In advance of the June 21 Democratic primary for Roanoke City Council, The Roanoke Rambler is publishing interviews with each of the four candidates.
Councilman Joe Cobb, Terry McGuire, Councilwoman Vivian Sanchez-Jones and Peter Volosin are running as Democrats. The primary on June 21 — in which any registered voter can take part — will determine which three will go on to the Nov. 8 general election. The local Republican party has already picked the three candidates who will run in November: Dalton Baugess, Nick Hagen and Maynard Keller. Independents have until August to declare their candidacies.
The Rambler will be publishing interviews with the Republican and independent candidates as we get closer to the general election. In November, voters will pick three candidates for regular four-term terms and one candidate for a special two-year term to replace the seat vacated by former councilman Robert Jeffrey Jr. For now, these interviews focus on the competitive June primary.
This week, we sit down with Councilman Joe Cobb about why he's running for a second term. (You can watch how we decided on our publication lineup here!) Cobb, 60, became vice mayor in 2018, when he was elected with the most votes, and became Roanoke's first openly gay member of Council. Cobb works as the chaplain at Hermitage Roanoke, a senior living community. He lives in the Old Southwest neighborhood.
These interviews are accessible to non-subscribers to promote civic engagement to the widest possible audience. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Why are you running to serve on Roanoke City Council?
I'm running for reelection because I want to continue the work, not only that I've invested in as a council member, but I think the city has invested in, and two or three of the main components of that are transportation, reducing gun violence, and for me, really focusing on healing our city, and I'll talk a little bit about what that means.
Public transit has been important to me for a very long time. Not only the availability of it, but the accessibility and the ability to not only continue to transform how it's perceived, but how it's utilized. And not only in the city, but beyond that. A couple of my early goals were, let's make sure that expanding hours and Sunday service are part of the strategic plan. They are, and now we're going to be able to pilot that in a very tangible way. The transit center was a significant piece of that, the purchase of electric buses, another piece of that. And continuing to develop relationships with other localities.
I notice that we're dealing with increased gun violence, with the opioid deaths. So the combination of those, the increase we saw in visible homelessness, who are unsheltered, the mental health crisis. All of those things are still in play and the trauma that emerges from those intersects. So I think there, it's really critical that we have an understanding, as a city, on how to address those from a healing model. One of the grants that we are funding through violence interruption dollars is going to be led by Youth Advocates Program. And it's probably a five- or six-year-old model, but it's kind of looking at trauma differently. And instead of saying what happened to you, it focuses on what's right with you. So it's a healing-centered engagement program. And this grant is going to allow Youth Advocates to start a pilot program in the city that works with people who are on the frontlines of this. Give them the training, give them the support so that then they can continue to expand that out. It's that kind of a model that I really want to see the city utilize on a broader basis in a variety of ways to reach citizens and connect with people. And I can't say that that's unique for person who's in a local government role to advocate for that, but in some ways it is. Because we tend to be very policy focused, budget focused, strategic priorities, but for me, there is such a deep undercurrent of pain and trauma in our city for all of those reasons that if we're not finding ways to address that, collectively, we're just going to see a continuation of some of the violence we're seeing. Because if violent acts and implications from those aren't addressed, then they'll keep showing up in more violent acts. Those are kind of three key priorities that I would say are reasons that I want to continue this work.
This kind of speaks to priorities, and maybe I'll put it in a couple of ways. What do you seek to accomplish next term that you haven't been able to so far, and why? Or, upon reelection, what is the first ordinance that you would seek to propose and why?
I think for me, it's more about a continual advocacy for our strategic priorities in the city. To cite one ordinance that I might bring forward, I'm not sure what that would be at this point, because I tend to look at issues from the big picture first, and what the reality is in the city, and then what is within our role as a local government, what are we given the authority to do? Because the Dillon Rule, you take that into account ,and then if there is an aspect of the law, or the state code that needs to be amended to allow us to do a better job, then what would that look like?
So one area of concern to me is when we talk about housing, that's a big conversation because it has so many facets. But I continue to be frustrated by the number of calls and complaints I receive from either homeowners or tenants of properties that are frustrated by blighted properties on the block or properties that continue to just be a nuisance. So from the ordinance standpoint, if there was a way for us to strengthen our ordinance, to give it some more teeth in terms of absentee landlords or slumlords that essentially just meet the minimum requirements of these properties — and many of them don't live in the area — and find a way in part through ordinance in part through the new land bank, which which we had to go back to the General Assembly multiple times to address some of the loopholes that were there. And so that's an example of an ordinance that I might request. But I have to look at it within the big picture, because I'm also aware that part of the problem is that the zoning court and the judge, you know, may or may not hold landlords accountable, or they may only hold them accountable at the minimum level. And so is there something that needs to change in the judicial system to better address that, and then how do we do that as a city? How do we advocate for that? Because I think blight is a serious problem.
What do you think is one of the most pervasive misconceptions about what it means to serve on City Council, that you hear either from community members or candidates who haven’t served yet?
I think there are a couple of observations. One is that campaigns are great because they can address what we aspire to, as a candidate, as someone who is asking the public to vote for us, to be leaders. Along with the aspirational piece of it, I've come to realize — and I knew this even before Council — that there are seven people on Council, including the mayor. And if you are really passionate about something, you've got to find a way to make at least three other people on Council passionate about it, to move it forward. But ideally, you want all of Council to be supportive of it, because we are elected at large. We represent the city as a whole and we're a city manager-led government. So we have to work collaboratively and closely with our city manager and all of our city departments. So from the beginning, it's a collaborative process. And if I have an idea, then I want to make sure I'm communicating that idea to all of the people who can help make that decision.
And so it's often this balancing act of knowing that individuals are dealing with this and yet they also want this, and so as a Council member, it's really critical in my discernment process to weigh that. And I take that very seriously. So even though we run individually as candidates, we need to have this understanding of how systems work, how organizations work, how important it is to have good and open communication with our colleagues and with the people we serve. And then come to the best decision, both individually and collectively. So that's how I try and approach everything, but it's the distinction between being very aspirational as a candidate and being a leader as an elected official. And you can still be aspirational as a leader, but you have to measure that along with how decisions are made, and how input is received.
I think also there's a misunderstanding about what Council actually is responsible for, and what they're not responsible for. And so, you know, our kind of three key roles are to set the strategic priorities for the division for the city, make sure that our budget aligns with that, adopt a budget and set policy. Those are really our essential responsibilities. And then to represent the people that we serve. We field a lot of calls. We're often asked to find resolution on an issue where there hasn't been a resolution or there's frustration. We are required by city code to work through the city manager.
As you talk with voters, what topic has come up that either you didn't expect to hear from people, or if there's not one of those, just something that's a foremost concern on people's minds?
Well, there are a couple of things I hear. One is that there's an appreciation for me showing up throughout the city and being present. There's an acknowledgement of the work that's being done, but still a growing concern about gun violence. That's probably the thing I hear most about all over. It's interesting when I asked people what they're concerned about, the economy doesn't come up often unless we're having a longer conversation about it. But I do think there's a tension between realizing, you know, 'I'm feeling the pinch right now,' but 'I also understand why it's important for the city to invest in paving our roads, making sure our sidewalks are fixed and safe, repairing potholes.' And so that's what I am hearing a lot of is that, 'We want more of this.' And 'We're all also feeling stressed, kind of pinched in the wallet.' How can we do both?
What do you see as the most disappointing or frustrating action or inaction that council has taken recently?
Well, in answering the question, I'm going to again reiterate that every decision is, in my mind, multifaceted. So I might be disappointed by some aspect of a decision, but I understand the whole of the decision. So the example I can give to you is the ordinance to ban the sidewalk camping, as a fairly recent one. I had some tension about that as someone who has worked in homeless services for much of my adult life in different capacities. And I expressed the reasons I didn't support the ordinance.
The reason I didn't support it was because of the misdemeanor charge, the fine. And I did believe we had, outside of the really good shelter programs we have, at the time we didn't really have a low barrier shelter. And I still believe we need to do some kind of outdoor model program. But I completely understood from the business standpoint why that was important. And I can see the benefits of it. I also knew that in doing this, people were just going to move to other parts of the city and so the airport thing existed, it continues to exist, but Southeast is experiencing this on some other levels. And other parts of the city, some in Northeast.
And so I'd like to see us be willing, in as reasonable a way as possible, to take some more risks in terms of the piloting of some programs, like a tiny village, finding land. Because we need to make sure, in my mind, that if we're going to start something let's start it with the idea that we can sustain it if it works. Because there's nothing more frustrating than saying we'll fund this for a year. If it's addressing a long-term root cause related problem, we're not going to take care of it in a year. That's what I keep reiterating about gun violence.
You’ve served almost four years on Council. What has been your proudest accomplishment over that time?
I think being vice mayor was just an extraordinary honor. It was not something that I expected. It was a wonderful surprise and delight, and being able to work closely with the mayor and the city manager and provide that kind of leadership, I'm very proud of. And I'm very proud of our city. I’d like to think I'm one of our city's biggest cheerleaders. Not only in terms of celebrating who we are, but who we're yet to become and how to get us there. In terms of my role as a council member, I'm very honored by the work to reduce gun violence. And it's extremely difficult work. And I'm proud of our city for really stepping up and wanting to address this in so many different ways, from citizens to community partners to youth service providers to faith communities. And I’m proud of the resilience of our city.
I feel like we're in a really good place and the trajectory ahead is very positive. And I believe that we have the creative capacity to take what we know and do well, and love, and apply that to our greatest challenges and find a way through those. But it's not easy work. It's going to take long-term — even beyond my time on Council to carry that forward. So I'm willing to not only talk about that, but everyday work on that and empower others to be a part of that solution, which I think is really important.
We have a rapid response section that will list some specific issues that have prompted controversy or close votes before City Council recently, and for each one, say whether you voted for or against and why in just a sentence or two. We'll start with the sidewalk homeless camping ordinance.
I voted against it because I didn't support the misdemeanor fine, and I didn't feel like we had a viable, already present low-barrier shelter option.
0 Brandon Avenue.
In the end, I voted against it. While I support the idea of expanded housing opportunities, I was concerned about the environmental impact. I was concerned about the density, the number of units there, and I was concerned about — while I don't think there's a magic beans solution to the traffic there — I was concerned that there was not another exit out of there to make it more workable. And I don't know the long term solution to that.
The new bus station.
I voted to support it. I think it's a great location. I said during the original meeting, I think having the future of transit and the history of transit right next door to each other is beautiful. It's in very close proximity to the Amtrak platform. So it is accessible. We have the new station that will be renovated to serve the two trains now through Amtrak, so I'm a staunch supporter of that.
And finally, the plastic bag fee.
I think it was an important step to take for two reasons. I voted for it. To reduce plastic bags and to let people know the value of using recycled bags. I have appreciated many local businesses showing their support and either absorbing the cost or being thoughtful about whether or not to pass it on to the customer. I've appreciated those who work with a lot of EBT clients to make sure they have a bag. I appreciated the city's outreach effort to make sure that reusable recyclable bags were available.
To sort of test your metaphorical thinking, if you were a building in Roanoke, which one would you be and why?
I'll say the Melrose Library for a lot of reasons. One is, its location is in many ways in the heart of the city and in the heart of one of our greatest challenges, gun violence. It was done so beautifully and collaboratively with a lot of organizations. The libraries have been an integral part of our last several All-America City awards because of their visionary work. I’m an avid reader. It's a bright, open, sunny community-based space. Our first ever youth and gang violence community assessment, the team that we hired to do that, they centered their work out of the Melrose Library. It’s close to the Kiwanis playground, the Goodwill Youth HQ, the new EnVision Center. It's kind of located in the hub of some of our greatest challenges and our greatest opportunities in the city.
You mentioned you're an avid reader. What's on your nightstand?
What I'm currently reading is called This Here Flesh [by Cole Arthur Riley], which is a quote from Toni Morrison’s book Beloved. It is part of my doctoral work on the intersections of City Farm, Old Lick and Coyner Springs cemeteries. [It's about] the role of repair and reparation but also healing within a community that's experienced historic trauma. And the writer kind of explores that through her own life and experiences. I’m trying to think what else is there. It's a huge stack. Ann Patchett, it's a collection of essays called ["These Precious Days"]. The essay that I'm currently reading is, she writes about her three fathers, so biological and other men in her life. It's a powerful essay and the reason that I have a connection to that is because I have two mothers who are both deceased, my birth mother and my adopted mother. And, of course, I also have a birth father and an adoptive father, but I’m kind of on this eternal search for understanding my origins. I think that's not unusual for an adopted child. The Prophets [by Robert Jones Jr.], it's [about] two enslaved African American men who fall in love with each other, how they navigate that during the days of slavery. It's a very eclectic mix. Mostly I'm reading stuff from my doctorate right now because I'm in the literature review phase of that.
Is there anything else that you wanted to add or that you think voters should know?
Just that it's been an absolute honor to serve on City Council as vice mayor for this city. When I moved to Roanoke, I was a stranger. I literally knew no one here in 2001. And I wasn't sure what my experience would be like here because I was newly out as a gay man. I moved here a year after the Backstreet Café shootings. And what I've discovered is a city that has welcomed me, that has encouraged me, has challenged me and has honored me by electing me to serve on its city council. And I would be honored to continue to serve.