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Upstart vs Incumbent in City Council’s Most Expensive Race

profile photos of amy wentz and reva trammell
Eighth District Richmond City Council candidate Amy Wentz (left) and Council Member Reva Trammell (right). (Courtesy of the Campaigns)

Reva Trammell has become synonymous with Richmond’s 8th District, whether people like her or not. 

The City Council member has survived numerous political scandals, most recently being caught with racist memorabilia in her home, to represent the 8th District for 18 of the last 22 years. She’s held the seat for 13 years straight after beating Jackie Jackson in 2006. 

This time around though, Trammell faces one of her most difficult electoral challenges yet. Army veteran and BLK RVA founder Amy Wentz has forgone traditional campaign schedules, spending nearly two years running to represent the 8th. She’s campaigned so much that many people know her as ‘Amy in the 8th.’

“It’s been a long process and I definitely don’t recommend it, but I understood that if I was even going to be able to have a chance I had to do it,” Wentz said. “I knew I was going to need two years to raise even a percentage of what she’s raised.”

Trammell’s long-standing relationships in the district and Wentz’s marathon campaign have made the 8th District race the most expensive council race this year. Combined, they’ve raised more than $175,000 in donations since 2019. In the next most expensive race, the open 3rd District seat in Northside, three candidates have only raised roughly $110,000.

Wentz’s campaign has generated a lot of grassroots interest from people in and outside of the district. She’s received 922 donations under $100, more than ten times the number of small donations Trammell has. Wentz only trails Trammell by about $10,000, raising $83,000 and $93,000 respectively. Reggie Ford, who’s also running in the 8th District, has raised $3,400.

Many of Wentz’s bigger donors are local Black activists and scholars like Free Eugefemi with Untold RVA and Enjoli Moon, founder of the Afrikana Independent Film Festival. Her biggest donor is Shane Emmett, an entrepreneur-in-residence at the University of Richmond and former CEO of a health bar company. Wentz said Emmett held events where he matched smaller donations.

Trammell, meanwhile, has received the majority of her donations from large cash contributions. Among her big donors were well-known businesses and institutions in Richmond: $6,000 associated with Smith Iron & Metal Co., $4,000 from the Tobacco Company restaurant and $1,250 from the Richmond Association of Realtors. She’s raised more than $38,000 from individuals in the real estate and construction industry since 2019, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

Her largest donor is the homebuilder Coalson Enterprises, Inc., which has donated $10,500 to Trammell and her campaign committee since 2019. Jennifer Coalson, a co-owner of the business, personally donated another $2,500. Trammell demanded an investigation earlier this year on behalf of Coalson Enterprises, claiming the city has illegally denied them permits to build a new development in the 8th District. 

Rich Meagher, an associate professor at Randolph-Macon College focused on state and local politics, said real estate developers and landlords dominate local political donations nationwide.

“Local politics is really just about land use,” he said. “It’s the thing that’s most under control of a local government. Developers become really powerful voices because they have such financial interests.”

Both Wentz and Trammell, who did not respond to requests for an interview, have also picked up gubernatorial endorsements this year: Governor Ralph Northam recently endorsed Wentz, and former Governor L. Douglas Wilder has endorsed Trammell.

But Meagher said Trammell’s institutional support shouldn’t be construed as a lack of support from everyday voters. He said Trammell is a master of ‘retail politics,’ something Wentz also admits.

“Reva famously has no internet or computer, but she gives her cell phone out to everybody,” Meagher said. “If you’re the people that she knows, you can always get Reva on the phone and you always see her around. It’s this old school ‘When you’re in with Reva, then you’re in with Reva for life.’”

It’s this die-hard base of support that Wentz has had to fight against for the two years she’s campaigned in the 8th District. 

Her message: What’s changed in Southside since Reva’s first term in the late ‘90s?

“I think I’m the first candidate to just make that plain, to say look: I graduated from high school in 1997, y’all. She’s been in office this whole time and just look around. We’re at the top of the list for evictions, we’re at the top of the list for heat-related illness, we’re at the top of the list for the lowest amount of access to healthy food,” Wentz said.

Over the last two years, she said she’s also tried to be a constant presence in the district and create a platform that focuses on elevating the district’s mostly working-class residents. Wentz’s campaign has focused on issues like education, infrastructure improvements and encouraging equitable development — a platform that speaks to resident needs and a growing progressive movement of young people in Richmond.

Meagher said the key question in the 8th District race as Election Day approaches is whether Wentz’s reliance on small contributions and accessibility to residents will be enough to unseat one of Richmond’s most entrenched incumbents.

“You’ve got the bigger number of smaller contributions, you’ve got this kind of wave of progressive support, but are there enough people in that district to vote for you that will overcome the number of core supporters who will vote for Reva Trammell no matter what she does,” he said.

 

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