Candidates for Charlottesville City Council responded to a number of questions during a debate held last Wednesday evening at the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center. The forum was also hosted by the center and moderated by Andi Copeland-Whitsett.
Democrats Heather Hill and Amy Laufer and independents John Edward Hall, Kenneth Jackson, Paul Long and Nikuyah Walker are running for two open seats on City Council. Each candidate was allowed two minutes for an opening statement followed by a set of four questions from the center.
The candidates were asked questions by Copeland-Whitsett concerning the agenda of the current City Council, affordability and accessibility in the Downtown area and the development of a racially diverse middle class in Charlottesville.
On the agenda of the City Council, Copeland-Whitsett asked the candidates if the body had been taken over by populism in recent months. In the context of the City Council, she defined populism as influence by the loudest and most prominent voices expressing their views on an issue.
“We need to be able to create an environment where we can have a dialogue,” Hill said. “It's not just one way, it's both talking and listening to each other. We also have to be patient and understand that some people’s perspectives are going to be different than ours and if we’re not able to recognize that or we're just going to shut them out, we’re really not going to learn.”
Hill also claimed the current Council environment was not representative of the Charlottesville community as a whole in its policy development.
“The way we are right now in our current Council setting specifically, we are an enabling an environment that's not going to allow for the broader set of voices to be heard and they're not going to be making decisions for the broader community,” she said.
“What you have is people who haven't received any answers from our local government,” Walker said. “You have a lot of people who are asking questions who were on the frontline in July, in May, August, last week and we have a government that did not protect them, at the local and state level, and they have a lot of questions that haven't been answered.”
Walker asked audience members to consider challenging the status quo of Charlottesville on Election Day, which is Nov. 7.
“I hope that you all actually head out to the polls on November 7 and that you all really decide whether you want a community as it has been or you are willing to challenge the status quo, challenge where we've been and really have some difficult conversations that we as a community have not had,” Walker said.
Laufer said she was concerned that the policy initiatives being brought forth to the Council by a small group of participants were not representative of the Charlottesville community.
“I don't know if its the majority of our community that's suggesting the policies that they are bringing to them,” Laufer said. “That's something I think we should really think about, especially with all the events of this summer that have really highlighted a lot of the issues that we've been facing for decades.”
“We have these very vocal groups that are bringing up very valid concerns, and if we could meet with them outside of city council, this is when we could create real solutions to these real issues,” Laufer added.
Copeland-Whitsett also asked the candidates how they would address problems of affordability and accessibility on the Downtown Mall and racial economic inequality in Charlottesville.
In response, Jackson said the question was framed incorrectly as it only focused on race rather than poverty in general.
“As a councilor, or anyone in government, you can't do something just for color,” Jackson said. “If you were to ask me what would I do for poor people, then we would put real programs into effect … and that would help us pick the lower income up.”
“You're asking me a loaded question, and I’m just as black as anyone else, but let's understand what I do would have to be based on economics,” Jackson added. “Whether they're black, brown, white or purple, that's what we need to do, we need to pick people up and help them succeed.”
Jackson also said poverty crosses racial lines in Charlottesville and it must be addressed as such.
“Am I going to give taxpayer money to just one segment?” Jackson said. “No, I think we need to lift up our low incomes all over the city and there a lot of neighborhoods that fall into that criteria and not all of them are predominantly black.”
Hill stressed the importance of supporting minority communities in the city as a means of helping them deal with the inequality its residents face.
“I've been looking at our minority communities, we need to make sure that we're supporting them with mentoring,” Hill said. “Whatever support system we need to put in place so people aren't feeling on their own, depending on the support they are getting at home or not.”
Walker said the Charlottesville community must openly acknowledge the racial injustices it has committed in order to address issues such as poverty and economic inequality.
“As a community, if we cannot commit to that introspection, we are not going to be able to move forward,” Walker said. “We need diversity in leadership and we need diversity within our school system, it's going to take such an individualized program to get individuals affected by generational poverty out of the pits of poverty.”
Long said the African-American community requires special attention to remedy economic inequality but identified a need to address poverty across racial lines.
“I believe in programs that will uplift people who are in generational poverty to give them the skills and tools that they can continue in school,” Long said. “The black community needs special attention because its been systematically oppressed … but trying to uplift people out of poverty should be uplifting everybody that's in poverty and giving them the skills they need to get out of poverty.”
Long also mentioned the need to allocate more land to affordable housing in Charlottesville.
“I believe that every piece of land we have in Charlottesville should be devoted to affordable housing,” Long said. “We need apartments that are renting for 500 dollars a month … for people that can pay those kinds of rent.”
Hall said there is a need for job training across racial lines and an increase in the minimum wage.
“Job-training is good no matter what the color of your skin,” Hall said. “Employers need to be considered in the answer [and] money from City Council subsidies could help employers provide good jobs and a living wage. I favor a living wage to be paid to a worker of 12 dollars an hour.”
Elections for Charlottesville City Council — along with other statewide offices in Virginia including governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general — will be held Nov. 7. The deadline to register or update voter registration has passed but registered voters can request absentee ballots until Oct. 31.