Michael Payne and Jerrod Smith discuss their generation’s rise in political engagement, ideas on regional collaboration

Charlottesville Tomorrow sat down with a Charlottesville City Council candidate and an Albemarle County Board of Supervisors candidate to discuss how the two governments could enhance collaboration and share insights as the youngest candidates in local races. Responses have been edited for clarity

Charlotte Rene Woods: Run For Something is an organization that supports new generations of candidates and has endorsed people running for various offices across the country. Jerrod, how do you feel having been given their endorsement recently, and what are your thoughts on the growth of millennials and younger generations in general getting involved in politics?

Jerrod Smith: It was awesome to get their endorsement. It was that added confidence that people outside of the area are taking notice of, and that we’re onto some good things. In terms of what Run For Something is doing and the way they’re getting young people involved, I think it’s incredible. One thing that I really focus on is that essentially I’m trying to build and shape the place that I want to live and work and raise kids. It’s a rare chance that young people get to have a hand in shaping things in their day to day lives, but we live and breathe here as well, so the more we are involved in that process, the better.

CRW: Michael, for you, what has it been like making the jump from being a City Hall regular to now a council candidate who could be on the other side of the dais in a few months?

Michael Payne: I’ve been going to most City Council meetings over the past three years, and so that’s been a huge benefit — doing advocacy around housing, economic and racial justice locally — because it’s given a really deep understanding of how city government operates and what the dynamics are that lead to change either happening or not happening. It has also allowed me to build relationships with people on City Council, in city government and in local commissions. I think it’s a relatively smooth transition. I mean, you’re definitely focused more on building constructive alternatives of what City Council could do. I hope that my experience in community organizing and advocacy can be a useful skill on City Council as part of both building trust between the community and local government, but also helping to build urgency around issues to make it more likely that something actually does happen around climate change or affordable housing or other issues.

CRW: Considering Charlottesville is a city, and the Rivanna District is a more urban part of the county, what are some ways you think the city and county should work together to improve transportation in the area?

JS: Well I think in the realm of public transportation, increasing efficiency around the urban ring is crucial. The city and county overlap so much, so there are people who live in the city but work in the county and vice versa. It’s important that we get those people to where they need to go in an efficient and affordable manner. I think that is one thing I think overlaps and we can work on it. It’s going to take a regional approach.

MP: I think, ultimately, the goal is to create a regional transit authority, which is something that’s come up in the past and almost happened but didn’t quite get there. Now, the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission’s regional transit partnership is I think a good first step to building some of those relationships between the county and the city. We need a regional approach because a lot people who work in city and live in county. I grew up in Albemarle and have always just considered it to be one community. If you’re a worker who drives into the city, that line dividing the county means nothing to you. Your rent, your transportation cost and your commute and is all the same. I think there’s a growing awareness among the community that with public transit and housing, we really don’t have a choice but to think regionally and to build relationships with the Board of Supervisors in Albemarle County, and even the supervisors in other surrounding counties like Fluvanna, Buckingham and Nelson. That’s the way we can make the biggest impact.

JS: Can I just add onto that?

CRW: Yes.

JS: I agree with everything that Michael said, but I would also add that I think this is one instance where being a working person in the county, you see the importance from a different aspect too. We are kind of at that nexus right? I don’t know about Michael, but I’m not super rich. Mike, I’m kidding. But what I mean by that is that at the heart of it, public transportation is public, so it’s for everyone but we have to make sure that when we are taking this approach we are taking care of our lower income and our working people. Maybe they can’t afford a car, or maybe because everything touches housing in all regions and all issues intersect, maybe their rent is too high and they can’t afford a car. Or maybe they chose not to use their car to save money on gas. We have to remember that public transportation is more than a convenience and a cute phrase for this community. I think it’s a real shot to affect people’s lives on a daily basis.

CRW: Part of what you guys are saying actually segues into my next question. It’s a little bit broader than the areas you two would focus on — Rivanna and Charlottesville — but what are some things you think that the more rural districts could be doing in collaboration with Rivanna and the city on? I know that sometimes public transportation or affordable housing can be apples and oranges in different areas.

JS: Public transportation to the rural parts of the county is a challenge. It’s something we’re going to have to work on. If we were to have a hot spot or a park and ride approach that provides convenient access for people to drop their car off at a designated area and go into the city, that would be great. I am also a fan of farmers markets and co-ops. I would love to see us grow our agri-business here — the way we produce and move food to make sure everyone in the rural parts are getting involved. Then we as an area can become more self-sufficient foodwise and businesswise, not just transportation and housing.

MP: The idea of farmers markets and food co-ops is really exciting. I know in the city, we have the urban agriculture collective that’s been working on a lot of food justice stuff and has some community gardens in the city. But a problem they’ve encountered is that there’s only so much available land in the city that you can do community gardens on. Certainly maybe in the rural parts of the districts, there’s more opportunities to have that be part of supplying a local food network through farmers markets, businesses or schools. The rural parts of the county are important, and there’s a lot of reason for zoning in terms of environmental protection in the county, so I think those rural areas an important part of the regional economy and they have different challenges than Charlottesville or the economy in the urban ring of Albemarle, but they’re all part of this community. We are all tied together. Just thinking on public transit, the regional housing assessment that [TJPDC] did show that our rural areas are experiencing an affordable housing crisis of their own, it’s just different in character to what we are seeing in Charlottesville. They’re seeing a lack of rentals and they’re also seeing that people who can’t afford a car have a huge problem because they don’t have transportation. I think finding creative ways to get transit or some kind of ridership programs into rural areas is important. A lot of those people are working in the urban ring or the city.

CRW: Given that addressing affordable housing looks a little bit different in each area. How do you think the city, county and [the University of Virginia] can collaborate and work together both in town and beyond the county’s urban ring? Where could there be more communication or joint planning?

MP: I’ll start with an example of how important the need is. The city created additional Section 8 vouchers so that more people had access. What they’ve found is they have been able to give several dozen families vouchers, but I think about half could not find housing in city limits to accept their voucher. So, they are living in Albemarle County because that’s the area where housing was available. That’s just a small example of how interconnected the region is. Also, increasingly, the city is expanding into the urban ring, which is technically Albemarle County, but in a lot of ways, it’s an extension of that area. Again, I think [TJPDC] has been doing exciting work with their regional housing partnership. I think having more communication between city councilors and board of supervisors on housing issues, having regular work sessions will be important, as well a communication between housing staff. Being able to have solid communication between the two governments if important. Something that is interesting is that the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which is starting the redevelopment and public housing process, also operates within the county. I don’t know if they have any properties there, but their charter allows them to operate there. It’s another example of interesting partnerships that are available if we start to think and act regionally.

JS: One thing that I’ve thrown out and you’ll hear me say is ‘One Albemarle,’ and that essentially means a place that is inclusive and anyone can make it and anyone can live. But sitting here talking today, we may need to start saying ‘One Region’ to reinforce that mindset. With affordable housing and [what] Mike proposed, there are a bunch of different policy tools we can use. We just have to figure out which one makes the most sense for our region, and it may not be one answer. I think a lot of times, we get siloed into saying ‘this answer works,’ but really it can be a combination. This can be a chance to regionally set our priorities and figure out what’s mutually beneficial. Let’s use the tools in the toolbox. The [TJPDC] affordable housing summit was amazing, but the biggest takeaway from that is that we have a lot of tools available. We just have to be open to using them. I guess part of that young wave, the millennial wave, or us being so young and getting into local government field, is that we are open to these things. We are open to trying new policy approaches. We’re not trying to reinvent the entire wheel. If you think about it like a soccer game, the ball is not deflated. We’re just trying to kick the ball forward and allow more people to play. If we can set a standard by leveraging different tools to benefit this area, why not do it?

MP: Yeah, I would just also add briefly, in some ways the biggest thing is a mindset change between community and local officials. Historically, in the past — and this has been people in Charlottesville and the county — have played the county and city off each other as a political game and think of themselves in silos. We really need to break out of that mindset and realize again, focus on the everyday person and realize that for them, it’s always been one region. So if we want to make policy that positively impacts their lives, we need to govern like it’s always been one region. I think that mindset is changing a lot. When I talk to people I feel like that idea of one region is where some people are starting from.

CRW: As younger candidates, what are some perspectives that you think you can bring to the board and the council, especially considering existing council and board members as well as other candidates have years of varied experience, but they’re of different generations, so they have different perspectives. What do you think that your generation can bring?

JS: We are both creating lives here. So I think that kind of for me defines the things I want to see in terms of what kind of jobs I would like to see in this area, what kind of restaurants, businesses and other things I would like to see. I’m all about helping to build the space for the next generation.

MP: I think younger generations are definitely feeling the impacts of things like the student debt crisis and economic inequality and really fearing the impacts of climate change. There’s a lot of engagement and urgency on the part of the younger generation to get involved in politics and really to work for bold policy change that can make a difference and improve people’s day to day lives. Coming from a perspective of having grown up here, and being invested long-term in this community and really thinking 50 or 60 years from now, what kind of Charlottesville and region do we want? The decisions we make today can determine what this region looks like in 50 or 60 years.

CRW: I’ve been attending Albemarle County’s Climate Mondays to sort of track what comes to fruition with that, and just last week there was a climate march organized by sixth graders. More and more people in a bipartisan manner are addressing climate change, but I hear it resonate a lot in this region. What are some things you’d look forward to with city and county collaboration?

JS: I’m big on us creating the skills and the jobs here that will change the world. I think that’s a part that gets a little overlooked in the entire climate change discussion.  It’s ‘who is going to provide the jobs, skills, and materials?’ Let’s do what we can to make this place as efficient as possible. We can change as much as we can on the policy front. I would love to see us incorporate more affordable solar energy, especially in our newer buildings and developments. I know that there’s a way that we can make solar affordable. If there’s a place for wind energy here, let’s do it. Let’s be the region that sets the standard of creation of those jobs and policy implementing climate change. Agewise, we grew up with this climate change mindset. So for us, it’s kind of second nature to realize that climate change is real and there’s things we can do. I’m looking forward from county and city perspective making change, and I’m all for it.

MP: I think there’s an exciting opportunity to set a regional greenhouse gas emission reduction target goal. I know this upcoming June City Council meeting will [have a] vote on whatever target they’d like. But, it makes more sense to have a regionwide goal that incorporates Charlottesville, Albemarle and UVa, which I think they are trying to work on. Once we set that goal, it’s ‘how do we achieve it?’ That’s the harder part. But we can be looking at increased use of solar, and trying to tie it into issues of equity, thinking about how we can open up solar opportunities and incorporate it into affordable housing. Again, I think a regional transit authority is part of it. Something I think that is important is building local climate resilience. We need to reduce emissions. But at this point, there are now some climate change effects we are already feeling. We’ve already seen increased flooding and flash flooding. That’s our reality now so we have to plan for it. If you look at community resilience best practices, a lot of it is maintaining green space in certain areas that can better withstand flooding and other weather events. It’s going to be important for the city and county to plan on that. Again, because the county has more land and more undeveloped green space, there’s a role to play there on climate resilience and change more broadly.

CRW: This might be all for now, but if there’s anything else I haven’t asked that you feel I should or anything you would like to add?

JS: I would love to see more millenials get involved. I think it’s important that we don’t just as a younger generation accept the way that society is set up. As young people, if there’s a change that you want to see, government is designed to be representative. If there’s some change you want to see, get involved. Half the battle of being a candidate is stepping out there, and realizing that when you step out there, you’re not just speaking for yourself, you’re speaking for whatever population you represent. I would love to see more younger people get involved and work for the changes versus sitting back and complaining. It’s easy to get caught in the social media game nowadays and scream about things you don’t like while continuing to engage in those practices that are things that you don’t like. I would like to see more young people get involved because we live here too right?

MP: I think for millennials and younger people, it’s our future being legislated right now, so we have every right and obligation to be a part of shaping what our future is going to look like. It’s important that we have young people step up to run for office, to vote, to get involved in boards and commissions and show up to meetings. A lot happens there that has an impact on your life. When I first started going to City Council meetings, hardly anyone showed up. Over time, more people got involved, and I’ve seen how that has shifted the conversation in Charlottesville around affordable housing, racial equity, inequality, transportation and climate change. So it really does have a major impact. Get involved.

JS: You have a vote and you have a voice. You should exercise both of those within reason. As millennials with student debt, we might not have the monetary means to change the world, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t do some things to shape the place. And with all these things going on at the national scene, geez, we have a chance to affect so many different things.

MP: We want to talk about what’s happening nationally, someone like [President Donald] Trump didn’t happen overnight. It started because decades ago, the more far right and more conservative movement started running for school boards, they started running for board of supervisors.  Political power starts locally, so as young people or as progressives, if we really want to challenge the roots of Trumpism, we have to get involved locally and really take it seriously.

JS: One thing that I learned in Chicago [as a Mayoral Fellow] and at Batten [School of Leadership and Public Policy at UVa] as well, is that policy innovation can really be done at the city/county level. Once you get higher up, that’s where some posturing starts. We have a chance to really do some things with less bureaucracy. I mean, we’ve still got to work at it, government is government, but we have a chance to be innovative as a county and city. Sometimes that requires different mindsets and being open to innovative ways of enacting change.

Jerrod Smith is challenging Bea LaPisto Kirtley in the Democratic primary for the Rivanna District. LaPisto Kirtley is a longtime educator with decades of political experience in school boards and city councils.

Michael Payne is one of five candidates up for three Charlottesville City Council seats. In the Democratic primary, he will face off against Sena Magill, who has experience in the nonprofit sector; attorney Lloyd Snook; former council member and contractor Bob Fenwick; and UVa project manager Brian Pinkston. After the primaries, the winning three will be challenged by two independents, Marine veteran Bellamy Brown and transportation advocate Paul Long.