Before the new Charlottesville City Councilors could address agenda items at its first 2020 meeting, it first had to appoint new leadership. Monday evening, after votes that included periods of heavy silence on the dais, Mayor Nikuyah Walker won a second term in a 3-2 vote and Councilor Sena Magill was selected as vice mayor in a 4-1 vote.
Walker and Councilor Heather Hill were appointed as mayor and vice mayor in January 2018, months after the white nationalist rallies that culminated in deadly violence in August 2017. In remarks before Monday’s nomination period opened, Councilor Michael Payne said that 2017’s “Summer of Hate” forced the community of Charlottesville to “confront a legacy of institutional racism and a legacy of economic inequality.”
He called Walker’s leadership as mayor “vital to changing the narrative not just symbolically, but through policy change.”
He listed policies that Walker has been a part of to enhance equity in the city, such as the Home to Hope program, which provides resources to formerly incarcerated individuals; raising wages for city employees; and support of investment and redevelopment of affordable housing.
“I often wonder what the nation’s response to the first election after the white supremacist terrorist attack would have been if we did not nominate Nikuyah Walker as the first Black woman to be mayor in the history of our city,” Payne said. “The eyes of the nation are still on Charlottesville. Major presidential candidates have announced their campaigns based off what happened here, presidential campaigns and national media continue to visit Charlottesville and look at the work we are doing, and it is my firm belief that we need to send a message to the country that we are continuing the work of uprooting institutional racism, redistributing economic power, and confronting unrestrained corporate capitalism.”
Earlier in the meeting, Hill showed interest in becoming mayor, calling her campaign canvassing for the City Council “one of the most rewarding experiences” of her life.
“I developed a new lens from which I now view our community,” Hill said. “I have found myself heavily reflecting on the last two years and the possibilities for those two years ahead. After the events of 2017, it was clear among our Charlottesville community wanted to be part of the meaningful change that would bring us together.”
Sharing Councilor Lloyd Snook’s sentiments of polite interactions, Hill spoke about working together and indicated her interest in being the new mayor.
“I’m often disheartened that the public discourse has prevented us from really coming together to share solutions to the problems in our community,” Hill said. “We have a lot more work to do and I believe that the five of us share many of the same goals. But to achieve those goals we have to work together.”
In Walker’s remarks before the nominations, she highlighted the “difficult conversations” she’s lead and becoming taken seriously.
“I guess what I would say is, ‘What is the work that we are doing?’” Walker said. “I’ve walked in rooms the past three years — starting from the campaign year moving on — where no one really took me seriously. They didn’t think they had to. They discounted the abilities, as they so often do, for Black women.”
Walker reflected on the significance of elevating the voices of people who have been unheard or oppressed.
“This isn’t something to necessarily fight about, but this is a stark reminder of ‘what is the work?’ There have been so many people who wanted to move past the conversations concerning race and privilege,” Walker said. “I know what position I have been in. It is an honor for me to do it at this level. It is draining and it is very hard work, but to know that the individuals who have the least, are heard the most when I am in the room, it fills my heart.”
During Magill’s remarks before the vote, she said she would work “100%” with whoever was selected as mayor, adding “I have to vote with my heart,” but did not specify who she would vote for.
When nominations were opened, Walker, nominated by Payne, was the only candidate. In a voice vote, Walker, Magill and he cast the votes in favor. As only three votes were needed for passage, City Manager Tarron Richardson attempted to move on to the nominations for vice mayor. After brief confusion and opposition from the audience, Hill and Snook cast their no votes.
When the time came to nominate the vice mayor, Snook supported a nomination of Hill, Payne supported a nomination of Magill and Walker supported a nomination of Payne. After a pause to clarify how a three-way vote would take place, Magill was elected, with Snook casting his vote for Hill.
Before his vote, he noted that council leadership for the past two years has been from Walker and Hill.
“They represent different aspects of Charlottesville. They represent different aspects of council,” Snook said. “Both aspects are legitimate, and both aspects are needed. And so I would support Heather Hill to be vice mayor.”
As Charlottesville is a city manager-weak mayor form of local government, the positions of mayor and vice mayor largely are ceremonial, but some have seen the appointing of Walker as a progressive signal of healing post-2017. Charlottesville mayors chair City Council meetings, with vice mayors operating in their absence.
Regular City Council attendee and advocate Tanesha Hudson said she was Walker’s re-election as continuing to send a message of progressiveness.
“You can’t just say you’re progressive, you have to show it,”Hudson said. “I think this is really setting the pace for people to understand we want to be a progressive city. We are really fighting for equality and equity in this city.”