By Sophia Belletti
Behind the name plaque on Mayor Levar Stoney’s desk sits a small ceramic turtle only he can see.
It was a gift from the former acting president of Virginia Union University, Joe Johnson, who told Stoney, “You know the only animal that sticks its neck out? A turtle.”
When the mayor sees the tortoise-colored shell, it reminds him what makes a strong politician. “Good leaders stick their necks out in a time of crisis,” he said.
Stoney has been sticking out his neck for years. The 36-year-old mayor is familiar with overcoming adversity and carrying what often is the burden of being a “first.”
He was the first in his family to attend college. In 2004, he graduated from James Madison University, where he was the first African-American man elected president of the student government. He was the youngest member of Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration; from 2014 through 2016, Stoney was secretary of the commonwealth, the first African-American to serve in that role.
On Dec. 31, 2016, at age 35, Stoney became Richmond’s youngest elected mayor.
“It would be shocking if someone from our generation wasn’t at the helm of a city that’s on the rise like Richmond,” Stoney said. “I think in 2016, folks made it very clear they’re ready to turn the page and ready to embrace that we’re a city on the rise.”
During his first six months in office, Stoney joined the national conversation of what to do with Confederate statues. Last June, he formed a commission of 10 academics, historians, and community leaders and charged them with “adding context” to the Confederate statues lining Monument Avenue.
Since then, there have been protests in Richmond over the future of Monument Avenue. The city has spent more than $500,000 on security at such demonstrations. On Sunday on the CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes,” Stoney said he wants the statues taken down.
“It is, for me, the greatest example of nostalgia masquerading as – as history,” Stoney said on the program.
Stoney recently stuck his neck out again by proposing an increase in Richmond’s meals tax to fund improvements to the city’s schools. A divided City Council approved the idea in February, but some Richmond residents have opposed the issue.
“We knew [the response] was going to be a mixed bag at the end of the day,” Stoney said. “It can also mean strong restaurants and strong schools, too, and there are restaurant owners who agree with us on that, and I told them I’m going to continue to be a champion for our restaurant scene here in the city.”
Jim Nolan, the mayor’s press secretary, said Stoney was motivated by the dilapidated condition of school facilities in Richmond.
“Some of these conditions in these schools are horrible, and the mayor visited every school last year, so he’s seen firsthand the conditions of these schools,” Nolan said.
He said half of the people who would be paying the higher meals tax don’t reside in the city and 30 percent of them live 50 miles away.
Those arguments have not persuaded Jake Crocker, co-owner of city eateries F.W. Sullivan’s, Lady N’awlins and Uptown Market & Deli. In a written interview, he said that because most of the restaurants that drove the city’s resurgence are small, locally owned businesses, the city government should adopt a progressive stance.
“Richmond already had one of the highest tax rates in the country among medium to large cities,” Crocker wrote. “At the current 11.3% combined state and city sales tax, you’re already taxed more to eat and drink in RVA than you are in New York City and San Francisco.
“The recently passed 1.5% increase pushes the tax to 12.8%, creating a barrier for people eating out and a competitive disadvantage with the surrounding counties, that have lesser or no meals taxes at all, and VCU [Virginia Commonwealth University] campus chain restaurants, which are tax-exempt because they’re on state property.”
Councilman Andreas Addison of the 1st Voter District originally came out against the tax because he felt the School Board’s plan was not complete and that the board would need more money than the tax would provide.
In general, Addison said, he is against tax increases. However, he said Richmond has never taken action on the issue of its public schools. When it came down to the final vote, Addison voted in favor of the tax.
“As I learned more about the situation and process, I realized we have never funded school facility needs, ever, in our budget,” Addison said. “Looking at the historical change, I realized something had to change.”
Overall, Addison said that he enjoys working with the Stoney administration more than with previous mayoral administrations and that the mayor has done well considering the circumstances he inherited.
“He came in with a lot of decisions from previous administrations that never really took care of the issue,” Addison said. “He’s done a good job given what he’s had to tackle. He’s put together a good approach in terms of putting his priorities out there. I love the fact he’s very present and vocal.”
The mayor learned to set priorities at a young age.
Stoney was born in Nassau County on New York’s Long Island but shortly thereafter moved to Hampton Roads. He described growing up as a situation “where you knew we didn’t have a lot, but you knew everything was always going to be OK.”
As a child, he handled his grandmother’s finances. He was the one who would call the bank and check how much money was in the account toward the end of the month.
“When you call on a Monday and you have to get through to a Saturday and find out all you have is $60 left in the account, the adults were very, very creative around me,” Stoney said.
Stoney said one of the most memorable moments during his first year in office was creating a partnership with Richmond Public Schools and a couple of nonprofits to ensure that 20,000 children will have access to vision screenings and receive glasses if needed.
He said a young woman who attended the screening with her 7-year-old son found out her son had been blind in one eye for nearly seven years. That day, the child left with a pair glasses.
“I almost got emotional right there on the spot. That’s why we do what we do here; that’s why I got into public service – to ensure children like that get a fair shot. It was something as small as him not having a pair of glasses that was holding him back,” Stoney said.
“The kids can’t wait.”