Progressive populist: Former Mayor Dave Norris reflects on the Charlottesville’s past and future

Eight years is enough for former City Councilor and Mayor Dave Norris, who'll keep his home base in Charlottesville while working a new job in Richmond. Photo: Kelly Kollar Eight years is enough for former City Councilor and Mayor Dave Norris, who’ll keep his home base in Charlottesville while working a new job in Richmond. Photo: Kelly Kollar

After eight years of twice-a-month Monday night meetings, and countless hours corresponding with constituents, city brass, and media, former Charlottesville City Councilor and Mayor Dave Norris is stepping out of the public eye, and feeling pretty good about it.

“I didn’t run for office to feed my ego or climb the political ladder,” he said in an interview on December 18, two days before newly elected city councilor Bob Fenwick and reelected councilor Kristin Szakos took their oaths of office. “I ran for office to get things done in the community.”

Elected in 2006 on a progressive platform that prioritized the environment as well as housing, jobs, and education for the disadvantaged, Norris made things happen and there’s plenty of evidence.

There’s The Crossings at Fourth and Preston, a 60-unit building completed in 2012 with the purpose of providing permanent housing to the homeless, something that had been shown in other cities to reduce costs from multiple arrests and hospitalizations common among those who are chronically homeless.

“I fought for several years to get a housing fund established in the city budget, and ultimately succeeded,” said Norris, who served as mayor from 2008-2012, noting that in addition to providing money for the Crossings, that fund supported the construction or preservation of more than 350 units of affordable housing in the past six or seven years, none of which are government-owned.

“One of the changes I’ve tried to push is how we can meet community needs through innovative approaches,” he said. “In this case, that meant working with the nonprofit and private sectors to get things done.”

Charlottesville Mayor Satyendra Huja is a Norris fan. “He is passionate about issues, and he pursues them,” he said. Former Charlottesville Vice Mayor Meredith Richards also gives the 43-year-old high marks as a politician who worked hard for constituents.

“He especially appealed to youthful voters, who looked up to him as a model of progressive activism,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Business owners, too, appreciated Norris for being level-headed and accessible.

“Dave has been the guy we could always count on to call in the city who could listen, think about the situation, and do the right thing,” said Mark Brown, owner of the Main Street Arena, recalling that Norris was particularly supportive of the Arena’s installation of a large array of roof-top solar panels.

While Norris may be best known for his support of progressive issues, he resists being categorized as far left across the board.

“I consider myself a populist, and I’ve enjoyed good support from party-line Dems but also people who don’t identify with the Democratic Party,” he said. “I proudly stood for LGBT equality, and supported marriage equality, I’ve been strong on issues of race, poverty and opportunity, but on the fiscal side, I’m more of a hawk.”

He cites several examples of his more conservative side, including his vote on the so-called “rain tax,” a stormwater fee implemented in February that charges property owners for the amount of impervious surface on their property. Norris was the only councilor to vote against it.

As for another contentious water-related issue, the 50-year water supply plan, Norris was a vocal proponent of dredging the existing reservoir rather than building a dam and clearing the Ragged Mountain Natural Area. After City Council unanimously voted to support the dredging plan, three of his fellow councilors voted to support the dam construction in January 2011.

“That was a pretty frustrating experience in general,” said Norris. “But the nature of democracy is you don’t always get your way.”

As for future projects Norris would like to see completed in a hurry, he cites finding a permanent home for City Market, the creation of more skilled labor jobs in the city, and a proper fix for the stench frequently emanating from the water treatment plant in the Woolen Mills.

“It’s affecting thousands on a regular basis,” he said of the odor.

Norris will be spared smelling the treatment plant on weekdays from now on as he’ll be staying in Richmond for his new job as director of community impact with the United Way of Greater Richmond and Petersburg. Charlottesville, however, will remain his home base, and he’s not giving up his role on a  variety of local nonprofit boards including the Public Housing Association of Residents and the Charlottesville-Winneba Foundation, which supports the sister-city relationship between Charlottesville and that city in Ghana, Africa.

And while he’s proud of his political accomplishments, and determined to remain active in various causes relating to housing, poverty, and discrimination, Norris doesn’t see another run for public office anytime soon, if ever.

“It’s been a great ride,” he said. “But I don’t have higher ambitions.”


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