Norfolk votes on May 3 for a new Mayor, members of City Council, and for the first time in our history, an elected school board.
It’s a consequential election, and when deciding which candidates to support, I’m looking for several qualifications: a commitment to transparency, a vision for Norfolk that embraces our strengths and plans for a resilient city in the face of rising sea levels, a commitment to make decisions independently and in the best interests of the whole city, and an understanding of what makes Norfolk unique and special.
I want to support candidates who are creative leaders, not cautious followers.
It’s difficult to overstate the impact Paul Fraim has had on Norfolk in the 22 years he has been mayor. He’s the first mayor of Norfolk elected directly by voters. He’s presided over a renewal of Downtown Norfolk and East Beach, among other neighborhoods. His supporters argue that his time as mayor has secured economic expansion for Norfolk beyond our city’s reliance on the military. Opponents say that under his leadership, the city’s governance has often been opaque and favored business and development interests. In any case, he has won reelection by large margins in the past and will be remembered as a pivotal leader in our city’s history.
Fraim’s departure, though, opens up a window for discussion about Norfolk’s future. It’s overly simple to say that things have changed since he was first elected mayor in 1994, but it’s essential that we come to the polls on May 3 not just reflecting on what we’ve accomplished, but on who is most qualified to take us forward into a quickly changing world.
While the Fraim years were indisputably ones of growth and development in much of the city (though not all), it’s short-sighted to expect that the same formula that’s ridden the wave of economic expansion in America since 1994 will continue through the next 22 years, or even the next four. We need leadership that imagines possibilities beyond the next hail-mary recruiting of a mid-size corporate headquarters or construction of a convention hotel in Downtown. And we need leadership that is strongly committed to those possibilities in parts of our city that are not Downtown, Ghent, East Beach, or a few other neighborhoods here and there.
We need leadership that is willing to put Norfolk’s homegrown businesses ahead of out-of-town competitors by offering incentives and creative solutions wherever possible—and this extends beyond rubber-stamping the latest strip mall or subdivision plan offered even by local developers. Our council and mayor should be out ahead of these plans, working with neighborhoods and developers to build what Norfolk’s citizens need and want, not just what is going to generate the highest return for the developer. This means knowing every intersection in their district, block captains in every civic league, leaders of conservation and environmental groups and religious communities, and as many members of the public at large as possible. It means actively selling best-case projects to development partners instead of playing catch-as-catch-can on mediocre project after mediocre project.
When the city council tells citizens that they have to settle for another lackluster development plan or huge payout to a corporate interest because that’s what has been brought before the council, what they’re telling you is that they’ve settled for it, and you should just accept the crumbs you’re getting. Norfolk deserves better than crumbs, and any public official who tells us otherwise has sold our city short and forgotten who they work for. We need leaders whose circle is wider than their own professional association or their yacht club.
We need leaders who are going to spend as much time and effort and money growing our local businesses as they do courting business from outside. We need leaders who understand that what Norfolk needs is not another homogeneous strip mall row or chain restaurant or big box store, but a full palette of resources that favors local business owners and helps them paint their dreams on Norfolk’s canvas. It should be open and geared towards everyone, from manufacturing and media corporations on down to micro-enterprises running out of your aunt’s craft room. Our people are a huge part of what makes Norfolk unique, and we need leaders who put their empowerment at the top of their priority list.
We need leaders who don’t look back at the last 22 years and see nothing but a period of unbroken success. There have been wins to be sure. But those accomplishments have not fixed our schools, they haven’t resulted in parks and recreation facilities that approach our needs, and they haven’t been shared by every neighborhood equally.
In recent years, the nature of the agreements between the city and its partners has become less and less transparent. We need leaders who insist on active oversight and full public disclosure at the outset, not just as an afterthought (or sometimes a “neverthought”). We need leaders who seek out citizen input first, not simply as a de rigueur exercise required at the end of the process. And these leaders need to keep their partners accountable, not let, say, Waterside sit empty for 3 years.
And when it comes to flooding, sea level rise, climate change, whatever you want to call it, the time for Norfolk to simply pretend like it doesn’t exist has passed. We’ve made some progress recently, but it’s still halting and bears all the hallmarks of token effort. Neighborhoods need permanent notices of possible flood locations. Roads that routinely become impassible during high tide or heavy rain need active signals to warn motorists against using them. Homeowners need property tax incentives to take action to maximize resilience. We need tide gates, and we need to start making hard decisions about neighborhoods prone to flooding. As a city, we need to stop nervously eying the rising water and start actually doing something about it. This year it’s in our streets. In five years, it may be in our yards; in ten, our living rooms.
We’re lucky in this election, because we have several candidates who are already thinking about these things and ready to take Norfolk forward. You should vote for them—I will be. We also have a few who are not, who are content mumbling their way through city council meetings to avoid exposing their naked support for business interest over citizens, who devalue our political process by creating an environment where new ideas and public input and engagement are unwelcome nuisances, or whose main priority is to keep doing business in Norfolk as it’s been done for the last two decades—don’t vote for these candidates. Norfolk deserves a government that knows it’s working for the voters.
And most importantly, Norfolk’s voters need to have the self-regard and seriousness of purpose to accept their responsibilities as owners of this city. That means going to candidate forums and events over the next week. That means showing up to vote on May 3. That means being in regular communication with your city council member and your mayor. That means going to planning commission and city council meetings and speaking your mind. That means volunteering for city commissions and being active in your civic league. We can make demands on our public officials, but if we’re not doing our part, we might as well just be yelling at the TV. When we elect our city leaders, we’re asking our friends and neighbors to take the responsibility of acting on our behalf—we owe it to them to tell them what we’re thinking so they can make the best decisions for the city we all live in.