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Richmond, Va., Welcomes Youngest Mayor In Its History

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

On the first day of 2017, Richmond, Va., welcomed a new mayor. He's only 35 years old, a millennial. His name is Levar Stoney, and he is the youngest person ever to hold that office. Two hours south of Washington, D.C., Richmond is a city of 200,000 people, and it's rapidly changing. Economic growth has revitalized its downtown and riverfront. But 1 in 4 residents still lives in poverty.

Over the next year, we'll be checking in with Mayor Stoney to hear how he's dealing with Richmond's challenges. Mayor Stoney joins us from city hall in Richmond, Va.

Welcome to the program, sir.

MAYOR LEVAR STONEY: Hey Lulu. How are you?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm very well. Thank you.

Just to get a sense of your priorities coming in - this is obviously the first time that you're mayor. You're young. You're a Democrat. You have an agenda. What is it briefly?

STONEY: Well, you know, I ran on improving the quality of life of children in this city. Forty percent of our children live in poverty - 40 percent. I knew I could use my role to be what I call the grand convener, bringing all our partners around the table, whether it's the city council or the school board, to focus on doing our part in improving the quality of life of the child. So that was one of my priorities. But No. 2, ensuring that kids have a place to go after school that was going to provide a high-quality enrichment - helping with your homework and tutoring, access to arts and recreation - but also a place where they can get a healthy meal after school.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, this is personal for you. I read that, as a kid, your dad used to tell you that you were one paycheck away from being on the street.

STONEY: Yeah, I remember vividly, you know. And I never believed it because, you know, as a kid, you're living in your own little world. And when I got to college, I used to fill out my own FAFSA forms to ask for student loans and grants and scholarships. And I would actually take a look at my dad's W-2s, and he only made, you know, between $30,000 and $35,000 a year. And he was right - one paycheck away from being on the streets.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Delving into some of the statistics of Richmond has been interesting. Like many cities across America, you are seeing an increase in violent crime, 17 percent increase from 2015 to 2016. Why are those numbers going up?

STONEY: Well, you know, for many years, crime has been very low here in Richmond. I think in those lean years, unfortunately, though, we took our foot off the gas and did not provide our police department with the proper staffing levels but also with the proper pay to get the job done. But additionally, I think we have to redouble our efforts in community policing. That means putting more people back on the beat connecting with their communities but also investing in leveraging technology out there as well, like a lot of other cities.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to talk to you about race. Obviously, you're an African-American mayor in a city that's half black. But it was also the capital of the Confederacy. What does the conversation around race look like in Richmond right now?

STONEY: You know what? During the campaign, someone asked me if my campaign was about race. And I told them I never thought so. I think my generation, millennials, we don't see race the same way that preceding generations before us, baby boomers and others. We see this as - this is something we have to fight together. And so yes, we have a - we have a horrible history, you can say. And you look at our segregated schools or our concentrated poverty - those, to me, are relics of that Confederate culture from years and years ago. That's what we want to work on together as one Richmond. We want to write that next great chapter.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your election was one of the bright spots, let's face it, for the Democratic Party this past election.

STONEY: (Laughter) I've heard that so many times, Lulu (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It did not go well.

STONEY: Every text message, every Facebook message starts the same way - your election was a bright spot on November 8.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's been a lot of debate about how Democratic mayors of cities will deal with this incoming administration, the Republican-led Congress. Do you see your role as basically being a haven for certain progressive ideals? Will you make Richmond into a sanctuary city, for example, for immigrants?

STONEY: Yeah, I think the election of Donald Trump makes a job as mayor more important than it has ever been before. I see myself as a guardian of progressive values. I've seen what fellow cities, like Seattle, have done in institutionalizing the fact that this is a city that's open to everyone. You know, that's a commitment I made, and that's a commitment I plan on following through on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are you worried about the consequences? You could have federal funding taken away.

STONEY: You know, as a mayor and as a chief executive, you always have to basically do a cost-benefit analysis. But I got into politics and public service to right the wrongs and to give the voice to a voiceless. I think if Richmonders are on the menu, I'm going to damn sure stand up for them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mayor Levar Stoney of Richmond, Va. - we'll be checking back in with him throughout his first year in office.

Thanks so very much for being with us.

STONEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.