In the Hilltop Ballroom at the Courtyard Marriot in Richmond on Thursday night, leaders from around the city gathered to help Ella “Bea” Roberson kick off her campaign for Richmond City Council.
Roberson, a Richmond resident since 1964, decided two months ago that she’d enter the race. She is concerned with what she sees as a lack of focus on basic issues by the majority of the city council members. “They’re not interested in issues for Richmond,” she said during an interview after the event. “They will spend hours discussing issues outside of the country—like what to do about Palestine and Israel. We have violence on our streets, gang violence that we can’t solve. So what difference does that [Palestine and Israel situation] make?”
Instead, Roberson said she would focus on solutions to violent crime and on job creation. “We need to support big businesses and small businesses,” she said. Roberson believes that supporting businesses will lead to more jobs in Richmond and would solve a lot of the city’s problems. On her campaign website, a note from Roberson summarizes her reasoning: “With jobs come health benefits. With jobs our residents will have the money to purchase and grow healthy foods. And with jobs our Richmond residents will be able to provide their families with adequate housing.”
Before she retired two years ago, Roberson was an accountant. Since retiring, she has involved herself with volunteering. She volunteers with over a dozen different non-profits and organizations within Richmond. Her volunteer experience includes being president of the Richmond Neighborhood Coordinating Council, Chairperson of the Police Commission, organizing logistics for the Home Front Festival and serving on the board of directors for the National Institute for Arts & Disabilities in Richmond.
But Roberson says she didn’t envision becoming a politician. “I never thought of running for political office, but the vote is always 5-2 and the candidates I saw coming out are more RPA [Richmond Progressive Alliance] people,” she said. “I thought somebody’s got to do it.” So with encouragement from Councilmembers Corky Booze and Nat Bates, along with various community groups, Roberson said she is “doing it.”
Three council seats are up for re-election this November: those currently occupied by Bates, Tom Butt and Jeff Ritterman. In April, Ritterman announced that he will not run again. Bates and Butt said they will seek re-election.
Although the filing period for city council members has not opened—that will happen this Monday, July 23—Roberson has already received endorsements from Bates and Booze and the Richmond Police Officers Association (RPOA).
Other candidates who have announced their run for council seats include Marilyn Langlois, co-founder of the RPA and former staffer for Mayor Gayle McLaughlin; Eduardo Martinez, a retired teacher who ran unsuccessfully in 2010; and Native American activist Mike “Raccoon Eyes” Kinney.
This is Roberson’s first run for office, and those close to her describe her campaign as a “grassroots” effort. “Bea’s campaign is unusual. She doesn’t have campaign staff or anything. She has friends,” said Carmen Enaschescu. Enaschescu runs Roberson’s campaign website and helped plan and execute the night’s event.
The vibe inside the ballroom was warm and familial, a reflection of the relationship Roberson has with most of the approximately 60 people who attended. It was also a fairly low-key affair. Guests sat at round tables decorated simply with a tablecloth and water pitcher and bantered back and forth about the city and Roberson while munching on food donated by Phil Bellber, owner of SF restaurant chain Cha Cha Cha and a friend or Roberson’s. The Puerto Rican inspired menu included Yuca al Mojo (yucca with garlic sauce), Pastelon (a sort of plantain casserole) and very popular chicken wings. “This beats rubbery chicken,” one guest said.
Roberson looked at ease in black slacks, a red button up shirt and a black coat. She wore black slide-on sandals and her bright red toenails matched her shirt perfectly.
After everyone had a chance to eat, Naomi Williams, the Pullman Neighborhood Council president who was acting as master or ceremonies for the night, stepped up to the podium, thanked everyone for coming and introduced the night’s speakers. Councilmembers Booze and Bates spoke, as did former Richmond City Councilman Jim McMillan, RPOA President Hector Esperaza and others.
In his speech confirming his endorsement of Roberson, Booze summed her up in this way: “She’s a sweetheart, but she doesn’t take no stuff.”
During his brief speech, Esparza said, “I’ve known Bea for about three years. She has our full support and we’re going to do everything we can to make that [her win] happen.”
Judy Morgan, President and CEO of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, was not an official speaker, but after encouragement from the audience she rose to speak, too. “I’m here tonight as a resident of the city of Richmond. The Chamber hasn’t taken a position and won’t until August 15. But, I support her personally,” she said.
As the emcee, Williams moved seamlessly between cracking jokes, teasing the speakers (“Bates, you only have two minutes!”) and stating her fervid support for Roberson. “I know that she is true. She does the best she can. We need somebody who looks out for the city,” Williams said from the podium as she introduced Roberson after the procession of speakers.
Roberson stepped up to the podium as the audience stood and cheered. Her speech was brief and to the point. “I am so tired of 5-2 votes,” she said. She touched on the points in the last city council meeting that frustrated her the most: the hours spent discussing Booze’s agenda item regarding looking into the legality of charging the SS Red Oak Victory Ship back-rent for docking at the Richmond Port, and the time she saw as wasted deciding on whether the proper term to describe the relationship between human and pet is “owner” or “guardian.”
In ending her remarks, Roberson said she looked forward to running a joint campaign “of sorts” with Nat Bates and thanked everyone for coming. “We really are going to do this,” she said.
Marva Lyons, a colleague of Roberson’s at the Richmond based non-profit Their Angels, said she supports Roberson because “She is reasonable, sensible, has a good pulse for the community and she loves Richmond.”
Not all attendees were as certain. Richmond resident Roseanne Allen said she is holding back on deciding who to support until November. “I like her, she seems really nice. Booze told me I had to vote for her. But, just because Booze tells me to doesn’t mean I will,” she said, laughing. Allen said she comes to candidate events to get a sense of the person running, and that seeing them in a smaller setting when they’re not as “on” helps her decide how she will vote.
After the filing period for the city council opens on July 16, candidates have until August 10 to file, with the possibility of an extension for non-incumbents to August 15 if an incumbent does not file for re-election by August 10. As part of a city charter mandated fee, candidates for city council must pay 2 percent of the annual salary of a city council member in order to file. During the last election cycle the fee was $1,546.60.
The filing fee is just the first hurdle a candidate must clear in order to run successfully. As emcee, Williams made sure early on that everyone understood one of the biggest issues. “This is only the kickoff. It’s also about money. We need support. We need a lot of money,” she said.
Overall, Roberson said she felt good after this first campaign event. “I really didn’t know what to expect, but I’m happy with how it went,” she said.
This story was amended to correct the statement that the Richmond branch of the NAACP endorsed Roberson at the kickoff event. The organization does not ever endorse candidates for political office. Richmond Confidential regrets the error.