Just over a year ago on May 3, 2016, for the first time in its four centuries of existence, Norfolk elected its first African-American Mayor, ushering in a new era in politics and leadership.
Weeks later Kenneth Cooper Alexander was sworn into office on the City Hall steps, an area that at one time in the city’s history, his ancestors were held to be sold as slaves.
Recently during an hour-long interview with the Mayor in his office with a stunning view of the city he leads every day, he talked about his first 12 months in office and some of his insights and experiences.
Alexander is a businessman, running a successful chain of funeral homes in the area.
But a year into his first term, the Mayor – unlike President Donald Trump who said he may not have been prepared for his new role – was well prepared, he said.
He said he was used to responding to the call “to serve” Before he was a mayor, he was both a Virginia State Senator and Delegate.
Before holding public office, he was a civic leader in the Berkley Community where he was born and raised.
“Trump never served in an elected position. He was very successful in business…he had his trials and tribulations and his life story is well documented.
“But serving in a legislative body,” Alexander said, “takes patience. He did not understand the strong personalities from different parts of the spectrum. The extremes … the far left, far right.”
Alexander continued, “As president how do you navigate the views of the majority at the same time as protecting the rights of the minority? It tales some restraints … a governor … a filter … you can’t say what comes to mind.”
Alexander ran head on into an administrative challenge weeks after taking office.
Within four months Marcus Jones, the long time city manager and three of his assistants, left for other jobs.
Only the most junior one was left.
Alexander said he immediately had to “stop the bleeding” and put in a management team to keep the city operational train running.
Interim City Manager Doug Smith, a former council member in Portsmouth who had run the city’s planning and budget the department, was hired.
Alexander said that he had talent “at his finger tips” from Norfolk’s Social Service and Economic Development to fill in the gaps.
One of personnel moves which caught people by surprise was moving Norfolk Police Chief Mike Goldsmith to one of those administrative spots.
“Some thought it was demotion or punishment.
Goldsmith’s portfolio covers public safety, technology, neighborhoods, implementing the city’s resilience plans to confront any unexpected shocks to the economic, civilian and military assets of the city,” Alexander explained.
On the day of the interview, Goldsmith was coordinating an international meeting of NATO and European Nations representatives who were discussing “resilience” and how countries and cities can withstand the shocks caused by climate change, economic and political uncertainty.
“Moving Mike Goldsmith to one of the deputy city manager jobs was a strategic move,” said Alexander. “Goldsmith has a Master’s Degree from William and Mary He has a sense of global and national security. We have largest naval base, and port and multinational companies use our port. We are a gateway to the world.
“I need someone from city hall to be resilient if and when there is a man-made or natural disaster or disruption who can respond in seconds. He has a very large portfolio.”
Larry Boone replaced Goldsmith as Police Chief and became the third African-Americans Police Chief.
“He (Boone) knows the city and the communities due to his unique background,” Alexander said. “He grew up in the inner city. I was able to have Larry Boone promoted to Chief.”
The management team Alexander is refitting is helping him bring in a new era of leadership and governance in the city and the Mayor gave several factors which indicated it.
The most obvious is that he is the first mayor who did not hail from the city’s west side. Further, he noted there was a considerable voting bloc potential coming out of the predominately African American east side and the 7th ward.
“It’s a new era in that I am not a baby boomer,” he said. “I am part of Gen X … I am a cusper … born in ’66, and ’65 was the cut off for Baby Boomers. So I was able to blend.
“A lot of my friends are Boomers, born ’56 to ’65 and a lot of them fall into the generation. Lots of mentorship and training came from that group of thinkers who came of age in the 60s and experienced the Civil Rights Movement. I was taught by people who lived it.”
Alexander said he came of age in the 70s at the end of the movement, and Watergate and the Black power movement were en vogue. He recalled activist men in the southside community where he grew up, such as William Tyree, Douglas Williams and Perry Hargrove
They taught him about racial and political consciousness, civic action and not using hard work as an excuse for not succeeding.
Transparency. Alexander said it is a new era of transparency “balance between focusing on what the citizens and residents want and knowing what your financial restraints are and obligations as a public policy maker.”
He continued to explain, “It is also a new era of not promising anymore than you can deliver.
“It’s a new era where people are willing to pay but they want results. They are willing to support government, public education, arts and recreation. But they want tangible and meaningful results.”
He said it is a new era where You Tube and Facebook allow politicians to expose themselves and share information with the media in real time and despite fake news.
Alexander said that he was not one for focusing on race and how it is related to success or failure.
“Those of us who work hard … the people of Norfolk believe that any person has been able to obtain anything,” he said.
Alexander said he does not know if his election as Norfolk’s first Black mayor will inspire others to seek public office.
He said today a lot of people are aspiring to run for political office because of Trump, but are inspired by opposing him and are “stick and tired of the current political system, and want to make a difference.”
“I hope that my election will inspire people to volunteer … be engaged and find a place where they can participate and help write the next chapter of Norfolk’s history,” he said. “I believe my election is showing that Norfolk is changing. That a kid from Berkley who went to public schools, whose mother passed away at 36 and father at 50 can become mayor.
“There are a lot of young men and women with similar backgrounds, but may not have made the right choices. I made some good choices. I have not dotted all the I’s and crossed all the T’s; but, Norfolk is a city that will take a chance … a bet on its people who represent who we are as Norfolkians.
He said his biggest surprise was the enormous amount of work and responsibility the Mayor is confronted with each day and that his predecessor undertook each day during his tenure
“We do not have a strong mayor form of government,” Alexander said. “We are a council-city manager form of government and the manager runs the daily operations.
“But I am amazed at the number of hours Paul Fraim because of strong personality and work ethic devoted to this job a week,” Alexander said. “Nothing left city hall without his blessing. It is an enormous responsibility to be a captain of Team Norfolk.”
Alexander admits he has a strong will himself but said, “I do not want that much control … I like delegating those responsibilities to administration,..where it should be. I also delegate a lot of responsibility to council members and they enjoy it.”
Alexander is leading of one of the most demographically diverse councils in Virginia. There are four African-Americans and four Whites; four men and four women.
The Mayor and Mamie Johnson are in their 50s. The longest serving member, Paul Riddick, and Vice Mayor Theresa Whimbley are in their late 60s. Angelia Williams and Andria McCollum are in their 40s; and Tommy Smigiel and Martin A. Thomas, Jr. are in their in their 30s.
Alexander said that he inherited and has worked to complete development projects his predecessor conceived and “teed up” other development and economic projects which the former administration completed, including the welcoming of the ADP office complex, opening of the Main Hotel, the Outlet Mall and Ikea.
He said the city has completed building or has begun construction on five schools, including Richard Bowling, Camp Allen and Ocean View, a feat no other city has done at once in the this region.
“I am working on turning the old NRHA office building on Granby Street into a boutique hotel run by Marriott,” he said. “I will be looking at the St. Paul’s Quadrant project which could be one of the greatest development projects if we do it right.”
That project involves tearing down the aging Tidewater Gardens public housing community and replacing it with a mixed income community. It has been on the books for years, but lack of funding has stalled it. The residents of the community would be allowed to come back if they choose or access subsidized or market housing rates once the project has been completed.
“We have a chance to lay out 88 acres to address flooding, public safety, education, housing, retail, improving traffic flow north to south along Tidewater Drive and other commuter arteries and open spaces.
“But more importantly we must look at the more important human capital and people,” he said. “How many people who live there would rather stay there or live in other communities? What about older people who have lived there for generations who may want to go to a high rise?
Alexander said a recent hurricane illustrated the threat that flooding poses to Norfolk, when 25 feet of water clogged a key underpass on Brambleton Avenue and Virginia Beach Boulevard and other parts of the city.
He said he wants to “tee up” a resilience plan to deal with flooding. He said ideas such as raising building barriers to control water or rain gardens on top of flat roofs, lift building, open up some channels and channeling water where “water wants to go,“ are being perused.
Alexander said he would like to usher in a new era of shared governance and closer ties with the Norfolk Public Schools (NPS), instead of just reviewing and approving a budget for is operation.
He said the relationship with NPS and its governing board should not be relegated to approving the division’s budget.
Alexander said that the council should have some input into NPS’s upcoming plans related to budget demands, closure of some schools and repurposing others, and restructuring attendance zones. He also wants to improve teacher pay and working conditions.
“We have five high schools because at one time we had more students, 34,000,” the Mayor said. “Now we have less than 29,000. Part of the conversation we have is starting a new conversation we have not had before with NPS to have a better handle on education and better outcomes.”
Alexander said he is concerned about where NPS is adequately preparing and tracking students to go to college, the military or some school for licensure.
“We must look at the impact of home life on public schools,” he continued. “It takes a village. We must look at deconcentrating poverty and address in some of the housing community’s low academic achievement and social ills. We must develop a shared responsibility, and it always starts in the home.”
On Friday, May 12, Mayor Alexander will delivers first State of Norfolk Address during a luncheon at the Main Hotel.
… Next Week: Part 2
By Leonard E. Colvin