A council of cowards

10/11/2018, 6 a.m.
As a political scientist, nothing angers me more than politicians who fail to effectively represent their constituents.

As a political scientist, nothing angers me more than politicians who fail to effectively represent their constituents. 

This happened with Monday’s Richmond City Council meeting.   

A slap in the face to every voter, all but three of our elected City Council members refused to take ownership of an issue that is inherently local. The majority voted to turn down the opportunity to take control of historic statues within the city limits. 

Regardless of the issue at stake, this should never happen in politics. Here’s why.

In a democratic republic, we Richmond residents rely on our local representatives to do what is in the best interest of the city. We do not expect them — nor should they — make decisions based on any other criterion. Clearly, statues on public land within the city should be owned and managed by the city.

The arguments against this simple fact all fail miserably. 

Oh, the irony. 

In the era of Trump, with a president endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan and who idolized the white racists who organized a deadly white power rally in Charlottesville, a majority Democratic-leaning City Council in a majority minority city just voted to allow the most heinous depictions of subjugation in our streets to remain out of their control. One argument suggests that the state legislators would overturn it anyway, so why bother? 

Why bother? Well, a conscience is one good reason to bother. And the fact that nearly every historian agrees that statues depicting the heroism of some who have been documented as murderers of Native Americans and black Americans continue to be hurtful to minorities. 

Richmond is a majority minority city. Apparently, the council forgot that on Monday.

Another reason why the council vote on Monday was cowardly: Confederate soldiers were, by definition, traitors to the nation, while also being strong supporters of state and local rights. And now, more than 100 years after the first statue was erected in the height of Jim Crow lynching, so-called mostly “liberal” City Council members reject local rights.

Oh, the irony. 

Given that local and state’s rights tend to be issues of significance for conservatives, anti-Federalists and the alt-right (aka white supremacists), it isn’t too surprising what a mostly Democratic council did on Monday. But, in the absence of federal protections of those statues and the people their depictions injure, such a vote makes no sense whatsoever.

Localities should have the right to decide what they want to do with any items on public land within their jurisdiction. When our very own local representatives decide otherwise, they have decided to act against the interests of the residents. 

Each council member who voted against the proposal for city ownership of the statues should be very nervous. Vast amounts of political science research in local politics explains how backlash can be expected after controversial votes like the vote Richmond City Council took on Monday. When voters have fiercely held opinions on sensitive matters of identity and history, conditions are ripe for organized resistance.

I know Councilwoman Kim Gray, 2nd District, was endorsed by the Richmond Free Press. Her vote on Monday merits she not be endorsed again.

When nearly every member of the council that voted “no” is not African-American, and each voting “yes” is African-American, you can expect organized resistance and election challengers.

Let’s lift up City Councilman Michael Jones who introduced the resolution and the two council members who voted in favor of it. They are champions for justice. Indeed, descriptive representation matters.



The writer is chair of the Department of Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University.