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Profile: Mayor Stoney sees Richmond as a city “ready to turn the page”

Mayor Levar Stoney keeps a small ceramic turtle on his desk. “Good leaders stick their necks out in a time of crisis,” he said. Stoney, 36, has been sticking out his neck for years – as the first in his family to attend college, as the youngest member of Governor Terry McAuliffe’s administration and the first African-American to serve as secretary of the commonwealth, and now as mayor of Virginia’s capital.

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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.”

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Senate advances bill allowing transgender people to change birth certificate

The Senate passed a bill earlier this week that would allow a person who changed their sex to have a new birth certificate issued, something that the transgender community said will help eliminate problems experienced when their legal identification doesn’t match their transition.

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By Rodney Robinson

The Senate passed a bill earlier this week that would allow a person who changed their sex to have a new birth certificate issued, something that the transgender community said will help eliminate problems experienced when their legal identification doesn’t match their transition.

Senate Bill 657 would allow a person to receive a new birth certificate to reflect a change of sex, without the requirement of surgery. The individual seeking a new birth certificate also may list a new name if they provide a certified copy of a court order of the name change.

“I just think it’s important to try to make life easier for people without being discriminated [against] or bullied,” said Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax. “Allowing an individual who is transgender to change their birth certificate without having to go through the full surgery allows them to live the life that they are due to have.”

The bill requires proof from a health care provider that the individual went through “clinically appropriate treatment for gender transition.” The assessment and treatment, according to Boysko’s office, is up to the medical provider. There is not a specific standard approach for an individual’s transition. Treatment could include any of the following: counseling, hormone therapy, sex reassignment surgery, or a patient-specific approach from the medical provider.

A similar process is required to obtain a passport after a change of sex, according to the State Department.

Once the paperwork is complete, it is submitted to the Virginia Department of Health vital records department, Boysko said.

Boysko said her constituents have reported issues when they need to show legal documents in situations like leasing apartments, opening a bank account or applying for jobs.

This is the third year that Boysko has introduced the bill. Neither bill made it out of subcommittee in previous years, but Boysko believes the bill has a better chance of becoming law this year.

“I believe that we have a more open and accepting General Assembly then we’ve had in the past, where people are more comfortable working with the LGBTQ community and have expressed more of an interest in addressing some of these long-overdue changes,” Boysko said.

Vee Lamneck, executive director of Equality Virginia, a group that advocates for LGBTQ equality, said the organization is “really pleased that this bill is moving through.”

“This bill is really important for the transgender community,” Lamneck said. “Right now many transgendered people do not have identity documents … this is really problematic when people apply for jobs or try to open a bank account.”

There are 22 other states in America that have adopted legislation similar to this, including the District of Columbia, Boysko said. The senator said that “it’s time for Virginia to move forward and be the 23rd state.”

The Senate also passed Tuesday Boysko’s bill requiring the Department of Education to develop policies concerning the treatment of transgender students in public elementary and secondary schools, along with bill outlawing conversion therapy with any person under 18 years of age.

The bills now advance to the House, where they must pass before heading to the governor’s desk.

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Voices from Richmond’s Hidden Epidemic Opens

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From the Valentine:

Voices from Richmond’s Hidden Epidemic, a new exhibition opening on January 23, will feature oral histories and black-and-white photographic portraits, focusing on the personal stories of those affected by HIV/AIDS in Richmond.

Richmond’s rate of HIV infection, currently ranked 19thnationally, is exacerbated by high concentrations of poverty, lack of sex education in public schools and the continuing opioid epidemic. Despite years of medical and social progress, misconceptions about HIV/AIDS persist today.

While Americans on average have a one-in-99 chance of contracting HIV over the course of their lifetime, the odds for a gay black man are one in two. Black women have a rate of HIV infection 17.6 times that of white women. In fact, in Richmond, women make up a quarter of new HIV diagnoses.

Laura Browder and Patricia Herrera, both professors at the University of Richmond, collected 30 oral histories in an effort to put faces to these surprising statistics.

“The process has transformed our understanding not only of the epidemic, but more broadly of the way people can turn what one assumes to be a life-destroying event into an opportunity for making change,” said Herrera.“Many of the people we met lived lives charged with purpose—including, most urgently, to prevent others from becoming infected with the virus.”

“Most people outside of the public health community think that HIV is a disease that primarily affects gay, white men. We learned how far from the reality that is,” Browder continued. “The people represented in the exhibition include great-grandmothers, undocumented immigrants, college professors, church deacons and transgendered people. They include public health officials, HIV educators, medical providers, activists, and those who have lost loved ones to HIV.”

Local photographer Michael Simon produced the black-and-white portraits that communicate share the trials and triumphs of each person featured in Voices.

Rodney Lofton, August 2018 – Photographed by Michael Simon for the Voices from Richmond’s Hidden Epidemic

“These stories and these portraits are important to all of us,” said Simon. “These people are members of our community. They are friends and family and we need to remember that we are all in this fight together.”

 

“Featuring the powerful oral histories collected by Laura and Patricia and Michael’s phenomenal photography, we hope this exhibition contributes to an important ongoing discussion about the true impact of HIV/AIDS on the Richmond community,” Valentine Director Bill Martin said. 

 

In coordination with the exhibition opening, Nationz Foundation, a local non-profit providing education, information and programming related to HIV, will be conducting free on-site HIV testing noon to 4 p. m. on Thursday, January 23 at the Valentine.

 

“Nationz Foundation is excited to partner with the Valentine Museum during the Voices exhibit!” said Nationz Foundation Executive Director Zakia McKensey. “It is extremely important to get tested. Knowing your status is one sure way to prevent the spread of the infection. We will be on site providing Rapid HIV testing for free, so please stop by and get your results in 60 seconds.”

 

Voices from Richmond’s Hidden Epidemic will be on display through May 25, 2020.

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ReRunner Clothing Drive at Quirk

A chance to help others and declutter your closet all this week at Quirk.

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The good folks at Quirk Hotel (201 W Broad Street) are hosting a clothing drive this week.

From Jan. 20-26, people can drop off their gently used clothing and shoes to the Quirk hotel lobby, and they will get 10% discount at Maple & Pine and ReRunner. As an added bonus tonight Wednesday, January 22nd, from 4-6 pm there will be a Happy Hour at Quirk for people to drop off clothes, mingle and a portion of drinks will go to benefit Goodwill.

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