richmond that wants to cast aside past divisions and step outside the shadow of our painful history to write a new story. While we need the wisdom and knowledge of all generations, we also need the vision and creativity of the emerging Richmond. The 2016 election must be about our city’s future, not its past.

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Thad Williamson, an associate professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond, previously served in city government for two years as director of the Office of Community Wealth Building. He is a volunteer policy adviser to mayoral candidate Levar Stoney. Contact him at


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