There’s one outcome for the City Council election that Bea Roberson says she can’t let happen, and it’s the reason the first-time candidate decided to put her name on the ballot to begin with.
“We cannot let the [Richmond Progressive Alliance] win again,” Roberson said, standing near the dais in the city chambers after a council meeting. She said if she can make it out of the election with her sanity, she doesn’t plan on running for any other political office.
Roberson and her supporters say the RPA represents a small part of the community trying to impose its views on Richmond.
“They’re on the precipice of having total and complete control over the city,” said Hector Esparza, president of the Richmond Police Officer Association, who encouraged Roberson to run because she’s “common sense-oriented.”
Roberson said she heard from Esparza and others that they saw her as the only candidate with a shot at beating Marilyn Langlois, one of the two RPA candidates. And Roberson has never minced words when it comes to the RPA, which she said may not make her popular with everyone during her council campaign.
“A lot of people see me as being really mean or really stubborn—which I am,” she said. “But they also see me as being fair.”
That fairness, Roberson said, is part of getting the council to “be adults and work together” – something she said has been much more difficult under the leadership of RPA Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who she said doesn’t treat public speakers equally, depending on whether they align with the mayor’s views or not.
“Just shut up and say ‘next speaker,’” Roberson said McLaughlin should do if she doesn’t agree with something being said.
Roberson is a faithful attendee of city council meetings and speaks frequently in public comment. As in private, she doesn’t mask her opinions – but she admits she’s no expert when it comes to rhetoric and reads her comments or responses verbatim when she can.
“I’m not a smooth talker,” Roberson said. “So I write it out so that I can make my points.”
Her already-punchy sentences often sound abbreviated by her residual Southern accent. Originally from Anadarko, Oklahoma, Roberson moved to Richmond in 1964 and has been there ever since, with the exception of one 18-month stint in Pittsburgh.
This is Roberson’s first time running for an elected position. She didn’t grow up wanting to be a politician, nor has this been an aspiration.
“From someone who was approaching retirement and to have it transition into running for City Council, that’s a big stretch for her,” said Roberson’s youngest daughter, Stephanie Brice, who runs an assisted living home.
Roberson decided to run only recently, she says, because she couldn’t see anyone else beating Langlois, also a first-time candidate from the Richmond Progressive Alliance—a group whose members currently dominate the council’s makeup.
Roberson said she’d rather almost anyone be elected to the council than someone from the RPA because of their current stronghold on the board.
Roberson’s political views have aligned her with two other candidates: Nat Bates and Gary Bell. Their names are displayed on billboards and trailers across the city, lined up so the Bs in their name stack and make the slogan “Be Safe” memorable.
Roberson’s last seven years in Richmond have revolved around community activism. The Richmond Neighborhood Coordinating Council was her introduction to that work and in 2009, she became president of the organization.
Before she became the head of the RNCC, she said it wasn’t thought of as a body that would take action. Finding speakers to present at City Council meetings used to be a tiring chore, she said
“Now, we have people calling asking to present.” Roberson said. “It’s something I’m very proud of.”
Though she left her position as an accountant at Alten Construction in 2010—a job she held for 12 years—she doesn’t consider herself retired.
She’s the chair of the police commission, she volunteers as treasurer for the National Institute of Art and Disabilities center, and was the logistics chair for the last Home Front Festival. Roberson is good with numbers and says she likes problem-solving. Had her life taken a different course, Roberson said, she might have been a detective or lawyer —although these days she gets her taste for those professions with her favorite TV shows, CSI and Judge Judy.
Roberson married at 17, before graduating high school, and helped put her first husband through college.
She divorced and married her second husband, whom she also later divorced in 1995.
She now has five grown children, three from her first marriage, and two from her second marriage.
When her last relationship of 10 years ended in 2005, she said, “I looked around and I said ‘You know, I’ve never lived by myself in my entire life.’” Until then, her relationships rolled into one another so that she consistently had a partner since before she was even an adult.
She lives by herself now and says she loves it that way. “I’ll never marry again,” she repeated again and again as she outlined her relationship history.
Her house has one bedroom. “People can come and visit, but they’ve got to go home,” she said.
Her daughter has tried to convince her to get a dog, but even that is too much commitment.
“My husband is quick to remind me that [my] mom’s not some little wallflower that’s just sitting at home by herself,” Brice said. “She’s doing what she wants to do.”
Like her speeches, Roberson’s campaign platform is simple and straightforward. Her two main issues are streets and jobs.
“In order to fix this city, our people have to go to work,” she said.
And after hearing complaint after complaint from residents about the state of the streets, she said she wants to dedicate more city money to pave neglected streets.
Roberson said she sees the more affluent neighborhoods in Richmond given special treatment by current city councilmembers. And council meetings would be more efficient, she said, if the mayor didn’t put proclamations and items on the agenda that she sees as a waste of time.
“If we had nothing wrong with the city, OK, fine, talk about whether you’re an owner or a guardian for a dog,” she said.
Roberson doesn’t hesitate at all in admitting in her no-nonsense, to-the-point manner that she’s not the most seasoned politician running—in fact, she doesn’t even identify herself as one yet.
But she says in the future, if no one but the RPA is on the ballot, “you betcha I’m gonna run.”