In what is expected to be their final forum all together before the election Nov. 7, the candidates for Charlottesville City Council discussed the recent series of protests at council meetings, lifting up low-income residents and affordability issues.
Hosted by the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, about 100 people were in attendance at Wednesday’s forum, which was titled “Last Word.”
At the start of the forum, several candidates revealed their thoughts about the recent protests after they were asked about the perception that there’s a “populist agenda” that’s taken hold of the council.
Democrat Heather Hill, president of the North Downtown Residents Association and a business consultant, said she’s “concerned about the dynamics” at recent meetings. She said she thinks the voices of people she’s met in their homes while campaigning for office are not being heard.
“It’s been very fulfilling to hear those voices, and I’m saddened that those voices are not being heard in the room. And they’re not going to be heard until we are able to make an environment ... where we can have a dialogue,” she said.
“We also have to be patient and understand that some people’s perspectives are going to be different than ours. If we’re not able to recognize those differences, or if we’re going to shut them out, we’re really not going to learn.”
Nikuyah Walker, a social justice activist running as an independent, acknowledged that she took part in one of the recent protests.
Walker said she thinks the protests are justified because constituents are not getting answers to questions about police operations and government decisions before, during and after the white nationalist rally in August.
“They are choosing to express themselves. … I was on Fourth Street, and a lot of those people were down there. That car could have hit any of us,” she said.
“If you expect people to go into a room and expect business-as-usual without going through the stages of grief, that’s unacceptable,” she said about the first council meeting that was held after the Aug. 12 rally.
Walker said she thinks the lack of accountability following the event is reflective of a status quo that some constituents are no longer willing to accept.
Paul Long, an independent candidate who retired several years ago after working for the University of Virginia Medical Center as a patient transporter, didn’t agree with using the term “populism” to describe the council’s agenda.
“I understand populism being the Democratic Party of 50 years ago,” Long said.
“There’s a reason the Republican Party is not running candidates for City Council. It’s because the current City Council is the junior league of the Republican Party,” he said. “You just have to look around town and see all the big businesses and development.”
The candidates also were asked about what they plan to do help develop a strong middle class, particularly in the “black and brown” minority communities.
Hill and her Democratic counterpart, Amy Laufer, both said they think that improving access to early education could be critical.
Laufer, a member of the city School Board, said she also would like to improve the city’s Growing Opportunities job training program so that more adults with disabilities can enroll.
“There are so many programs that we can be implementing within our 10 square miles to help these people find real employment that provides a living wage,” she said. “We can be helping them to find jobs.”
Independent candidate Kenny Jackson, who ran for council as a Republican in 2004, took exception to being asked how to help a particular racial group, saying he would rather focus on simply helping low-income people regardless of their skin color.
John Hall, another independent candidate, also agreed that the city should focus on economics rather than race.
“Job training is good no matter the color of your skin,” he said. “More money from city subsidies could help employers provide jobs” with a wage of at least $12 per hour.
Addressing questions about people’s ability to access to local businesses and commercial centers, be it physical or environmental impediments or affordability, Jackson and Walker questioned some of the development plans underway in the city.
“The Paramount Theater is expensive,” Jackson said. “Tickets there are worth two days of groceries. How are you going to get someone from Garrett Square there when we can’t really afford it?”
Alluding to the city’s Comprehensive Plan, Jackson questioned whether some candidates will simply support the status quo.
“I’m wondering how many of them are going to follow through,” he said. “It’s already in the works. But that’s the first thing we need to look at. Are we going to include everyone in this area, or just a chosen few?”
Walker said she believes long-range development plans need to be discussed publicly more and that there needs to be action taken to alter some existing plans.
“I’m interested in learning about these projects, like the ones that have been going up around places like West Main Street, to see if there’s any way to halt some of that progress that’s not benefiting the community,” she said.