Rhonda Harris says all the right things. Her wardrobe is sharp. But don’t dismiss her as style over substance. Harris, 52, says she has been driven to make a difference since she first came to Richmond in the 1970s.
“Let me take you back. When I moved to South Third Street, there was flowers, trees. There was families. We were a community,” Harris said in a low, raspy voice.
“And soon, before my eyes, I witnessed my neighborhood fall, due to drugs.”
She tapped her tall brown boots on the floor of her campaign office and continued.
“I was coming home and seeing drug dealers on the corner. I saw abandoned homes. And because it was next door, down the street, around the corner, I felt real obligated to help,” she said. “This was in the ‘90s.”
Harris says she started buying abandoned houses that dealers were using to shoot up and sell drugs. Harris renovated the houses and rented them to low-income families or organizations that served a community need, such as child care.
What happened next is a story her supporters recount often.
“She even stood up to the drug dealers and they firebombed her car,” campaign manager McKinley Ross, Jr. said.
Harris has been vice president of the Richmond NAACP, and vice president of the Richmond Neighborhood Coordinating Council. She is the founder and president of the Contractors Alliance of Richmond and the co-founder of the Community-Based Employment Collaborative (CBEC).
Harris says if elected she would require contractors to hire workers from the community where the construction is happening.
She supports the casino development at Point Molate, saying that it promises jobs.
Harris’s critics claim she aims to represent too small of a constituency.
“Rhonda is a likable person,” said Andres Soto, a planning commissioner. “Her activities seem to be mainly based in the African-American community.”
“She’s pro-developer at any cost,” Soto added.
A recent mailer funded by California Grand Casino, Oaks Card Club and Napa Valley Casino alleged that Harris used her personal influence to gain a “sweetheart deal” on an apartment building her company bought from the city.
Harris insists that she will always keep jobs and the community first if elected and denies using her influence to get any sweetheart deals from the city. She says she has won all contracts fairly.
“I would never compromise my character and integrity,” she said. “I’m Rhonda and that’s my lifestyle, whether I’m a mother, businesswoman or on city council.”