The following is an extended version of the candidate interview that appears in the October issue of Richmond magazine and has been edited for length and clarity.
Richmond magazine: Why did you decide to run for mayor?
Justin Griffin: My foray into city politics began with my opposition to the Navy Hill project. I created nocoliseum.com. I got involved with that because I’ve always followed city happenings. I live in the city. My small business practice is in the city. So obviously I love the city. I care what happens to the city. And it seemed like every couple of years we were always fighting some big shiny project. When I saw that Mayor Levar Stoney was proposing a random project again I said, “Well, here we go again.” I was skeptical about it but I was like, well, we will see what comes out of this. I was pretty excited when they actually put out financial projections. As somebody who digs through complicated documents who has an accounting background and economics background, I thought maybe there’s something to these really lofty projections they’ve got. So I dug into those, I saw that these numbers aren’t saying what they say that they say they do, and why they’re unrealistic. So that’s why I put together nocoliseum.com because I couldn’t just sit by and let our city walk into another big shiny disaster that we all end up having to pay for. Meanwhile, our schools and our basic services would continue to get neglected and they do continue to get neglected.
After that project was voted down, I kind of took a look at the landscape and saw that mismanagement and misplaced priorities was going to continue. There was no change in the status quo coming. If I care about the city and I wanted to see it get better, then I needed to step up and do something about it so I decided to run for mayor.
RM: How has the pandemic impacted your ability to campaign and meet Richmonders?
Griffin: Obviously, it makes it a little bit harder to have live, in-person events. I’m an outgoing person, I’m an extrovert and I’d love to get out, meet people and talk to people, hear their stories, hear what they think the biggest issues are in the city, and that has been restricted.
It’s also given me an opportunity to show what I’m all about. I’m all about problem-solving and I think that’s what we desperately need in this city. For example, when I decided to run, we got thrown into the lockdown, but I still needed to get signatures to get on the ballot. We put together my website and a way where I could get those signatures and made it nice and convenient. … I showed up at their door with a mask on and hand sanitizer in hand, and we figured out a way to get it done and still met the full threshold of the 500 signatures and 50 in each district, even with the pandemic going on. It’s been challenging. It’s been a lot of thinking on your toes and adapting and kind of writing your own playbook, but that’s who I am. I’ve never been a person that just kind of goes along with the way things have always been. It allows me to show that I’m a guy that can adapt and overcome and that’s something I’ll bring to the mayor’s office.
RM: How would you lead Richmond out of the relief phase and into recovery over the next four years?
Griffin: I think we’re facing a crossroads here in Richmond. If you look at my website, ever since I launched my campaign, I’ve had a coronavirus action plan. It’s several pages long, listing out action items that we should have been taking all the way back in March and in April when I put that out. Had we been doing that, I think we’d be in a better place right now, especially our small business community and from an economic standpoint. [Richmond was] getting put on the map because of our vibrant food community and we’re looking at losing probably 50% or more of our restaurants in this city. It’s going to take a lot of work to get Richmond working again.
What we’re looking at in the relief phase and in the recovery phase is really something that we have been meaning to do for a while here in Richmond, and that is to make Richmond friendlier to business, particularly small business. I’m a small-business attorney. I’ve worked with over 500 businesses across Virginia. I see the differences in how Richmond treats small business, and how all the other cities and counties in the state treat small business, and Richmond is by far the most unfriendly business environment that I’ve had experience dealing with. We have higher business taxes than the surrounding counties and City Hall is a complete disaster to work with.
We have to become friendlier for small business, because I think that is the best way that we can come out of this with a vibrant economy. When you have a lot of small businesses you can diversify your economy, you have people in the community that care about the community, that hire in the community, that are the backbone of your economy. For the next four years, we need to really encourage small business growth within our community and support them in that process.
RM: How would you help small and minority-owned businesses recover from the pandemic?
Griffin: I think we’ve got to have a small-business platform, like City Hall, working to make it easier and more streamlined to get up and running. For example, one person that I talked to that was trying to start a restaurant couldn’t get the permits that he needed from the city. If he had to do some renovations to the building he needed to get a sign-off on those permits, and the city delayed and delayed and delayed. It couldn’t get them done so he couldn’t open for business, so he ended up losing his investors, he ran out of money and now he’s facing a fight with the landlord.
If we want to help any business whether it’s small or minority owned, we’re going to have to get City Hall working again on the small-business tax or the business license tax rates. We’ve got to get those competitive with the surrounding counties.
For example, if you’re a small repair shop that makes $300,000 in revenue and you’re in the city, your business license renewal is going to be $1,080. If you’re in Henrico, it’s zero dollars. If you’re in Chesterfield it’s $10. If you’re in Hanover it’s zero dollars.
Instead of trying to milk as much money as we can out of [small businesses], we need to help them survive this time and thrive. If you go back and look at that coronavirus action plan I was talking about, I was proposing from the very beginning that we have small-business grant programs at a restaurant where we launch a program idea there where we could use some funds, because restaurants are going to need a little bit extra money if they have a lot of overhead. I also suggested closing down a lot of our streets, places like Cary Street and Grace Street, to traffic. It would be a great opportunity to help restaurants expand outdoor seating, but we’ve delayed and delayed and delayed and not helped them. Those are things that we can do to help our small-business community recover and get back to thriving here in the state.
RM: Alongside the pandemic, this summer’s protests have brought disparities related to race and policing to the forefront. What would you do to reshape policing in the city?
Griffin: I’ve been talking about social services and mental health care before it kind of it came to the forefront with the protests. There was a program that I’ve supported for a while now called the Second Responders Program. This was cut in the early 2010s. Two social workers were assigned to each police precinct and they would respond along with the police department to things like domestic violence situations. The social workers would work with the victims and the children and immediately get them plugged into resources or start counseling right there on the spot. The police officers loved it because they can focus on what they’re good at. They can get the hostile person under control. They can start solving crimes. They can do what they’re trained to do. If we’re looking to reform anything in our police, it’s to give them more resources to make our communities safer, and I think that’s the way we should be approaching this.
I don’t believe in just arbitrarily slashing budgets. I think it should be a nuanced, well-thought-out approach. The goal is to make our communities safer, and I don’t believe just slashing the police budget does that and a lot of that comes from conversations that I’ve had with people all over town. I’ve had multiple conversations with moms in the Southside that are actually asking for more police presence because they have to worry about if a bullet going to come through the window and hit their child when drug deals are going on outside their homes, or they have to sit with their daughters at the bus stop because it’s not safe. Nobody should have to live like that, so we should be looking at better policing and not necessarily less. That would be my approach to reshape policing.
RM: What are your thoughts on demands raised by protesters to defund the police?
Griffin: My approach is that treating being mayor like a job — and that’s been our biggest problem here in the city — the mayors see their own advancement as what they’re out for in the job, and they’re constantly looking at it as a steppingstone in a political position. We really need a manager to go in there and pore through all of our budgets and figure out where there’s wasted money, where we need to increase funds, where we could pull some funds away. That is something that I would do to everything and the police department wouldn’t be immune from that.
Ninety percent of the police budget is personnel. So if we’re slashing the police budget arbitrarily without any thought behind it, that means we’re either going to have to reduce salaries, or we’re going to have to lay off a lot of officers, and it kind of goes back to what I was saying in the previous answer. There are a lot of parts of town that are begging for more police presence because it’s not safe in their neighborhoods and they would love for it to be safe, and there are ways that we can be more part of the community as a police department and continue growing community policing. We need to have a serious conversation and I think any kind of person who wants to be a leader who just says let’s arbitrarily slash budgets is doing it as a political talking point instead of being a serious leader.
RM: Although it was overshadowed by COVID-19, the Navy Hill redevelopment plan was one of the biggest local stories of 2019 and early 2020. What lessons did you learn from that process, and how would you improve the Navy Hill area in a more equitable way?
Griffin: First, we have to actually define our goals. In Richmond we just kind of start throwing things against the wall to see what sticks, and there’s no rhyme or reason behind it, there’s no goals behind it and then we just throw out a laundry list of things. We need to decide when we do a project: Are we talking about affordable housing? Are we doing it because we want to increase our tax base, we want to have more office spaces and more tourism?
The next step is to answer the question: Is this the most effective and efficient way to accomplish that goal? In anything we do in the city and particularly with the redevelopment of the Navy Hill area, we need to establish what our goal is with that. Once we do that, what we need is to have an open and transparent request for proposal process (RFP).
The last time Mayor Levar Stoney did that, they narrowed down all of the requirements for the RFP, and tailored it to make it so that there would only be one response. Even since the project failed there are other developers who are interested in that area. The way that I would approach it is, if they’re sitting on land and we’re looking to say we want to get this off the books, we want something more efficient done with it to bring in tax dollars if that’s our goal. You just open it up and say, what ideas do you have and let’s figure out what is the best approach for that area.
I don’t consider myself a dummy, but my ideas might not always be the best ideas — somebody else might have an even better idea. So let’s open up the doors, use all of the collective knowledge and intellect and people who love this city, to bring their ideas and say, here’s what I think is best for Richmond. We’ll have a conversation about it.
And I’ve shown that with my evaluation of the Navy Hill Project on nocoliseum.com that I’m the right person to take a look at all of those proposals, weed out the bad ones, find the one that’s the best for Richmond and do it in an efficient manner that will benefit all of Richmond and not just some of Richmond
RM: Kids across the city are returning to remote learning this fall, but parents have raised concerns around widening learning gaps and equitable education opportunities in the virtual setting. How would you address those concerns?
Griffin: I think this is a very big concern for me because there are going to be widening learning gaps and it’s going to exacerbate our problems with inequality in the city because if kids don’t have access to the internet at home, there are going to be problems with the kids actually getting an education, and we’re going to leave another generation behind.
Part of the reason why I’m in this race is because our school system is failing our people. In the last four years our graduation rate has dropped from 80% to 70%. When you’ve got 30% of your young people not graduating high school, that’s a crisis. That’s 30% of your population from a school district. That’s 86% people of color who have almost no chance of thriving from a wealth-building perspective in our modern society and modern economy. We have to address that. And we’re looking at how we’re going to do that in an environment where we’re trying to deal with the coronavirus as well.
I think, ultimately, we should be providing options to our families. If I was mayor right now I’d be encouraging the school district to have both an in-school option and a virtual option. Then we can leave it up to the parents to decide which avenue is the most safe and the most beneficial for their child because what you’re seeing happening is the parents with resources, and people in wealthier parts of town or in the counties, are getting together with other parents and they’re hiring people to do learning pods, or they’re putting their kids in childcare facilities that have been reworked to handle virtual schooling. That is something that low-income communities, and people in low-income households or single-parent households are struggling to adapt to and so kids are going to be left behind.
It’s up to us as a city, and as a public school district to step up to the plate and care for those kids, in a safe way and figure it out. Instead of just saying, “Oh well, if we can’t figure it out, we’re just going to push it off on the parents.” Let’s step up to the plate, figure out how to get it done and stop making excuses.
RM: How would you work to improve the city’s schools during your time as mayor?
Griffin: I have probably the most detailed information about my school’s platform on griffin4mayor.com, and from a high-level perspective, there’s kind of three steps that I think we need to approach with Richmond Public Schools. Obviously, first is to fix the buildings. The first thing that I would do as mayor is to go to every school we can with the administration. We work with the building maintenance experts to identify and create a prioritized list of every maintenance need in the entire school system and I would be there personally. Then it would be my job to go find them the funding.
No. 2 is we’ve got to create a first-rate education [inside] the buildings and I think we need to refocus to a student-centered approach in our learning because what works in Henrico County and the far West End isn’t necessarily going to work in city schools. We need a uniquely Richmond approach that meets the needs of our Richmond kids. I think you look at other successful inner-city schools around the country, but the three big things that we should approach here are literacy first, second is greater teacher autonomy and third is high expectations for our kids.
Part three of my plan is an aspect that I call holistic education in our school system. We need to provide our kids with opportunities that they might not normally have to teach them the keys to wealth building, the keys to succeeding in a work environment, getting them plugged in through mentorship programs, business, internships, and approaching it from a holistic aspect, so that we can give them all the tools that they need — not just, the tools to pass the SOL test, because that’s not what it takes to be successful in life. We need to make sure that our kids have that success. Part of that is also having a two-pronged approach that creates tracks for kids who want to go to college and ones who aren’t going to go to college.
Business owners all over the city are desperate to hire people from the city. They would love for students to have some kind of education to give them the soft skills they need to operate in a work environment. A lot of trades and businesses in our city would love to work with our school system to help build those programs and be able to hire people from the community and get them well-paying jobs. We can start breaking some of those cycles that have plagued us for generations.
RM: How would you work to curb evictions and expand safe and affordable rental housing in the city?
Griffin: I’ve identified four general areas that we can attack in order to try and get these numbers down. First would be more robust enforcement of code violations. Like I’ve said several times, our City Hall is broken here in Richmond and our permits and inspections office is probably the worst culprit. There are a lot of places with low-income housing where you might use the term “slumlords.” There are a lot of code violations and that ultimately leads to tenants having conflicts with their landlords that lead to an eviction because they don’t approach it the right way because Virginia’s landlord tenant law is very specific.
We have to educate the tenants about their rights and the way to approach situations where they have conflicts with their landlords because a lot of the situations end up being that the landlord won’t fix a problem, so [the tenant stops] paying rent. In Virginia, unfortunately if you’re not going to the court system, you’re not setting up a trust account to pay your rent into, you are at fault and can be evicted. … I think we can work with local legal aid groups to set up systems and provide them with assistance.
In Austin, Texas, there’s a legal aid group that’s developing an app that allows tenants to take pictures of receipts or take pictures of damage in their apartment, to log phone calls and conversations, so when it does come to a court case they have all their evidence there because a lot of times it’s a landlord’s word versus a tenants word, and it’s hard to sort out in in the courts. If the tenant has more resources to build their case and have their evidence, then they can have a better approach when it comes to court.
Next, we need to help people before they fall behind, not just after. The current eviction diversion program Mayor Stoney implemented comes in once things have gotten really bad. We should be working with organizations like RRHA to identify situations as soon as tenants fall behind. As soon as they’re five days late, they should get plugged into resources, because it’s a lot easier to deal with these situations when they’re just beginning to get into trouble, as opposed to when they’re three or four months behind on rent.
Finally, kind of going back to my No. 1 issue, better schools, and uplifting people economically falls in line. The best thing we can do for our people is to provide them with a robust education, and give them plenty of jobs and opportunities to thrive from an economic standpoint because that will allow them to afford better housing, and it will allow them to make sure that they’re making those rent payments on time. If we can succeed in providing a better education and better economic opportunities, then we’ll see fewer evictions.
RM: After years of debate, most of the city-owned Confederate statues are now gone from Monument Avenue. What do you think the city should do to replace them and tell the story more fully?
Griffin: I’ve actually had this idea for years: I think that we should make Monument Avenue an outdoor museum, a walking timeline. You start at the beginning of Monument Avenue in the beautiful grass medians, and along the way there are little stone plaques in the grass that explain a situation or events that happened. As you walk down Monument Avenue you learn the history of Richmond, and you can hear the stories of people that aren’t often told.
You can have various people along the way with life-size statues. For example, Chief Powhatan, and even somebody like James Armistead Lafayette who was a slave during the Revolutionary War and was a spy for the Continental Army. He earned his freedom and he took the name Lafayette after the French general Marquis de Lafayette. You can take a selfie with them along Monument Avenue as you’re walking down the median.
It’ll depend on what we decide as a community, but we can name prominent Richmonders along the way and I think at the end, we can put statues of Oliver Hill for his work on desegregation of schools, and then cap it off with Douglas Wilder. It changes the context of Monument Avenue from what it’s been for years to the story of the people who came here and who settled here, who were involved in the Revolutionary War, who fought in the capital of the Confederacy, put up statues to Confederate generals, but then elected the grandson of a slave as the first black governor in the country, Douglas Wilder.
I think that is an inspirational story. It’s our story. It’s a story that shows we don’t have to hate each other. It’s a story that educates. They can continue this march forward because it can show that no matter how bad things seem, no matter how stacked the deck seems against you, or how racist the world seems, things can change and they can change in a short period of time. … I think that’s a way to restructure Monument Avenue in a way that kind of maintains its historical nature, but can also start to begin to heal some of those wounds.
RM: What makes you the right person for the job?
Griffin: I think I’m the right person for right now, because what we’re facing in Richmond is the crossroads. We’ve made a lot of progress in Richmond over the last 20 years, and we are at risk of losing that progress. Our small-business community is really hurting right now, our economic situation is really hurting right now because of the coronavirus shutting everything down, and then the continued civil unrest has continued to prevent our businesses from getting back on their feet.
Going forward we can either get back on the path of progress and continue moving forward, or we can allow Richmond to fall back to the way that it was ’80s and ’90s, where it was unsafe to be downtown and there was little to no economic activity. We can start having a downward spiral, or we can start to bring everyone together. We can get back on the path to providing jobs and opportunities to all of our people and continue an upward spiral where we have more money to invest in our people and our neighborhoods and I’m the right person to do that because I’m the only one in this race who has a business background. I’m the only one that has shown the financial acumen to get our budget under control and our functions and city hall under control. We need a financial watchdog if we’re not going to take huge budgetary hits going forward. We need to get our city working again. We need to get our business community back on its feet so that we can have the tax revenue to invest in our people and that’s why I’m the right person for right now.