A historic election took place on May 3. Roanoke City residents voted Sherman P. Lea Sr. as mayor and Anita James Price as vice mayor. I sat down and talked with each of these multi-term members of Roanoke City Council about their thoughts on the Star City of the South, where it shines and what direction it needs to go.
Why did you initially decide to run for political office?
Lea: I have always had the attitude that if you want something done, you have to do it yourself. And when I moved here from Danville I was in an appointed position. I was on the board for the Redevelopment and Housing Commission. After serving there for a couple of years I moved to Roanoke. I served on the PTA and later became interested in serving on the Roanoke City School Board. I was then appointed to the School Board and served there for five years. Of course as a school board member, you are constantly meeting with city council. I felt like working on council, which is the governing body of the city, I could have a lot more input in terms of funding and the things we can do for schools. So it was a challenge and something I saw as a move up. There were also things
within the community that caught my interest – one in particular being Victory Stadium. And so, I set out to run for council to save Victory Stadium.
Price: Deciding to initially run came after much soul searching and checking in with my family! I never really had a desire to run for a public office – however, I have always had a drive to help others and to help where needed. I served as president of Roanoke Education Association for a number of years and began to truly understand how the political process affects every aspect of our lives. During that tenure, I had opportunities to interact with the school board, city council and Virginia’s General Assembly. Through those experiences, I was able to better understand that to evoke change, you have to be not only in the room, but at the table. I was encouraged by several folks to run for city council and was pleasantly surprised when I won my first primary in 2008.
On May 3, you were elected as Roanoke’s second African American mayor. How does that make you feel?
Lea: First of all, it is an honor to come behind Rev. Noel Taylor. I am excited for reasons other than the fact that I am the second African American mayor. I hope what my election does is encourage young African American males, letting them know that they can be mayor or aspire even higher. Work hard. Stay in school. Become connected in the community, and they can do it. That is what is important regarding the election – that it gives young people hope and aspirations to do things in their community. To become involved.
It is constantly mentioned that you are the first African American female on Roanoke City Council and now the first African American female as vice mayor. What does this historical fact mean to you?
Price: To be honest, I am still processing just what that means and allowing it to really sink in. For a time, I didn’t really want to dwell on the fact that I am the first African American female on city council, because it reminded me of a time when a supervisor told me I was lucky I was black because Roanoke was looking for black teachers. I took offense to that and told her I certainly hoped she would hire me because I am a good teacher, not for the color of my skin. I still believe that a person should be evaluated or accepted on their merit – not to obtain some quota. But I do humbly accept the awesome recognition that I am a first! That in itself is not to be taken lightly and is a responsibility that I accept with great humility. The fact that I will be recorded in the history of Roanoke is so overwhelming, and I don’t want to allow myself to be caught up in the “hype.” It is my prayer and desire that my service on Roanoke City Council has recorded that I made a difference for the advancement of our city and its people – it’s not about me, but what I can do to encourage others.
Do you feel Roanoke is headed in the right direction considering you are only the second African American mayor?
Lea: I feel it is. I feel we are a progressive city in many aspects, especially when it comes to elected officials. Roanoke has had a history of having minorities, especially African Americans, in high office. We have Anita Price my colleague as vice mayor. There’s an elected African American sheriff, we have an African American commissioner of revenue, clerk of the circuit court, police chief and [have had] at least two African American school superintendents. I think we have had a history of being progressive when it comes to local officials, but I would like to see us improve when it comes to that area. But I am pleased with where we are as a city in regards to that, and I feel it is incumbent for us to continue to pave the way to those that will come behind us. To make sure that we are committed in service and conduct ourselves in a way in which people won’t necessarily look at the color of your skin, but look at your character and personality and your willingness to improve the quality of life within your tenure.
Do you feel Roanoke is headed in the right direction considering you are the only African American female on city council?
Price: It is my prayer – as I had hoped it would be with this past election – that another African American woman would join me on council, and I certainly hope that will not be much longer! Progress is coming, but it can be slow to change. At least there will be one more woman on council this go round and I am thankful for that. But, as I said before, in order to make a change for the better, you have to be at the table. The dynamics of council have changed, but additional representation is needed of other minority groups. We’re not quite there yet, but thank God we aren’t where we used to be.
What would you like to see improve in Roanoke?
Lea: I would like to see us improve the poverty rate in our city. I have been concerned with the number of homeless children that we have. We have over 70 percent of our students who are getting free and reduced lunch; that’s a concern. I hope we can work to improve that. I realize that sitting on council, we are not able to do that alone. It is going to take us coming together and partnering with local agencies while collaborating [efforts] in order to make this happen. And I hope that it improves, especially as it concerns the children who don’t have a place to live. We can do better than that. And I am hoping that we will.
Price: Equity and equality for all – throughout the city. Unfortunately, we still have poverty in our city. We are all aware of the impact of poverty not just on the individual but its implications across all lines – economically and quality of life. I want to see improvements for all of our citizens no matter what quadrant of the city a person lives in. I would also like to see more racial diversity in our neighborhoods. A certain area of a city should not be automatically defined as being dominated by one racial group.
What would be your first step to combat the above?
Lea: To make sure we create jobs. To give the parents of those students an opportunity to work, by making sure we have a trained work force, a work force that will meet the criteria of the companies that are coming in the area. We need to do all that we can here in the city to make sure we can create jobs to give people that chance to [regain] self-esteem and to be able to provide for their families. Also, continuing an open dialogue with those agencies like Goodwill and Rescue Mission, which assist those persons with a place to live.
Price: Somehow we must have an open honest dialogue on addressing equity. I’m with groups that address this issue, such as Points of Diversity. The good thing is that it is not still the “elephant in the room” that no one wants to acknowledge. We are blessed to have organizations that do recognize the need to address poverty.
If you had a magic wand, what’s one thing you would do for the city – regardless of how much it would cost or how ridiculous of an idea?
Lea: I would provide all the homeless children a wholesome place to live. And to also provide those that want to work, a job. And find a means to get them a job.
Price: That every child had everything they needed to be successful. That would include good food and fresh produce (a decent affordable grocery store within every neighborhood). That each child lived in warm, decent housing and did not live with the worry of where they will sleep at night. That all our neighborhoods and streets are well-kept, proudly displayed and beautiful. That magic wand would just do everything to make the entire city clean and maintained. And then for fun, for the younger folks – a Dave & Buster’s!
What do you think about the diversity in Roanoke?
Lea: Although we have 105 different nationalities in Roanoke, I think diversity is something we can improve on. [Even when observing city appointments] we have a number of boards and commissions, but we don’t have much diversity on them. It starts with us as leaders. It is something we can work toward, because it is important. It’s important that citizens see that we are diverse in what we do, especially for our young people. It starts with us as a governing body. There is still work to be done. I am a little frustrated at times when see a lot of activities that are going on in our community and I don’t see a lot of diversity. For example, on the weekends, in downtown [I notice] sometimes at concerts and other events. I think if it wasn’t for events like the Henry Street Festival we would be lacking in a lot of areas as it relates to different cultures and groups that come into our city. We are working on it and we are doing a good job. I am pleased with what we are doing at the Berglund Center. But I think we can improve. As leaders of the community we have to stay vigilant, to make sure we do what we can do. We decide who is going to be on these boards and commissions. It starts there. We want that to permeate down into our schools, in our education system. We can improve, especially with African American male teachers. They need more presence in our schools. For that matter, more minority teachers in general. I don’t see enough minority teachers in the school system, and there should be.
Price: It’s exciting to see the changes in diversity over the past 35-plus years. When I first moved here in the late ’70s, I remember thinking, “Not many folks look like me in this city.” When I was teaching at Patrick Henry High School, Roanoke received immigrants from Bosnia; then at Round Hill Elementary, we had children from Sudan, Haiti, Mexico and many other places. So fortunately, the diversity of our city has changed. Local Colors started with a handful of nations – now ambassador Pearl Fu reports over 105 nationalities are represented in the Roanoke Valley! I think that is a strong testament that we, as a community, are warm and welcoming to people of every race, nationality and creed.
What three words would you use to describe Roanoke?
Lea: Growing. Caring. Scenic.
Price: Vibrant. Evolving. Promising.