In the Chair: Jon Baliles, mayoral candidate
Panelists for this session: Barry Fitzgerald, Betty Garrett, Michael Garrett, Don Harrison, Katey Knox, Reggie Pace, James Parrish, Gordon Stettinius, Matt Zoller.
Host: Terry Rea
Background: A few weeks ago, during a Facebook discussion about Richmond's nettlesome baseball stadium issue, something interesting occurred. After some messaging back and forth a sit-down meeting with mayoral candidate Jack Berry was arranged. It took place on Oct. 3 in the Bijou Film Center's downtown screening room space. Berry met with a savvy group of invited citizens for about 90 minutes, to answer questions and discuss various local political issues. Thus the concept of the Bijou Salon was launched.
Oct. 23, 2016: Jon Baliles sat in the Bijou Salon chair for a freewheeling discussion of his views. As with the Berry session, no political beat reporters were invited. No television journalists were invited. No recordings of the confab were allowed. Once again, the conversation went on for about 90 minutes. Again, it was more like friends and associates sitting around a table, drinking beer (wine or sodas) and politely taking turns asking questions and making comments.
For the Baliles session, while the candidate did most of the talking, it was striking what a good listener he was. He responded directly to questions. Everyone on hand who had something to say, said it. For the most part, no one was cut off or talked over. Moreover, Baliles' answers didn't seem to be canned talking points. It was refreshing.
Baliles explained the evolution of his view of the baseball stadium issue, in depth. Given the pivotal role he played in scuttling Mayor Dwight Jones' Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium proposal, it was good to hear Baliles talk about his 2014 telephone conversation with his fellow councilman, Charles Samuels, that led to their joint press release. That statement by Baliles and Samuels effectively put the kibosh to the mayor's puzzling, wrongheaded plan to move professional baseball from the Boulevard to the Bottom.
Baliles also spoke at length about his history of interacting with the arts community, especially with the mural project he and artist Ed Trask headed up. Note: Both Berry and Baliles can talk comfortably and credibly about their associations with Richmond's arts community, but there's a difference. Berry's perspective seems more from the top down, while Baliles' seems more from the bottom up.
When it came to his understanding of the admissions tax issue Baliles showed he has done his homework better than some candidates. Most Richmonders have no sense of how that hidden seven percent tax -- that comes off the top of every ticket sold in Richmond -- acts to truncate our entertainment options, or how it works against show biz, itself. Because he understands its impact, Baliles favors phasing the city's counterproductive admissions tax out, perhaps at a rate of one percent per year, until it's kaput.
Generally speaking, Baliles showed a noteworthy depth of understanding for each issue discussed. He left me with little doubt about his ability to hit the ground running, should he win. Nonetheless, I am still undecided about which mayoral candidate will get my vote on Nov. 8, because I want to do more listening, myself.
After the first two Bijou Salons, it's already obvious that our relaxed format has allowed for more complete answers than a typical candidates-on-stage forum provides. With several candidates standing before a seated audience, to take turns answering questions with practiced sentences designed to be soundbites, it's hard to get a feel for any particular candidate's range and depth of knowledge, their ability to listen, or their sense of humor.
From what I can tell the panelists seem to have been enjoying their role during the sessions. Overall, they've been fun to do, so far. Mayoral candidate Levar Stoney will sit in the Bijou Salon chair next. My report on that upcoming session will be posted later this week.