Richmond’s Levar Stoney, recently returned from Israel, eyes governor’s mansion

For Mayor Stoney, a rising star in Virginia Democratic politics, removing Confederate monuments led him to take up the fight against antisemitism

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney leads a very Democratic city in a state that is currently home to Virginia’s popular Republican governor. The 42-year-old mayor is quick to admit he’s got his eye on the governor’s mansion, just a few miles from his home in the Old Dominion’s capital city. 

“I’m going to seriously consider running for governor in 2025,” Stoney, a Democrat, confirmed in an interview last week.  

But Stoney’s driving belief that Democrats should take back control of state government doesn’t mean he disagrees with everything Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has done since moving into Stoney’s city early last year. In an interview with Jewish Insider, Stoney commended Youngkin for his work fighting antisemitism, including his creation of the first state-level commission dedicated to addressing antisemitism. 

“When I had my first conversation with Governor Youngkin, I told him that when he’s doing some great things for the Commonwealth of Virginia, I want to recognize him for that,” said Stoney. “When it comes to the commission to combat antisemitism, I think Governor Youngkin was doing the right thing. And I think the recommendations, the follow-through, I applaud that.” 

Stoney, who leads a city of 226,000, has become a vocal advocate for the city’s 10,000 Jews. As the president of the Democratic Mayors Association and an occasional surrogate for the Biden administration, the second-term mayor has carved out a niche for himself on the national stage. He’s also taken an active role internationally. Stoney delivered an address at a December conference in Greece dedicated to antisemitism, and he recently participated in a delegation to Israel for American mayors. The trip was Stoney’s first visit to the Jewish state. 

“I think it’s very, very important that mayors lay out very clearly that antisemitism and hate have no room in their cities,” Stoney said. “We’ve had to tackle hate in Richmond in a different way, sometimes. A lot of the focus has always been on racism, this being the former capital of the Confederacy.”

One of the city’s best-known boulevards is Monument Avenue, a wide, tree-lined grassy avenue flanked on both sides by stately southern homes — and, until 2021, dotted with imposing statues of Confederate soldiers. Stoney’s tenure saw the mayor’s position evolve, after he first wanted to add plaques offering context to the statues rather than removing them. Then, when racial justice protesters marched in the city in 2020, he began to order the removal of the city’s major Confederate statues. The largest statue, of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, was removed in 2021 after a heated political fight and a ruling from the state Supreme Court. 

“I think that was probably one of the reasons why I was asked to go on this trip [to Athens], was because of the work I’ve done on combating racism and the Lost Cause impacts here in Richmond,” Stoney said. 

In his speech at the Athens Mayors Summit Against Antisemitism, Stoney highlighted the historic relationship between the Black and Jewish communities in the U.S., particularly during the civil rights movement. 

“When it comes to the relationship between Black and Jewish communities, we have marched together. We have bled together. We have mourned together. And it’s true that we have also quarreled and occasionally stood opposite one another. It is fair to say we’ve had a special relationship,” said Stoney, who is Black. 

Now, he argued, Black and Jewish communities stand on the same side of Republicans’ efforts to revise state history curricula, which Stoney called “whitewashing history.” 

“That’s a problem for me,” Stoney noted. He linked the teaching of historical injustices like the Holocaust and slavery, suggesting that teaching about both will help better combat hate. 

“I believe the reason that we have some of these incidents of antisemitism and hate, it’s because we’re not teaching it in our schools,” Stoney said. “We need to teach our children about the Holocaust. We need to teach our children about slavery. We need to teach our children also about the heroes in the Jewish American community and in the Black community as well.”

Stoney said he supported antisemitism-related legislation introduced by Youngkin this year, including a bill that sought to define antisemitism according to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism. 

“I would have supported the legislation,” he said. “I don’t think this is a Republican or Democratic issue when it comes to combating antisemitism, when it comes to combating hate. This is about human rights.”

Stoney’s recent trip to Israel, on a delegation organized by the American Jewish Committee, was his first. “I’ve got two words for you: It’s complicated. That’s what I learned on the trip,” he said. The delegation flew home one day after protests and widespread strikes briefly halted outgoing flights at Ben Gurion Airport, and the group saw firsthand the Israeli public debate over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s now-paused judicial reform legislation.

“It’s my hope that, during this pause, we find a way to strengthen democracy in Israel, because Lord knows we don’t need a democracy devolving into an autocracy,” Stoney said. “We need to strengthen democracy. And when you strengthen democracy, you will use it as a tool to combat hate and antisemitism.”

Stoney reflected that the Israel he experienced was very different from what he described as the “Americanized media version” of the country.

“For instance, I didn’t know that Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis all live amongst one another. You would not know that from the American media,” he said. “They all want to coexist and live in harmony. Just like we have in this country, in the United States, there’s extremism on both sides, who unfortunately impede the progress towards peace.”

Stoney prayed at the Western Wall with this in mind. He wrote “a prayer for peace, not only in Israel, but peace in the United States of America as well,” he recalled. 

Going on the trip was an easy decision, Stoney said. “It’s very, very important for mayors to have a firsthand view of what’s going on in Israel because I believe that they’re one of America’s greatest partners,” he said, adding that it also made sense given that his Jewish constituents are supporters of Israel.

“It’s very, very important to have an understanding of the communities or the nations that those who live in your community are connected to,” said Stoney. Earlier this year, he sent a letter to U.S. mayors, urging them to celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month in May, which he pledged to do in Richmond.  

Stoney has worked in Democratic politics since graduating from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., in 2004, when he became a fellow in then-Gov. Mark Warner’s administration. In 2013, Gov. Terry McAuliffe appointed Stoney secretary of the commonwealth, making him the youngest member of McAuliffe’s cabinet until he ran for Richmond mayor in 2016, becoming the city’s youngest-ever mayor at 35. But he says that despite his upward trajectory in the state’s Democratic establishment, he has always understood the state to be “purple” — and blamed Democrats’ 2021 loss, at least in part, on low voter turnout.

“Sometimes this happens,” Stoney conceded. “Nonetheless, I think there are some lessons that we can gain from the 2021 loss. That is, we have to continue to focus on kitchen-table issues as the Democratic Party. I think every parent, no matter whether they’re Democrat or Republican, rich or poor, left or right, they want their children to be successful.” 

This comment could be read as a jab at McAuliffe, Stoney’s former mentor who lost to Youngkin in the 2021 gubernatorial race and said in a debate that parents shouldn’t have a say in what kids are taught in Virginia public schools. 

“I want to make sure every child is able to make it,” said Stoney, and pointed to public education, affordable housing, public safety and workforce training as priorities. “I think the Democratic Party has to get back to those essentials, the fundamentals of what creates a successful life for someone so they can live comfortably.” 

The field of Democratic contenders for Virginia’s 2025 gubernatorial race, still more than two years away, is already crowded with possible contenders. Former Virginia Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn told JI last month that she is considering a bid. Other potential candidates include Rep. Abigail Spanberger and former Rep. Elaine Luria. 

The Richmond mayor, who in 2020 appeared in a campaign ad for President Joe Biden and has served as a media surrogate for the Biden administration, has thrown his lot in with the president for his 2024 reelection campaign.

“I think President Biden has been one of the most consequential presidents we’ve had probably in a generation,” said Stoney. “Any individual with that sort of record should run for reelection, and President Biden should run for reelection.”

Stoney, though, is term-limited — he’s out of a job at the end of 2024. In the meantime, he said, “the main thing is to be the best mayor I can be for the 230,000 Richmonders.” 

After that, he might still be living in the community he has led since 2017, just in a new address. 

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