Political salon

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Paul Beyer greeted me, barefoot, as I entered his loft apartment. After a firm handshake, I was ushered to one of three mismatched couches that fill the space he currently shares with his younger brother Scott. Beer in hand, he welcomed a dozen other guests to his twice weekly “Talk About the City” salon. It’s essentially a loosely defined, informal political forum he started after he announced his Democratic candidacy for City Council.

Paul Beyer has been hosting “Talk About the City” since the beginning of his campaign. “The fear is that it’s going to be talk and there isn’t going to be a sense of momentum,” he says. “A critical part of this is taking the engagement and finding tangible ways to implement it.”  

The guests represented a wide range, from an incoming UVA graduate student and young entrepreneurs eager to get down to the nitty-gritty of policy making, to a former elected official in the market for new and fresh perspectives on Charlottesville.

“For the talks to be effective, they are going to need diverse participants and audiences,” says Beyer. “They also need vitality and that’s going to come specifically from younger people who are starting their businesses, they are starting their families and really getting them plugged in into the city.”

As one of the youngest candidates for City Council, Beyer, 29, a local developer, is banking on a network of young, ambitious residents to help him win his race. The idea of a public forum of this kind has not been a political maneuver, says Beyer. Instead, it is an outgrowth of dinners he’s been having with his friends for some time.

“I would fix everyone a huge dinner and at the end of the night there would be bottles of wine and plates everywhere, and we would just have these tremendous conversations,” says Beyer.

“I wanted to make them ever more specifically targeted to city issues.” That’s where the politician comes in.

Although the Talks don’t have a set script, Beyer plays moderator, flashing quick targeted talking points the guests pick up and expand on. Some of his favorite and most intense conversations have been about infrastructure and green space. On the night I was there, he hinted at a new pet project called a “pocket park,” a green space in the outskirts of the city that is open to residents.

Meredith Richards, former City Councilor and rail advocate, was also present and was prompted to discuss, unsurprisingly, rail funding, and local transportation issues more generally. Richards, who has been singled out for her efforts in bringing passenger service to Charlottesville, delved into the financing of the Northern Regional, a service from Lynchburg, to Washington D.C., to New York City. “We are headed to 200,000 passengers,” she said, a major success considering the service was funded for only three years as a pilot project. This year, the route made money, $1.3 million over operating costs, an almost unthinkable feat. For an hour, Richards answered questions from guests about its future, the reasons behind the absence of a rail connection to Richmond and the economic impact of trains on cities the size of Charlottesville.

“I thought it was really stimulating,” she told me afterwards. “It exposed people of different generations and from all walks of life to different points of view.” When the discussion turned to art, one of Beyer’s platform points, it was Richards who became the student.

For Ty Cooper, a business owner and event promoter, the talks have given him a new understanding of the city. “I got a lot from it,” he told me. “It was almost like research.”

At the Talk he attended, homelessness on the Downtown Mall was the hot topic of discussion. “I am from Harlem, I don’t see a homeless issue here,” he said. “But it was interesting to find out that is a problem for people.”

Beyer says that regardless of the outcome of the upcoming firehouse primary, the talks have given him a starting point.

“I think whether I am elected or not, the talks have been a really valuable forum for what people are thinking about,” says Beyer. “The talks are a way to focus on tangible things that can occur, whether it’s public infrastructure projects or cultural diversity projects. There are really innumerable conversations that can take off.”

For me, as the only member of the press there, the Talk was an opportunity to peruse the hidden desires and grandiose visions of the average Charlottesvillian. It was also a welcome break from the daily dose of political and bureaucratic bickering.

Beyer is one of seven candidates running for the Democratic nomination of Council’s three open seats. The Democratic firehouse primary at Burley Middle School will decide the three nominees on August 20.

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