VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — It’s a race to lead the largest city in Virginia.
This election year, three candidates are vying to become the next mayor of Virginia Beach.
There’s incumbent Mayor Bobby Dyer, former lawyer turned business owner Jody Wagner, and surf shop owner Richard “RK” Kowalewitch.
Dyer is hoping to get re-elected after becoming mayor in 2018. Previously, Dyer served on city council for 14 years.
Over the last two years, he experienced the highs of the Something in the Water music festival and the grand opening of a new sports complex. Then, there were the lows: the tragedy of the mass shooting and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“I have been time tested, I have been battle-tested,” said Dyer. “I have proved that I’m effective and I know how to deal with people. It really comes down to people skills, not grandstanding.”
Looking to the future, Dyer is running his campaign on the message of community, unity, and prosperity for everyone.
If he gets a second term, he said he’ll focus on economic development and bringing high tech jobs to the city.
“We get to be a city of yes, a welcoming city. A city of diversity and inclusion,” Dyer said.
Inside of a busy factory in Norfolk, Jody Wagner runs Jody’s Popcorn. The business owner decided to run after councilmember Aaron Rouse dropped out of the race.
Wagner wants to see change when it comes to economic development in Virginia Beach. One of her plans is to improve the city’s permitting process for new businesses.
“I think that Mayor Dyer has become part of the problem. I think he’s part of the old boy network now, he’s in tight with the developers. I don’t think he’s viewing it as an open competition, and it needs to be,” said Wagner.
Wagner believes she has what it takes to get the job done. If elected, she says her focus will be on job creation and bringing new business to the city. As a business owner, she launched her small business and expanded it beyond Hampton Roads.
Jody’s Popcorn now distributes its products nationwide and internationally. Wagner, a former lawyer, served as state treasurer under former Governor Mark Warner. Later, she became the Secretary of Finance under former Governor Tim Kaine.
Wagner said Virginia Beach is currently facing a lot of challenges. Two issues led to her decision to run: helping businesses get through the coronavirus pandemic and addressing the growing calls for racial justice and equity.
“I started making some phone calls and I called business leaders and faith leaders to get a sense of what people thought about the leadership in Virginia Beach and I heard the same thing, which is that the mayor’s a really nice man, but he’s having difficulty leading,” Wagner explained. “That’s gotta change. We need to really support these restaurants and small businesses. We need them. They're the backbone of our city."
Dyer disagreed with Wagner’s statement, saying he believes the city has handled the impact of the virus well.
“We gave tax deferments and tax incentives, getting businesses open soon. We weathered the storm pretty well, but this is gonna be work in progress for a while,” Dyer remarked.
Business owner Richard “RK” Kowalewitch is also in the race. He’s owned a surf shop in Virginia Beach.
Kowalewitch is running his campaign on the message of law and order. He said his priorities are filling vacancies within the police department and finding solutions for the city’s flooding problems.
“We have shootings out here on a frequency. People don’t wanna come here anymore. That’s a big problem. You’ve got businesses boarding up, you’ve got riots, police out here, it’s become a police state. And that’s not a place for tourism to survive,” Kowalewitch explained.
All of the candidates agreed on several issues: that the city needs to address flooding, aging school buildings, and vacancies at the police department.
The candidates shared their views on several hot-button issues in the city.
Question: the city seems divided when it comes to development. How should the city of Virginia Beach approach new development?
Dyer: “Development has to be smart development. As we run out of space, that is part of the problem. We have to bring that new prosperity in because we have to pay for stormwater, aging schools, it’s important that we create those new revenue streams going forward.”
Wagner: “There are areas of the city that should be developed, there are areas that should be re-developed, and areas that we should keep pristine. Until we solve the flooding problems, we shouldn’t even consider developing cause we’re just gonna exacerbate the problem. In contrast, there are parts of the city that are right for development and we have to have smart development.”
Kowalewitch: “We have to be very careful. We need to curtail some of the building right now and really think carefully about building in low-lying areas.”
Question: Where do you stand on the growing calls for racial equity and justice in Virginia Beach?
Dyer: “Nationally, we are a nation divided, we can’t discount that at all, but I think what I want my legacy to be part of, it's not my legacy, but our legacy as a city… that a couple of years from now we are the template for the rest of this great nation on how a community can come together and unite, work with the police department and public safety agencies, come together as a community. Virginia Beach is a very unique situation in that we have one of the best police departments in this nation. A lot of people would covet the police department that they have, their community outreach and the way they handled the protesters with respect and dignity and professionalism and restraint. One of the reasons I wasn’t out there at the time of the (Black Lives Matter) protest is the police chief advised me not to. I actually met with the leader of the Black Lives Matter. I don’t go for the photo ops, I go for effectiveness. I was on the phone with the leader of Black Lives Matter.”
Wagner: “The long-overdue attention to race and social justice issues needs to be addressed. First of all, it’s reaching out and it's including everybody in the conversation. If I were mayor right now, I would be sitting down with reps of the protesters, of the faith communities, the police department, the police union heads, city council, we should all be sitting around the table and talking about the real problems and real solutions… and that is not happening. There is not a lot of real conversation going on. There’s a lot of happy talk, but there is not a lot of dealing with the issues. The current mayor is really setting up a scenario where you really have to choose. You either want a strong police department or you want social justice. To me, that is ridiculous. It is divisive and destructive to our city. No police officer should be against social justice. And no citizen should be against the police department. They go hand in hand, and we need to work together to address the issues and keep Virginia Beach both safe and fair to all of our citizens.”
Kowalewitch: “I don’t like what I see, and I wanna speak on Virginia Beach. We don’t have that kind of problem here. Even though we’ve had some Black Lives Matter protests, I don’t see that kind of problem in Virginia Beach, but I’m not for everybody being treated differently. I always believed in a level playing field. The laws should be colorblind for all people, I don’t care who you are. I think it’s a constant battle because racism has been there from the start of time.”