By Leonard E. Colvin
Chief Reporter
New Journal and Guide

The infighting, criticism and attacks on the Portsmouth City Council are all indicative of tensions the city of Portsmouth is experiencing, due to the city’s transition from a majority White population to a majority Black population.

This was the assessment of Portsmouth Mayor Kenneth Wright during a rare and exclusive New Journal and Guide interview on January 29 in his office.
Wright said his view reflects the beliefs of his allies on council and supporters, who believe efforts by the Black majority on city council to bolster city finances, foster economic development, support education, and to recruit more jobs to the city are being resisted and attacked by a shrinking cadre of White business elite who do not welcome the reforms the Black council majority has promoted.

Wright has been the city’s Mayor for five years, and is about to seek a third term. In explaining the reason for the current wave of political drama, he said, “As the late Mayor (James) Holley always said, ‘let’s put things into its proper perspective.’”
“Portsmouth is 263-years-old and had a White majority for 243 years. For the last 20 years, we have transitioned from a majority White political majority to a majority Black one,” said Wright. “In that 20-year period, 13, 511 White people have left Portsmouth. Our current makeup is 54 percent Black and 42 percent White.”

He continued, “We also have a new generation of public servants who are more concerned with the needs of the people and the economics of the city; although the economics is still controlled by that 1 percent Bernie Sanders is talking about (on the campaign trail).
“That elite group controls most of the city’s economics, but it is losing power because the new city council is asking why are we giving contracts to the same developers, the same law firms, and the same architects.

”Once you get to that period, you’ve got a fight on your hands,” he said. “The good old boys will not relinquish control. They are behind a lot of negatives being directed toward the council.”
Portsmouth demographic and political changes, and the economic pains created by loss of tax revenue and the recent economic downturns have had their impact on the city.

The city, the mayor said, has been seeking to reverse these trends by recruiting businesses and families willing to buy homes to support its tax base and strengthen the city economically.
Franklin and Richmond experience the same shifts in demographic and economic fortunes. Norfolk, which is moving toward minority-majority status, with Blacks securing broader controls of the political and governmental levers of power, may experience the same tensions. But Wright says he “hopes Norfolk and other communities experiencing this transition” will avoid them.

Wright entered office in 2010 and during most of his tenure, there has been steady political and personal drama between members of council and other city leaders, to include the Sheriff and former city managers. The city now has a Black (female) city manager.
Tensions between the Mayor and Sheriff Bill Watson have come into sharp public focus recently.

Wright attributes the cause to the council’s proposal to extract some $1 million from Watson’s budget, and there is talk of tearing down the jail.
Wright and city council colleague Dr. Mark Whitaker, one of the newest and more outspoken members of the governing panel, have backed the removal of the Confederate monument that is located at the corner of High and Court Streets. 

Also, the council has been answering questions, criticisms, and inquiries about the current city auditor’s inability to conduct periodic surveys of the city agencies. Wright has managed to retain council support, despite calls for his resignation.
He said considerable tensions have risen over council’s effort to cancel leases on buildings that house city agencies and are owned by what Wright calls “friends and cronies “ of past city officials and the “good ole boy network who’ve gotten rich on these arrangements.”

“Why should we lease space in buildings when we have city-owned facilities we can use free,” asked Wright. “We were paying about $1 million or more on those places. We have cut that in half and will do more to stop lining the pockets of people who are taking advantage of the city. This is taxpayer’s money we could invest in education, helping to fix our infrastructure and community centers.”

The most embarrassing tensions between Wright and the city’s Sheriff arose after the January 11 council meeting. A video shows that Sheriff Watson spotted an expired city sticker on the Mayor’s car. Instead of issuing a warning or a citation at that point, the Sheriff waited until Wright got into his car and drove out of the city garage where his car was parked.

A low speed chase ensued as the Sheriff followed the Mayor’s car until he stopped when the Portsmouth Police arrived.
The Mayor has been charged with eluding the Police.
Wright refused to discuss the issue because it is still before the courts.
Wright said when he took office, the city’s finances were in a meltdown due to the shrinking tax base, and bad decisions of previous city councils. Now as a result of cost cutting and directly engaging the Credit Rating Agencies with examples of how the city will reverse these trends, Portsmouth has received a strong AA rating.

When he arrived in office, the city’s pensions system was near collapse, he said, but the city was able to secure Pension Obligation Bonds at a low interest rate (because of the AA Rating) and improve the health of the plans.
Wright said that investments of city and private capital have been injected into the Midtown Business District (Mid City),Victory Village (Tower Mall), and neighborhoods, along with the construction of a new $78 million courthouse complex, because of asbestos and other flaws in the old one.
The old jail on the waterfront will be redeveloped for housing and commercial use.

Wright pointed out of his office window to the various million dollar apartment developments that are being built downtown. None of them are being constructed by “friends of the good old boys, but people outside the city,” he said.
Wright said that like Norfolk, Portsmouth is seeking to revitalize its downtown waterfront area to attract young professionals (Millennials) to work, play and raise their families there.

The city has conducted a “Disparity Study” to determine the level of women and minority participation in its procurement system in competing for contracts to supply goods and services to the city.
Portsmouth and Hampton are the only two cities to do so at the behest of the 200 Plus Men of Hampton Roads. The study has show a gap in that area which the city hopes to invoke policies to close, said Wright.

Wright said that members of the economic elite can no longer “call and get insider information on contracts, finances and compromise city council members to vote to give them special privileges.”
“We are living in a city where 36 percent of its children live in poverty and 19 percent of the total populations is living in poverty,’ said Wright.
“Why not invest some of that city money in helping all boats rise not just the ones of the elite?”

Wright said that the city recently purchased the old Fredrick Military Academy and is in the process of converting it into a major sportsplex/recreation center to be used by the community for after school programs and recreational activities. But the move has been met with criticism from the Tea Party.

He said the city, churches and communities must work together to improve the educational and employment opportunities for the large number of poor and underserved Black men between the ages of 16 and 24, who are impoverished and vulnerable to being involved with crime and other negative outcomes.

All of this positive news is taking place against a backdrop of an effort to recall Mayor Wright by what his supporters call members of the frustrated White business elite. Thus far, the campaign has not gathered steam.
Also an election is taking place in Portsmouth and Mayor Wright and three council members (Elizabeth M. Psimas, Rev. (Dr.) Curtis E. Edmonds, and Danny Meeks), will be seeking reelection.

Will the Mayor and other council members face a hostile electorate seeking to oust these incumbents?
Wright said that despite the positive moves the council has made, the mainstream print and broadcast media will only report on the mudslinging and political drama because “it’s stuck in tabloid mode.”
“When we try to get the message out they come in with preconceived ideas based on negative information leaked to them by members of council,” said Wright.

Wright said while constituents would like to see friendlier relations between the majority and minority members of council, he said he enjoys the debate, but “wishes it could be more civil.”
But Wright has been bypassing the media, choosing to use friendly traditional media outlets or social media to promote and report on positive effort by Council.

He is often seen at various social and civic functions, and enjoys taking pictures with citizens, especially the youth.
Each Sunday he attends at least four church services, not to recruit voters and tout the council’s record, but to “listen to the voters about their concerns and bring them back to the council to discuss, or for action by the city manager.”

“These tensions have been going on for 20 years,” said Wright. “The reason I’m here is because the previous mayor was recalled! We’ve been working on a ‘New Beginning for This Historic City’ since I’ve taken office. We now have a super majority of Portsmouth voters who are supportive of our policies on moving this city FORWARD,” said Wright.
“We have support from a super majority of our Black and White citizens, and are looking forward to the next chapter.”

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View Comments

  • @ Harvetta
    You try and make it sound like he made a "Simple" mistake that the mayor has so much on his mind he simply forgot, Utter BS. He knew for Over 7 months it was expired, if he didn't, he truly is a moron. If he doesn't have enough common sense to not drive an Illegal car to a city garage, that's bad enough and not excusable. But when he was first stopped on camera he should of took his medicine like a big boy and it would of all been over with. The sheriff did nothing wrong and would of just gave him a warning but like a criminal with thug mentality the mayor totally ignored the sheriff and fled, not once but 3 times, there is NO EXCUSE FOR THAT, NONE.
    This clown mayor needed to humiliated, he's Racist, Arrogant, Disrespects ALL law enforcement and is ONLY out to socialize the city for BLACKS ONLY. He deserves NO Respect and the city will be better off once he and his black panther buddy whitaker are out of office. You just showed your ignorance by loving a man that proved how stupid he is on video, All you socialist dumbocraps have your head so deep in the sand its frightening, I'll say it again, you cant fix stupid.

  • The white folks moved out and tax revenue went down. Doesn't take a genius to deduce a logical conclusion from that.

  • The Mayor is completely right about the shady procurement practices of Portsmouth. In fact, this is just a tip of the iceberg. The City of Portsmouth is not the only city that engages in these discriminatory practices, it’s all of the cities in the 757, public agencies, Mayors, and City council members. Many of them including Wright have received kickbacks from this so called “elite” group. The Mayor has condoned the status quo of awarding contracts for the past 5 years he’s been in office. So, where was the outrage during those years? Now that its election time the Mayor wants to draw attention to the institutional racism and economic inequality among minority and women owned business in our communities? Give me a break. I’m tired of Black politician’s s playing the race card and placating black citizens with false concessions or conciliatory gestures, all to win elections.

    Look, it’s time we the people hold these politicians accountable for their inactions, and stop re-electing them. Just because you share the same racial make-up as someone running for political office, isn’t a good enough reason to keep putting them back in office. Kenny like so many other black politicians have enjoyed the perks of being the “token” members of the good ‘olé boy club. All at the expense of poor and minority citizen in their cities. They needed him to vote “yes” for the tolls. He did, now they don’t need him anymore. His good ‘olé boy membership has been revoked and he wants the African American citizens to come to his rescue.

    Lastly, this isn’t a black or white issue it’s a “green” issue. Small, women owned and minority business should be provided equally opportunity to win contracts. Minority business have grown at a rate of 20% each year but still receive less than 1% of federal, state and local contracts. I would encourage the new journal and guide to investigate the contracting practices of agencies that Mayor Wright has chaired. You will find that the same practice of awarding contracts to the status que occurred in those agencies too and Mayor Wright voted to approve those contracts.

  • Mayor Wright is definitely looking at the future of the generations and trying to give everyone an opportunity and not just the same people who have been prospering at the taxpayers expense! An inspection sticker?!?! Really?!?! The Sheriff didn't say anything until the Mayor left because he wanted to humiliate the Mayor!!!! But I remember when this same sheriff was caught driving while DRUNK!!!!!! I have forgotten my inspection sticker and decals because I have a lot on my mind and he is responsible for an entire city!!!!! Much love and support Mayor Wright!!!!

    • Harvetta Lassiter......
      Mayor Wright never regarded Sheriff Watson's request. Wright got in his Car, Didn't even buckle his seat belt, totally Ignored "Sheriff Bill Watson", and drove off. If it would have been you or me we
      would have went to Jail. 7-Months past due State Inspection Sticker? Give me a Break.... Wright is acting with No Reguards to Police, Sheriff's office, or the Fire Dept. for that matter.....

      Your Memory isn't to good either.....! That was not our current Sheriff "Bill Watson" that was caught driving Drunk. That was "Sheriff Gary Waters". You Should Get Your Facts Straight before you make a degrading Post about our Sheriff. You praise Mayor Wright and the other Racist Mark Whitaker. They both are Killing the City of Portsmouth. Whitaker owed the city over $200,000.00 in back Taxes and Fines. If Whitaker paid his bills the City could put 4-More Police Officers on the Street.

      I made a reply to your post Last night. I see it has been removed from this site.

      Why hasn't your Post been removed yet.....? You have Posted a Written Statement accusing our
      Current Sheriff "Bill Watson" of being Caught Driving Drunk. Which is a Lie Posted By You.........

      I can Truthfully See This Site Only Post what it wants to, and Not The Truth.......

      Check My Facebook Page....... All my Responses to this Site will be Posted there also.....
      Along with your Post from this site....................

      Your Post Documents Your Ignorance and Racist Attitude..........

      You Owe Our "Sheriff "Bill Watson" a "Written Apology" for Your Wrong Post of accusing
      "Sheriff "Bill Watson" of being Caught Driving Drunk............

      My first reply to Your post was deleted..............

      But I Clearly Recognize This Site has let your Post run for over Two Weeks With your Definitely
      Wrong Accusation and I Quote Word for Word Exactly what you posted....
      Harvetta Lassiter: "The Sheriff didn’t say anything until the Mayor left because he wanted to humiliate the Mayor!!!! But I remember when this same sheriff was caught driving while DRUNK!!!!!!

      It's a Shame a site lets Post like you have made Remain..........

      I'll be waiting to See Your Apology to "Sheriff Watson"........

      Skip Peacock

    • Harvetta Lassiter: By you typing a reply just Documents Your Ignorance that you Do Not Know What You Are Talking About. The Sheriff tried to speak to Mayor Wright about the 7-Month Expired inspection Sticker and Wright Totally Ignored Him. Wright got into his car, didn't fasten his seat belt, backed up and pulled out of the parking garage totally Ignoring "Sheriff Watson" trying to stop Wright and talk to him about the 7-Month Expired Inspection Sticker. Only after that is when "Sheriff Watson" sought pursuit of Wright for Totally Ignoring the Sheriff and failing to stop. "Humiliate The Mayor You Say.....? Wright is doing a fine job of humiliating himself and the entire City of Portsmouth. You need to get your Facts Straight before making such "FALSE ACCUSATIONS" toward Sheriff "Bill Watson". "Sheriff Gary Waters" was the one caught while driving "DRUNK". "Gary Waters" was the Sheriff before "Bill Watson" was elected. In your own words again you have Documented you Don't have any Idea what you are writing about. You have Love and Support for Mayor Wright......? Wright who Cut the Sheriffs budget 1-Million Dollars, Did Not give Our Policemen, or Fireman a raise, These are the people who risk their lives to protect you from the "Thugs" in the City of Portsmouth.
      Wright backs Councilman Whitaker on everything he says and Whitaker Owes our City over
      $200,000.00 in back Taxes and Fines. You stated you have forgot your inspection and stickers before.....? Did you go 7-Months before you realized it...? What do you think if you or I had refused to Stop for the Sheriff waving his hands and then following us and we refuse to stop until police cars surrounded you or I. We would have been Arrested and Locked up right there on the Spot. There is a difference between forgetting and just totally ignoring Laws and the people who enforce them.
      Make sure if you ever need Police, Sheriff's Officer's, or God forbid Your Home Catch Fire and you need the Fire Department. That when it takes them a while to get there because there aren't enough Police, Sheriff's Dept, or Fireman to handle the Situation that you call "Mayor Kenny Wright and Thank Him....... You, "Harvetta Lassiter" are a Prime Example of why the City of Portsmouth, Has Gone To Hell.

  • You Just Cant fix Stupid. This so called “Mayor” has been playing the Blame Game and the Race card for so long he's become a expert at Never accepting ANY responsibility and denying the most obvious of facts. Kenny Wright does not have the simple common sense to NOT drive his ILLEGAL Car for 7 freekin months to a City Garage in front of the police station, come on who does that ? someone that has no regard for the rules, more than likely he doesn’t think twice about breaking other rules and laws. Then when known he is being filmed by the media make a “Thug Like” decision to Flee. Kenny wright is only out to “Socialize” Portsmouth and has no respect for himself, law enforcement, and owes every citizen of Portsmouth a Public Apology for his Bonehead actions. Mayor “Wrong , you and any supporters of yours are pathetic fools.

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