Roanoke City Council Candidate Peg McGuire on Urban Renewal, School Closures' Dire Impacts, and 'After Church on Sundays'

Peg McGuire, a Republican, is one of two candidates in a special Roanoke City Council election Nov. 8, 2022.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CANDIDATE

In advance of the Nov. 8 election for Roanoke City Council, The Roanoke Rambler is publishing interviews with each of the 11 candidates.

This week, we feature the two candidates running in a special election to fill the unexpired, two-year term of former councilman Robert Jeffrey Jr. After felony convictions in March, Jeffrey forfeited his seat, to which City Council appointed Anita Price in the interim.

Republican Peg McGuire and Democrat Luke Priddy are running in the race.

McGuire, 54, is a freelance marketing consultant. A resident of Deyerle, McGuire ran for City Council in 2020, coming fourth in a race that elected three members of Council. (Jeffrey came in third.)

Candidates did not receive copies of the questions beforehand, and every interview was conducted either over the phone or in-person.

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 should people elect you to serve on Roanoke City Council?

Because I bring a commonsense, conservative approach to the city. You know, tough on crime, safe schools. Back in the Covid era, I lambasted our city for closing the schools for a year and I seemed to be the one of the few voices out there saying, ‘What about the kids whose parents have to go to work? They can't get on the technology. This is not going to work. We may leave an entire generation behind.’ I was worried about the mental health of our kids. I was worried about all of that. And from City Council, we got nothing. Nothing. It was, ‘Well, at least they’re not dead,’ meaning that the virus could kill them. It's like, that's not a good answer. And so that's what prompted me to run in 2020. And fixing all of that is what’s prompting me to run in 2022.

You know, the city is under a lot of stress, and I see that our current City Council, the way it is, the one-party rule, there's no diversity of thought. Nobody's slowing the engine down to say, ‘What about the unintended consequences of this? What about the kids?’ You know, so I worry. Sometimes I worry that I worry too much. I just see that we could be doing things better in the city. And the solutions, there are no easy solutions for the hard problems we have. But what we're doing now isn't working. And maybe we need a different approach. And when you have a one-party rule like we do in a city, you can't get a differing opinion. A lot of times those votes are cast before they even walk into the room because they've been talking and they've been negotiating behind the scenes, which is normal in government. But is there anybody in the room slowing this down? Saying, ‘Well, have we looked at it from this side?’

One problem on many residents’ minds is violent crime — particularly shootings and homicides — which have increased both in Roanoke and across the country in recent years. Have you personally been affected by violent crime while living in Roanoke?

No, I have not. I've had my truck stolen, but it was recovered. That can happen in any city. Violent crime has not affected me, except that I hear about it.

Roanoke’s police department has significant vacancy issues, and every candidate has said the city needs to hire more officers. Last year, City Council approved compensation packages that the police department described as “one of the most significant pay increases for officers in several years,” and Police Chief Sam Roman said in an April Rambler interview that he is satisfied with the resources that Council has provided. Is there anything you would do on Council to try to hire more officers, particularly since higher pay alone has not led to a significant increase in officers?

In 2020 when a number of people in the Roanoke City [police] command, if they could retire, they retired. And I think that was happening across the country, it wasn't just Roanoke City. But in our conversations with them, they felt that they weren't respected by City Council. They kind of fell into the hole — I don't want to accuse them of saying that law enforcement is racist — but they kind of fell into the defund-the-police movement. They were kind of, you know, dipping their toes in that water. And they took offense to that, and they just felt, Okay, then I'm just going to retire. And a lot of them did, and then you lost all that experience.

Back in 2020, they felt that they were not respected, that the city didn't have their back and that a number of the programs, like the gang violence programs and the outreach programs, had fallen to the wayside. So I think a change in City Council would signal a change in environment. I think [Police Chief] Sam Roman is doing a good job. Other people will say that he's not, but his officers seem to respect him. You know, the ones I've talked to. And the public seems to respect him, but he can't do this alone. He's got to have the support of the entire city. So I think that would help, just that feeling of, We're going to respect you.

I also think that it's hard to recruit because we're not part of the Virginia Retirement System. We have a Roanoke City system. And so if you're looking at a long-term career, and you want to bounce around to get different experiences so that you can become a chief of police somewhere, you're going to spend your five years until you're vested and then leave. So we will put them in the academy, train them and then after five years, they leave. If we move to the Virginia Retirement System, we could then also hire officers, experienced officers from the outside, to bring them in, you know, as in command positions to help them out because right now you've got a young force who needs that experience to rise up through the command. From what I understand, Sam's command is Sam, and he needs backup. He needs backup. You know, he needs people who have his depth of knowledge to help him, but he's a match in the wind at this point.

What other options — besides increasing the police force — do you see as available to City Council for addressing some of the root causes of crime?

Every problem — and I'm quoting someone here that I had talked to after church on Sunday — every problem is solved after church on Sundays. Because that's where the community who really cares goes, and it’s after church with the coffee and the doughnuts and the picnics, that those problems can be addressed. Those are the people who are most involved.

The one criticism I have of the Gun Violence [Prevention Commission] is the fact that they haven't gone to the churches. I've often said, when I've gone up to Northwest and Gainsboro and stuff and talked to people, it's, you know, we would have had a map out of this problem, out of this situation, with $1,000 and a couple of pancake breakfasts and just said, ‘What do you need? If you had a magic wand, how would you solve this?’ And they have solutions. And then the city can just go, Okay, we’ll do that.

Right now they say that there's a lack of sports programs for the kids. And when the schools shut down, the sports shut down. Well, that's one way for a lot of kids to find that sense of community and family that they may not have at home. But those are the kids most likely to end up in gangs, the ones where they don't have a strong structure at home. So that's a good way of keeping those kids occupied, in arts programs. What can we do? There's a whole lot. They have ideas, it’s just nobody’s listening to them. And when I was at the Southwest Diversity Chamber of Commerce debate and I was up there speaking going, ‘Where were they after church on Sundays?’ Because that's usually where all the problems are solved. You know, that's where the Civil Rights movement started, after church on Sundays. That's where it was all planned. After church on Sundays. They changed the world after church on Sundays.

That's a good segue to the next question, which is about what specific steps do you believe city government should take to address Roanoke’s history and legacy of racism, which includes city sanctioned segregation, redlining, discrimination and urban renewal?

Okay, first, can we rename Woodrow Wilson [Middle] School? He was the biggest racist. He ushered in Jim Crow, Woodrow Wilson did. He premiered “Birth of a Nation” at the White House, which, you know, the KKK was near its final few members. I mean, they were doing a good job of eliminating KKK until Woodrow Wilson was elected President. He was like, ‘Hey, by the way, you know, we're not going to look at you anymore. And so you can just grow.’ Woodrow Wilson helped to codify those Jim Crow laws and racism into the laws. And cities just said, ‘Okay, we can do this now,’ and off it went.

I don't know how we can erase that history. We can honor that history by never doing it again and teaching our kids what that was like. You know, my son Charlie is from Ethiopia, Timothy is from Guatemala. So I look at that through a different lens than other white parents do, other white people do, because I'm sitting there going, ‘Yeah, they got a point.’ You know, I was one of the Republicans that stood up in 2020 going, ‘Listen to them.’ You don't have to listen to the Black Lives Matter parent organization, who I believe was totally off its nut and has proven to be so — all the embezzling and stealing going on at the upper levels — but the people in the streets, listen to them. They kind of got a point. It may not be outright racism they're experiencing, but there's some prejudice going on. And we probably need to look at that. Can we all look at that and just understand where they're coming from? And not dismissing it. That I think is what we can do better, is not dismiss each other. You know, they look at the Republicans as the racist, which is just hysterical because we were not the ones to codify Jim Crow into law, that was Southern Democrats, which are not the same as today's Democrats, let me just say that. But let's teach our children that and let's understand each other. You know, if we start talking, a whole lot can be solved.

Jamaal Jackson and I were in the [city's] leadership college together this past spring. And I walked into the room and he was like, ‘Oh my God, that's Peg McGuire.’ And I said, ‘Oh, my God, that's Jamaal Jackson.’ And we thought, Okay, this is not going to go well. After that first class in leadership college, we stood outside behind city hall where our cars were parked and talked for a couple of hours, I think. And we agree on 90 percent of the issues. And it was like, Oh, my God, if we could just do this across the city. And he teases me, he's like, ‘I think you're becoming one of us,’ and I said, ‘Dude, I think you're Republican. Just saying.’ And we become good friends, and it's because we started talking to each other. In 2020 that election was so heated. I mean, I was called a walking billboard for racism because I have two Black children. I mean, it was ugly. And it was online and they came after me. We got prank phone calls. I got, you know, the house was vandalized, not dangerously vandalized, but enough that my husband's like, ‘Yeah, you're not doing this again.’ Well, here I am again.

On Council, how would you advocate for mitigating the impacts of climate change at the local level?

I really don't know if we can, and I've studied this issue. At the local level, what can we do? I think on an individual level, I know that my family and I, we’re trying to eliminate single-use plastic whenever we can. I mean, anything that comes in a plastic container, I rethink it. Like orange juice. Why does it have to come in industrial-sized plastic jugs? Why? Tell me why that is. So we're trying to eliminate all of that.

I don't know what you can do at the city level, especially in an inflationary environment. We know that we could put up a solar farm somewhere but where are we going to put it? And is that going to be better use if we have city-owned land that can be used for that, would that be better as green space? Because when we talk about parks and rec, we also need to combine it with health and human services, because green space can really help with mental health. That's important. So I don't know how. I guess you put solar panels on top of a roof. How can you do that at a local level? We're a small city.

You know, the bag tax, it doesn't really work and it upsets a lot of people. Because people are just now going into the county. Do you know how many people I know in Deyerle who are like, I forgot my bags. I'll just go to the store in the county. And it's five cents and most of them can afford five cents for a bag but they're like, Yeah, I'm just not even going to do that. Well, how much tax revenue are we losing on that? And the people who are just right at the edge, that bag tax is just enough to send them nuts, you know, it's just a little tiny prick that's hurting them. And we could have lifted that bag tax during inflationary times and put it back on.

Do the other candidates have any other ideas besides, We can go to electric vehicles? Yeah, that doesn't work either because you have to replace those batteries in a few years. And that gets expensive and, you know, I wouldn't want my fire truck to run out of power on the way to my house which is on fire. You know, there's some things that are just not suitable for electric vehicles. Cop cars, for instance. You need to be able to refuel and go and not wait 30 minutes.

Roanoke operates on a weak mayor form of government, meaning much power and authority rests with the city manager and city council hires and to whom City Council provides a vision and direction for the city. You said at a council candidate forum in August that you do not support the current city manager, Bob Cowell. Why is that?

Because if you're going to have a system that has a strong city manager and a weak mayor — which, there’s some merits to that; I'm not debating that system — then you need to have a strong city manager, and I think services underneath Bob have fallen. I think that a lot of people have lost confidence in him. And the poor guy was following Chris Morrill, who was a fantastic city manager. It's like following the Beatles on stage. You just can't do that.

So he was walking into some pretty high expectations. But he's just considered weak. And city services have fallen underneath him. When I go to community meetings, I was up at the Old Mountain Road community meeting and they were talking about, like, you know, stormwater runoff and things and they were never getting a response from the city. That's from the leader, like the leader of the city, the city manager set that vision, as in, You're either going to be government bureaucrats or you're going to respond to your customer base, which is the city. So I was out in Salem on Saturday for a meeting and talked to Salem City Council. And the difference is that their city manager runs it like a business versus a government. And I think there's some merit to that also, like running it like a business. That your citizens, the taxpayers, are your customers. So if somebody calls, you jump.

I think that economic development has fallen underneath him. I don't think he has really tackled the crime problem like I would have hoped he would. He kind of delegates that out. So no, I would give him a firm talking to and a performance improvement.

I grew up in Fenton, Missouri. He grew up the next town over in Arnold, Missouri. Fenton people are bigger rednecks than Arnold people. I can out-redneck you any day of the week, pal. I got funny family farm stories that will curl your hair, Bob. Let's go.

Roanoke is holding a special election this year because of the felony convictions of former councilman Robert Jeffrey Jr., who was found guilty in March of embezzlement and obtaining money by false pretenses. Even before the charges were announced, Jeffrey had a history — which was publicly available in court records — of not paying people. Do you have any history of financial mismanagement or impropriety?

No. I may have paid my taxes late one day. But that would be for the IRS to tell you. But only like a week late because I forgot it was April 15 or something.

Second part. Have you ever been charged with a crime — including traffic violations? If so, what did you learn from that experience?

I've gotten traffic tickets for speeding. My Honda minivan, when you hit cruise control, like the speedometer would be off. So I kept getting caught for speeding, but I was like, ‘But I had it at 70,’ they were like, ‘You were doing 85.’ I was like, ‘Honest to God.’ So I went to court and showed the judge like this was the problem and they were dismissed and it was fine. I mean, I paid the fines because I was speeding. It was a known issue in Honda minivans in that year, like 2013 year or something. But no, nothing. I'm very boring.

Have you ever ridden on Valley Metro? What specific improvements do you think the city should make to its public transportation system, and by when should those changes be completed?

Yes. I haven't ridden it since the pandemic started. But before then I was riding it quite a bit. I would ride it around downtown instead of walking, because it would be passing by or something. And also because I wanted to see how long it would take me to get from southeast to downtown and out to Valley View or something because I thought that this, you know, having that central thing in there, like we're putting our poor people on a bus for hours. And if time is money, why are we doing that to them? Can't we just have more direct routes? Would that be possible?

First of all, I don't want to put a timeline on it because we're coming under some incredible inflationary [pressure] and interest rates are going to rise and I think we're in for a pretty tough recession. So I don't want to put a timeline on that because then somebody's going to come back and blast me for it.

But we do need to reduce fares, just to make it easier on our working poor who take the bus. You know, that's something that we can subsidize to help our working poor especially, because their heating bills; we're going to have people freezing in their homes this winter. Anything we can do to help them along is going to be necessary.

I would also look at the routes that they're taking. More direct routes, and I know that that's being considered, they have a Valley Metro advisory team, and I know that they're looking at that and the people running Valley Metro are very aware of that. So they've been dealing with a system where everybody came downtown. Like, when that bus system was started, downtown was the place to be and all of industry happened downtown. Well, now it's not so much and, you know, if you're going to the doctor, you got to come downtown and then go back out. You can spend two hours on the bus and that's not good. If you're working poor, that's silly.

Rethink the hub and spoke, and I know they're looking at that. I was against putting the bus station downtown, especially in the position where it is, quite frankly, because I love the Virginia Museum of Transportation. I was their director of marketing. I love that place, I still do, and that's just going to kill the VMT. But beside that, instead of putting all that money in that, rethink the system, like we don't need a hub there. We need smaller bus stations around town.

One in every five Roanoke residents lives in poverty, and nearly half of all households make less than 45,000 annually, according to Census data. What can City Council do to reduce the city's poverty rate and increase families’ wealth?

Well, not close the schools for a year. I'm going to keep harping on that because I think that we have lost a generation. I think there's a whole generation of kids that will be behind. And if you want to talk about the inequality between the privileged and the non privileged, we just widened that thing by shutting schools down for a year.

Economic development is very important in reducing the poverty levels in the city but also giving them the training that they need. Trade schools are incredibly important. You know, if you're a 45-year-old man or woman and you want to learn a new trade, it's very hard to do without incurring a lot of debt. You know, the trades are looking. If you're 45 and healthy, there’s no reason why you can't move into construction and do something. So let’s retrain for the trades. A lot of times they’re retraining for computer jobs or something along those lines. But the trade schools really kind of have the keys to those things, and we can then also keep building our workforce.

I also think that we should have a regional trade center, because right now the county has one and Botetourt has one, and can we get a regional one because we all kind of build off of one another? So I would like the city to work with areas surrounding Roanoke to create a regional one, so we can all pool our resources and get a workforce for the future of the area because we're not just Roanoke. We’re the Roanoke Valley, and it includes a whole lot of people.

What's your philosophy on developments, whether residential or commercial, whose construction would involve reducing green space, such as clear-cutting trees or eliminating parkland?

Affordable housing is a big deal and when you restrict housing, you end up in a position like you have in New England, where my husband is from, where so much green space has to be in each town. And you can't have so many apartment complexes in one area. That limits the amount of affordable housing, which just makes prices go up which makes the poor poorer, the rich richer, and it just keeps propagating.

I think if you own the land, I think that's where those zoning laws come into play. And within reason, you can have some green buffer in all of that. You need to listen to the residents because right now you're going to end up with sound — the sounds of traffic are really significant. The sounds of emergency vehicles are significant and sound does actually have a unique ability to ruin your life if it’s too loud.

But as I was telling people in Raleigh Court when I was door knocking, that development [at 0 Brandon Avenue] will go in, whether you like it or not. You know, what your point is, is not the ‘No,’ it's sitting at the table negotiating what actually goes in there. Something's going in there. You know, you don't have that much land owned by a developer and not have something go in there.

[Regarding Evans Spring,] the people who live in that neighborhood were also part of this urban renewal, like their families were part of the urban renewal. So there's a lot of history there. So when you say, ‘Oh, we're just going to put something in here and you don't get really a say on it,’ you're going to get a little hot under the collar, for good reason. You know, what I often tell my Republican friends, it's like, what they went through was just, like, two or three generations ago, it's still talked about around the dinner table. So they're going to be a little iffy about the whole thing, and they should be, because it happened. It's going to happen again if they don't stand guard on it. So I would think that the city needs to work with the Evans Spring community in getting that done and working with the developers on that, to make certain that the sound barriers are up, that enough green space is there so that they still feel like they're living in a beautiful area instead of a commercial area, and that it's not disruptive to their lives.

The next two questions are unique to you. Most people just get one, but this first question’s origins are in national politics. Still, its effects have been felt locally, with the city voter registrar’s office having received dozens of public records requests inspired by conspiracies around the 2020 presidential election. You were the only candidate not to answer a question posed by the Roanoke Times’s Dan Casey on this. So to give you another opportunity to answer, who was the legitimate winner of the 2020 U.S. presidential election?

I think we're all painfully aware it was Joe Biden. Yeah. I have no issues with the 2020 election. If there was fraud going on, because people contacted me in the days after the [2020 Council] election, ‘You could challenge this,’ like, you know, I had people saying election math and looking at the graphs and stuff. It's like, Do you have any proof. anything besides any rumors or innuendos? No. I lost. I came in fourth. I came very close to winning. I beat Peter [Volosin]. You know, but I wasn't expected to do that well in 2020. I was pretty much laughed off of the thing, and I didn't raise that much money.

You've talked often on the campaign trail about the detrimental effects of the school closures during the pandemic, which includes learning loss, among other issues. As you know, the appointed school board generally operates largely independently from City Council. But if elected to Council, what specific actions would you take to solve some of these problems?

First of all, we need an elected school board. Anything that deals with something as passionate or as close to a family as the education of your children, which we know is the magic bullet. We know it can pull people out of poverty, we know that it can launch to fantastic things.

We need an elected school board so that there's checks and balances. It was pretty clear, the end of July [2020] the school board was presented a plan by the city schools, and it was a fantastic plan, how they could open safely. And they were using every city building, they had transportation worked out. It was a fantastic plan. Every child would be back in school. And then [in August] all of a sudden everybody gets a robocall going, ‘No in person learning. It's all virtual.’ What happened during that time? I suspect it was the teachers unions [call], because all the surrounding districts went back. The county went back on like a hybrid thing, but they could see the kids. I think all the kids were back in school by the end of October. We went back in March.

A lot of kids were home alone as young as eight all day long because the parents, they had to work and what are you going to do? They were not bad parents. So I think that caused so much damage.

And instead of a $2 million kayak park, can we move that money over into the schools to extend the school day for some of the kids who are behind? I don't know if they're going to be able to do this. We have some dedicated teachers and admins in our school system. I haven't met a bad one yet. And they're just as sick about this learning loss as anyone, as the parents, as the children. But they're going to need some private tutoring. And it can be done at school while not taking away their recess time because we know that recess is important for learning.

Just extend that day a little bit so the kids can stay and have tutors pickup and get these kids caught up because we're looking at gun violence now and it's in relation to the shutdowns. And the gangs, we know, use Zoom. Well, the gangs are in schools right now anyway, recruiting. They walk the halls and recruit as young as elementary school and middle school. But when you take away the hope and structure of school and the activities that go along with it, Good Lord. I mean, just all the little things that the schools do for kids to develop their minds are taken away.

So I would move money over into getting the kids caught up. The data is so clear that if a child is not at reading level by a certain point, they're more likely to drop out of high school and a high school dropout, they can't go into the trades, they can't do too much of anything. And it's just sad. I mean, I worry so much for the kids who desperately need school and now feel like they're stupid because they just lost a year of their lives.

What are you reading currently?

I am reading Beth Macy's new book, [Raising Lazarus: Hope, Justice and the Future of America’s Overdose Crisis. But I just finished [Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg]. And then I’m reading this great book, which is ridiculously detailed. But it's how IBM helped the Holocaust along because apparently they had a system in place with the [tattoo] numbers. But IBM helped Hitler systemized the Holocaust, which makes me want to throw out anything with the IBM logo on it, but I'm sure they have found redemption and fixed the problem. But yeah, I'm reading that, [IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation by Edwin Black].