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Progressive Candidates Challenging Establishment in Richmond

Campaign signs local candidates in front of the new Richmond General Registrar's Office.
FILE PHOTO: Campaign signs local candidates in front of the new Richmond General Registrar's Office. (Crixell Matthews/VPM)

The roster of people running for office in Richmond feature more young, progressive candidates than in years past. And some of these progressive candidates — Allan-Charles Chipman in the 6th District, Joseph Rogers in 7th District, Amy Wentz in the 8th District — are challenging long-time incumbents with extensive political networks. 

Roberto Roldan recently sat down with Rich Meagher, a political science professor at Randolph-Macon College, to talk about the rise of progressive candidates and voters in Richmond, and how they’re changing local politics.

Roldan: “So, looking around at the candidates in Richmond this year, there seems to be this undercurrent of support for younger candidates who are really putting progressive values, things like low-income housing, access to public transit, at the forefront of their campaigns. Is this something you’ve picked up on?”

Meagher: “Yeah, it seems like there's a new progressive class, really a progressive political class growing in Richmond. They are younger. They're part of the kind of influx of young professionals into the city. And this is part of a change in urban living in general, that young folks, particularly progressives, have embraced urban living, but they want kind of progressive policies to go with it. So more funding for transit, they're concerned with racial equity. And of course, all of that has been framed recently by the social unrest related to George Floyd and all the events that followed that.”

Roldan: “And many of these candidates come from these relatively new, grassroots activists groups. Can you tell me a bit about these organizations and how they’re getting involved in local politics?"

Meagher: “Yeah, so Richmond For All is a big one in Richmond. That has a few people behind it that've tried to work in multiracial coalitions to try to embrace young candidates who have a change agenda. And one of the things that signals is a challenge to existing institutions, older institutions. In Richmond, particularly the Crusade For Voters, the NAACP, the Democratic Party, these are older organizations that have become firmly entrenched in the establishment. And I think the newer folks to the city are looking to dislodge some of the powerful politicians [and institutions] who've been in place among the city's leaders.”

Roldan: “And policy-wise, how effective have young progressive activists been in influencing Richmond politics so far?” 

Meagher: “Just going back to the example of Richmond For All, they really arose out of the Navy Hill development and organized people around opposing that. I think they want a huge victory. I think they were a huge factor in why that was eventually defeated, that development proposal. In the past year, they have transitioned to support candidates in local races, and not without some tensions within their own organization. They've had some trouble kind of putting down tensions or dissent among members of their organization who feel like they should be still more involved in grassroots advocacy and issue organizing and direct support. And that's a question that a lot of political organizations face, particularly as they grow. I think that part of how that shakes out will be how successful these young progressive candidates are, this go round.”

Roldan: “What are the electoral prospects for these progressive candidates in Richmond?”

Meagher: “Certainly, the quarantine and the protests have made politics just generally uncertain. But even if we didn't have the quarantine, even if we didn't have the unrest of this past year, I think this challenge would still be out there, these new progressive organizations, these new institutions. So the question is: How big is their voter base? How much does this interest in progressive politics translate into electoral activity?”

Roldan: “And what about the rest of the state? Are we seeing more progressive candidates running for state or local office outside of Richmond?”

Meagher: “It's not just in Richmond, it's not just in cities in Virginia. It's a national trend that goes along with the changing nature of cities in this country. It used to be the divide was city vs. suburb, now the divide is city and suburb vs. rural areas. So, I think in areas that are not rural in this country, we're seeing more and more progressive candidates. We're seeing more interest in progressive-style policies. And that isn't going to change anytime soon, no matter what the outcome of this particular election, either here in Richmond or elsewhere.”


Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the name of 7th District candidate Joseph Rogers.

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