Levar Stoney placed his hand on his late grandmother’s worn Bible and was sworn in Saturday as Richmond’s 80th mayor. At 35, he’s the youngest person elected to the office.
The event was bittersweet, he told the group of about 60 family, friends and elected officials who assembled at City Hall for the private ceremony.
“It’s the five-year anniversary of the loss of my father,” Stoney said. “And it’s pretty apropos that we do this today, because my dad and my grandmother were the people in my life who pushed me to take the oath of office as I did a few seconds ago. ... I don’t think they knew or ever expected that I would get to this point in my journey.”
Stoney takes office at a time when Richmond is on an upswing, with a growing population, an ever more vibrant downtown and gurgling pockets of civic pride.
But it’s also a time when by most accounts — including his own on the campaign trail — City Hall is struggling mightily.
The school system continues to limp forward, chronically underfunded and grasping for a path up from years of disinvestment. The city is shackled with aging infrastructure. Its debt capacity — not unlike the credit limit attached to a credit card — is maxed out. Public Works struggles to perform basic services such as leaf collection and snow removal. And violent crime, which has crept down for years, is again on the rise as the police department pleads for more resources and officers.
These are big problems. Problems Stoney has promised to fix.
And they’re largely the same problems his predecessor, Dwight C. Jones, promised to fix.
Stoney acknowledged over the course of a series of interviews that he hasn’t been sleeping as easily at night since he won the election.
He said it’s not because of stress surrounding the enormity of the job that’s waiting for him. It’s because he’s anxious to get to work.
Not unlike his mentor, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Stoney said he believes in the power of optimism: a professed belief that a positive outlook, enthusiasm and hard work can accomplish pretty much anything.
To date, it appears to have served him. His drive propelled him from the son of unwed teenage parents living in relative poverty to the first in his family to graduate from college to, now, the young rising star in Virginia’s Democratic politics.
“When you’re born with challenges the way I started my life, I think the only way — without someone writing you a multimillion-dollar check or something — the only way you overcome that is by working hard, and I’ve been doing that my entire life,” Stoney said.
Under the system of government in Richmond in which the mayor is popularly elected, instituted in 2004, the seat has long been seen as a potential launch pad for statewide office.
Stoney — who has made no secret of his eventual ambition for higher office — is poised to be the first of the three men elected as mayor to test that theory.
But first he has to fix Richmond.
Stoney has had his eye on public office since at least second grade, when he revised his dream job from meteorologist to politician.
At least that’s the way his younger brother Marvis Stoney, now 33 and in the U.S. Air Force, remembers it.
“Levar started reading every book about presidents,” he said. “At the time, BMX biking was cool and that’s the stuff I was checking out. I told him, ‘You’re going to be a dork.’ He said, ‘No. I’m just super interested in this.’”
Asked about the memory, Stoney laughs.
“Yeah,” he said. “The librarian told me I could only check out ‘Berenstain Bears’ and Dr. Seuss and I was like, ‘No, I want to check out the biography of every single president I can.’ ”
Stoney invoked his childhood frequently on the campaign trail, describing a hard upbringing: the product of kids having kids and growing up on free and reduced-price lunch.
“Not to be cliché like the Drake song ‘Started From the Bottom,’ but we started from the bottom,” Marvis said. “We came from two teenage parents.”
The two brothers were born in Long Island, N.Y., but their family moved when Levar was 7 to York County in Hampton Roads on the recommendation of an uncle, who said there were more jobs in Virginia.
Estranged from their mother, the brothers were raised by their grandmother, Mary Stoney, a retired domestic laborer, and father, Luther Marvin Stoney, who worked as a high school janitor until his death at the end of 2011.
The four shared a three-bedroom apartment from 1988 to 1992, when the brothers’ father moved out after getting married.
“I remember him asking, ‘Do you guys want to live with me?’ and we said, ‘No, we want to stay with Grandma,’” Levar Stoney said. “Because she was all we really knew. We never lived with dad alone. Ever. I felt bad, years later, looking back at that, telling him no. But he understood that Grandma, she was stability. And you knew you were never going to go without living with her.”
Stoney’s dad was the breadwinner, although working for around minimum wage to support a family of three. Stoney recalls that his father frequently would remind his kids that they were “one paycheck away from being on the street.”
Stoney said he didn’t take it seriously at the time, but later in life, when his dad got sick and was unable to go to work, he and his brother chipped in to make sure he made rent.
“He was right; if he would have missed a paycheck, he would have been homeless,” Stoney said.
Once, the elder Stoney sat his two young sons down.
“He showed us his hands,” he said. “They were all beaten up and calloused and what not, and he said, ‘I don’t want your hands to look like mine. I want them to be soft. I don’t care what people say about that. I don’t want you guys to work as hard as I’ve had to.’”
Stoney ran for and was elected student body president in elementary, middle and high school. (His campaign slogan in elementary school was “Vote for Stoney, he’s no phony.”)
But it was holding the position in college at James Madison University that gave him his first real taste of political influence.
When Stoney was a junior, the school’s board of visitors voted to ban the sale of Plan B contraception on campus after a state delegate likened it to abortion.
About 40 students responded by marching to the law office of state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, R-Rockingham, who at the time was a member of the board of visitors and spearheaded the ban, according to coverage in the Richmond Times-Dispatch at the time.
After the march, Stoney and another student leader met with Obenshain for an hour.
The board voted to reverse its decision several months later. It was among a handful of unusually high-profile political stances Stoney took as a leader at the school.
“For me it’s always been about making an impact,” he said. “I could easily go to class every day and make decent grades. Or I could roll my sleeves up and try to make things happen. I took that seriously. Maybe too seriously.”
After he graduated in 2004, he went straight into politics, moving to Richmond to work as a fellow in then-Gov. Mark Warner’s office.
From there, he rocketed through a series of jobs as a Democratic political operative, working on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid and later state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds’ bid for attorney general in 2005. In 2006, he started working for the Democratic Party of Virginia, becoming its executive director in 2008 as Barack Obama made his history-making run for the White House.
He stepped down to serve as the political director of Deeds’ 2009 run for governor against Republican Bob McDonnell.
Stoney said Deeds’ loss in the governor’s race led to one of the lowest moments in his career.
“I was the top employee on the Creigh Deeds’ campaign,” he said — not a great place to be after a major defeat. “When I wanted to return to the Democratic Party of Virginia, some rejected my return.
“I was not sure what was next. I was thinking about going into the nonprofit world — just leaving politics.
“That’s when I ran into Terry McAuliffe.”
Stoney didn’t actually run into him, per se. The two knew and liked each other from their proximity working in Virginia politics.
So on a whim, Stoney invited McAuliffe to a birthday party he was throwing himself in Shockoe Bottom.
And, on a whim, McAuliffe showed.
It was 2010 and Stoney approached McAuliffe, then still recovering from his own defeat by Deeds in the Democratic primary, and told him that whatever he was planning next, he wanted to be a part of it.
Memories vary, but McAuliffe offered Stoney a job more or less on the spot.
Both men attribute it to shared character traits that seemed to make them a natural team.
“We’re both very optimistic, fun-loving people,” McAuliffe said. “We had a great time together. We loved being around people. I’m not a half-empty, half-full person; I’m overflowing full. I’m always very optimistic and positive, and Levar is the same way, too.”
Stoney worked first directly for the governor as a consultant and then at McAuliffe’s automotive company, GreenTech, where he served as special assistant to McAuliffe.
During that time, McAuliffe, anticipating a second gubernatorial run in 2013, crisscrossed the state with Stoney as he worked to introduce himself to voters.
McAuliffe said Stoney, who spent half his time living in McAuliffe’s basement in McLean, became like part of the family.
“He tells the story, some mornings he’d wake up and our dog Finnegan would be laying in bed with him — something he hadn’t been used to. Our big golden retriever,” McAuliffe said.
In 2012, when McAuliffe made his second gubernatorial run official, Stoney signed on as his chief of staff and deputy campaign manager.
After McAuliffe won, he appointed Stoney to serve in his Cabinet as secretary of the commonwealth, a position that’s charged with filling various boards and commissions with gubernatorial appointments. He was the first African-American to serve in the role.
Stoney didn’t limit himself to the official duties of the job and was viewed by some as almost a shadow chief of staff — the guy to go to if you needed McAuliffe’s attention or support.
And with the encouragement of the governor, he plotted his first run for elective office.
It was McAuliffe who pushed him to set his sights on mayor of Richmond.
“Some people wanted him to run for Congress,” McAuliffe said. “Some people talked to him about running for lieutenant governor next year. I didn’t think that was the best career path for him. … He has great communication skills, a great ability to bring people together. To be mayor of a city like Richmond — I always advocated for it, and we had a lot of discussions about what he should do.”
So far, Stoney’s surprise victory has been met with a wave of enthusiasm — primarily, it seems, for the fresh personality and style he promises to bring to an office whose previous occupant had seen his support slip drastically in his second term in office.
He’s a millennial who smiles easily, follows Twitter, uses emojis, dresses in slim-fit suits, lives in an apartment downtown overlooking the river, shows up at sports bars to watch JMU games and plans to play in a touch football league this spring.
He’s also newly single and dating, which is apparently a point of interest: Google autocompletes searches for his name to “Levar Stoney wife.” Stoney was married for four years to lawyer Kristina Perry Alexander. The couple quietly finalized their divorce in September during his mayoral bid.
The split was apparently amicable enough that the couple was able to separate without involving lawyers. Stoney attributes the split to a singular focus on his career: “That can take a toll. You saw my calendar. I’m going to try to do a better job bringing some balance to my life.”
On the topic of marriage: His first planned official act as mayor today is to officiate the same-sex wedding of two friends and supporters, delighting many residents who recall Jones’ reticence as a Baptist preacher to support marriage equality.
Stoney also has inspired some cautious optimism in the area’s Republican leaders. He spoke briefly with regional lawmakers in early December at a meeting of the Capital Regional Caucus — a group his predecessor had never addressed.
“I just stopped by to say hello,” Stoney said before the group began peppering him with questions.
He concluded by pledging to continue to be accessible and easy to reach after he took office. “I have no problem getting in the car and driving to a meeting and making something happen,” he told the caucus, before making sure all the leaders in the room had his personal cellphone number.
Like McAuliffe, Stoney has said he likes to keep a full schedule — his calendar on a recent day during the transition was wall-to-wall meetings from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., something he said he doesn’t expect to change when he takes office. He only sleeps about five hours a night.
“I’m very excited about the breath of fresh air that you represent for our whole region,” offered Del. Christopher K. Peace, R-Hanover, who is serving on Stoney’s transition team.
Not everyone, however, is quite ready to join the love-fest.
“When Dwight Jones took office, hope sprung eternal,” said Del. G. Manoli Loupassi, R-Richmond, after a recent meeting with Stoney. “Everyone said now we had a guy everyone could work with and everyone could get along with. He even went to meet with the county officials. So then, eight years later, would you say we have a better, good or about the same relationship as relates to the surrounding counties?
“But at the time, everyone thought it would be the greatest thing ever. That’s why I’m saying, it’s cool, he got elected mayor. I think he wants to do a good job. I hope he does a good job.”
Stoney hesitates when asked what, precisely, he thinks he brings to the table that will allow him to accomplish what he has said Jones didn’t. The two men are on good terms, and no elected official wants to dump on another as they’re about to leave office.
“For me this isn’t about Mayor Jones,” he said. “This is about how I’ve always been able to accomplish goals. That is, being focused like a laser, setting deadlines and setting goals. That’s what we’re going to do. That might be a little different approach than the current administration.”
Didn’t the Jones administration also set deadlines and goals?
“During the campaign, I talked about how I was going to be hands-on, that I was going to be disciplined,” he said. “And I think that’s a total different approach than — you know, the current occupant.”
Asked about those big, seemingly intractable problems — schools, crime, tight budgets — Stoney said all he’s asking for is a little patience.
“I prefer to take a more optimistic view of things,” he said. “There are a lot of little things we can fix right away. But some of the major, cultural deficiencies within the organization will take some time. All I request is giving me a chance to get the job done and get the right people in the seats to make it happen.”
And about those big, future career ambitions?
“I can only be mayor of Richmond for eight years,” Stoney said. “Hey. I haven’t even had an opportunity to work in the job yet. I’d like to do this job well and, if the people of the city think I’ve done a good job, then maybe there will be another opportunity for public office.
“But that’s a ways down the road. I’m going to focus on being the best mayor I can be.”