By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Residents of Portsmouth are experiencing one of the most emotional and intense races for mayor and city council in decades. Six candidates, including the incumbent Mayor Kenneth I. Wright are running for mayor. There are only three seats on the City Council this election year, but there are 10 people seeking to grab one of them including, one incumbent, Elizabeth Psimas, who is the current Vice Mayor.
Questions facing the city’s public housing authority, its public schools, the level of public safety and economic development are key issues facing the voters and the candidates seeking to guide the city forward. Ongoing squabbles and back-biting among council members and city officials have been played out in the mainstream media which may account for the large number of contenders this fall.
Portsmouth currently is the largest majority Black city in Hampton Roads, giving the political and budgetary power from the traditional White power structure to African-Americans.
Mayor Wright says, despite the hostilities driven by this reality, which he constantly reminds voters who support him, that he has a good chance to retain his seat.
Wright has been running a non-stop campaign for the past year, seeking to overcome the negative media reports and his critics.
The five contenders for Wright’s job are businessman Shannon Glover, H. Cliff Page, Barry Randall, former city manager John L. Rowe. Jr. and James Sturdevant. “I think we have a good chance to continue our good work of moving this city forward,” said Wright, in his second term as mayor. “Meanwhile you have the majority media and others talking about the negative. But I think the voters, White and Black, will make the right decision to keep the city moving in the right direction.”
During his campaigning, Wright has touted the city’s AAA bond rating, the bolstering of the city’s retirement fund, revitalization of the Mid-City business district, the $160 million dollar investment downtown, and new housing to attract young and educated families to the area. “I can go on and on, “ said Wright. “But all you hear is the noise from people who want to deny all of the good news which is coming out of Portsmouth and talk about all the noise generated by the media and people who want to return to the old way of doing business.”
Shannon Glover takes issue with the Mayor’s positive outlook on the city, claiming the high rate of poverty and the low performance of the public schools are troubling the city’s ability to attract new investment and residents. Hurricane Matthew recently caused extensive damage and flooding to the Swanson Homes housing complex which has become a source of unfavorable attention toward Portsmouth’s slow response for the mostly poor and Black residents of the community.
Glover and Wright were the only two of the six candidates for mayor who responded to calls for interviews with the Guide. “My candidacy is getting a lot of support from voters who believe there is a need for a breath of fresh air,” said Glover, who runs an Employee Benefits Program. “I see a high rate of poverty and unemployment and the need for employment at a living wage in Portsmouth.”
Glover said the “good old boys” who the Mayor says are being shut out of controlling the investments and fiscal life of the city “need to be allowed to come back and invest in our city and help us grow.” Glover said efforts should be made to recruit jobs and investment in the city in shipbuilding and other high tech industries which foster employment and expand the city’s tax base.
He said young middle class families are fleeing the city because of the public schools, public safety issues and lack of job opportunities.
“We must develop our city to bring these young families back to our schools and our neighborhoods to work and live,” said Glover. “We are not growing as a city and we will not be able to compete as a city until there is a change of leadership starting at the top.”
Race for Council
There are some old and new faces running for council this fall. One of them is Paul Battle, who has run for public office, including a race for council previously. Battle said although he has not been elected to political office, he has devoted many years to public service, working on the city’s Community Service Board, and Portsmouth Redevelopment and Housing Authority (PRHA) where he helped write HOP VI grant which awarded $26 million for Portsmouth to build new housing. He also helped to author a Drugs Elimination Grant which added 15 police positions to the city.
“I believe in direct community investment,” said Battle, who operates the Tranquility Manor which provides services for intellectually challenged adults and an entertainment company.
He said he has donated money to pay for choir robes and band uniforms for students at I.C. Norcom and supported local groups such as the NAACP. “We must be proactive – this is why Truxton has a new recreation center and the Cavalier Manor Community Center is being rehabilitated,” said Battle. “But we need to do more, including providing school supplies and support for children in K-6 grades to help us reduce the drop-out rate in the city.”
“I have invested a lot of my own resources into helping people of this city,” said Battle. “I would like to be on council so I could devote our energies toward improving the quality of life for the people of Portsmouth.” Lisa L. Lucas Burke wants to further her family’s political legacy in Portsmouth. She is the daughter of State Senator L. Louise Lucas, who was the first Black woman to sit on the Portsmouth City Council.
Lucas, a graduate of Manor High School, has sat on the Portsmouth Economic Development Authority and is currently Executive Director and partner at Lucas Professional Center.
“I have more experience than my mother when she started in 1984 and made history,” said Lucas. “I have my own political vision and style. But I want the best for Portsmouth and all of its residents.”
Lucas said she addresses the same issues which other council candidates are espousing on the campaign trail, including frustration with the infighting on council, supporting development of the city’s water front, luring more investment and jobs into the city to expand the city’s tax base. She also supports stronger spending for police and fire protection and she wants closer evaluations of expenditures for facilities like the Sports Hall of Fame and other city-supported projects.
Mark A. Geduldig-Yatrofsky, like many others in Hampton Roads, is an import to the region due to his service in the U.S. Navy. He has been a long time critic of city government, and he said there are three key issues he has been talking about to a variety of groups throughout the city. He wants to protect the city’s limited dollars by reducing waste spending and making city projects such as the Renaissance Hotel “pay for themselves.”
He said he would expand the amount of time citizens are allowed to address issues before the city council, and he would promote council members being more respectful to people who do speak. He also wants to ensure that neighborhoods receive an equal share of city services regardless of the income of most of its inhabitants. “We have a great opportunity to change the course of this city with our votes,” said Geduldig-Yatrofsky. “Politicians have to be mindful of who votes for them and should try to conduct business on a more citizens-centered manner.”
Nathan J. Clark, a State Marine Police Officer, came in fourth among the candidates who were bidding for the three seats open several years ago. “I think that education, economic development and public safety are three issues which are related,” said Clark, who has worked for the Sheriff’s and Fire Department in his native Portsmouth. He is a proud alumnus of I.C. Norcom High School.
“I would like to create a liaison office which will allow a person starting a business to go to one office to check off each item they need to start a business. Today it’s too confusing for people who want to invest in our community.” “City officials must be open to work in hand with current and potential business owners to increase development and growth in Portsmouth’s economic standing.”
Clark has received the endorsements of a number of diverse groups to include public safety police, sheriff’s and firefighter associations, as well as the Portsmouth Educational Association, the Hampton Roads Realtor Association and the Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Steering Committee.
Ray Smith was on council from 2004 to 2008. He said that one of the issues prompting him to run for council again is the lack of cooperation and civility among the current city leaders. “We worked together and we got a lot of done,” said Smith. “Our image has taken a tremendous hit because of all of the fighting. I want to work with a council who will turn around the schools, fully fund alternative educational opportunities such as vocational education.”
“We were not perfect back when I was on council, but we did not bicker in the public,” said Smith. “We were able to disagree but get things done for the city, such as bringing TCC to the city and WalMart and other development projects. We need more leadership and less fighting among city leaders.”
Incumbent Elizabeth Psimas says she recalls those less turbulent days on council when she and Smith sat on council together “Back then we disagreed with each other, but we got things done,” said Psimas, the lone woman on council for the past two years. “We did not embarrass the council nor were we rude to people who came forth to speak before us about their needs.” “We have a $650 million dollar budget and after we pay all of our bills and account for payroll we have $100 million to work with,” said Psimas. “We have to find a way to effectively use that for schools, public safety and investing in creating jobs in Portsmouth. But we need to come together to create a new vision for this city for all of its people.”
James Bailey says he is the political novice among the contenders for one of three council seats He is a member of the city’s NAACP. “There are many issues, but I think I would like to be a voice for the unheard in the city,” said Bailey. “We need to put more resources into the neediest parts of the city not just the affluent neighborhoods. We need to empower adults with job training and after school options for their children.”