Image credit: Henrico Monthly
by James A. Bacon
This past April the Richmond Association of Realtors commissioned a poll to assess the views of Henrico County voters toward a proposed 4% meals tax. When CEO Laura Lafayette reviewed the results, she knew the pro-tax forces faced a major challenge in getting the tax enacted. Respondents opposed the idea 67% to 32%.
But on election day, the meals tax passed with a two-point margin of victory. Writing in Henrico Monthly, Greg Weatherford provides the behind-the-scenes story of how the Axis of Taxes got the job done.
The simple explanation is that the taxers out-spent the anti-taxers by 16 to one. Yes 4 Henrico’s Kids, a pro-tax advocacy group backed by the Realtors and other business interests, pumped $197,000 into the campaign. Henrico County spent another $46,000 on a website and mailers. And those numbers under-state the resources invested. County administrators dedicated hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of staff time to delivering the pro-tax sales pitch under the guise of “informational” presentations at dozens of public hearings.
By contrast, Sidney Gunst, the most visible of the anti-tax activists, spent $15,000 of his own money for a website, stickers, Val-Pak inserts and limited advertising.
The really interesting story, though, is the strategy behind the spending. A trio of political consultants active in Democratic Party campaigns — Abbi Easter, Michael Brown and Rhett Walker — formed a brain trust for the Realtors. The “three amigos” came up with one key insight that decided the outcome: While the county’s substantial black population regarded the meals tax as regressive, hitting them disproportionately, they were receptive to the idea that the meals tax would prevent cuts to Henrico County Public Schools, which would impact poor, black-majority schools in the county’s East End the hardest. By framing the issue as one of protecting public schools from cuts, the pro-taxers won decisive support from black voters.
Weatherford describes a meeting in early October in which Varina District Supervisor Tyrone Nelson and about 15 ministers, mostly African-Americans, met with County Manager John Vithoulkas. The Rev. Marcus Martin, writes Weatherford, “came away from the meeting convinced that sharp cuts in the schools budget would fall hardest on poor students, whose parents can’t afford to pay for services not provided through the school.” Without the tax, said Martin, schools faced “catastrophic cuts.”
Gunst and other anti-tax voices (including me) argued that the threat of catastrophic cuts to schools was a scare tactic. First, we noted, property values were booming and the county would enjoy a windfall increase in real estate property tax revenues that had not been anticipated in budget forecasts. Second, we suggested ways the county could find money for schools from general government funding.
But as Weatherford notes, “Opposing voices were drowned out. The well-organized county management and the efficient work of the Richmond Association of Realtors and its team of political consultants were driving home their points.”
The county public relations staff worked all out to line up community meetings, where Vithoulkas, Budget Director Brandon Hinton and other officials could make the case. At the public hearings, county officials refused to debate the opponents on the grounds that they weren’t taking sides, they were simply presenting “the facts,” and therefore there was no one to debate. The format left county officials firmly in control of the hearings. While they did take questions from opponents, administrators could rebut them at length and cut them off at will.
Meanwhile, Yes 4 Henrico’s Kids ramped up its own website, hit the school-disparity issue with a mailer and organized a get-out-the-event drive in which 1,500 school children knocked on doors in the Fairfield district on election day to get out the vote.
It wasn’t easy changing the minds of nearly 20% of voters from opponents from “no” to “yes,” but the pro-taxers pulled it off. They deserve a grudging respect for their political acumen. But the battle is not over. The meals tax is a short-term palliative that will not address Henrico’s long-term fiscal and educational challenges. In the absence of fundamental reform — and there is no evidence that any such reform is contemplated — budget pressures will mount, school performance will continue to underwhelm and the Axis of Taxes will come back for more.