RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - With seven Richmond mayoral candidates trailing in the polls by double digits, political rivals and City Hall outsiders took aim at front-runner Joe Morrissey on Thursday, pitching themselves as the most qualified contender to lead Virginia's capital city.
The sharpest jab from Richmond's latest mayoral debate came from fringe candidate Lawrence Williams, who asked Morrissey if he has exploited Richmond's African-American community throughout his career as a state delegate and attorney.
The question was delivered with little context, and drew gasps from the audience.
"Of all the lawyers, the NAACP turns to for pro bono work, no one is turned to more often than myself and my law firm," Morrissey responded. "With the crisis of sky-high Petersburg water bills, do you know what law firm they turned to solve it? Morrissey and Goldman."
The debate format, administered by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, allowed each candidate to ask an opponent a single question.
Moderators asked each candidate why they considered themselves qualified to lead the city, with former Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney directly posing the question a second time to Morrissey.
"I think we need to have a mayor who we'll be proud of," Stoney said, referring to the former delegate's 2014 sex scandal. "Someone who won't give our city a black eye."
Morrissey fired back, accusing Stoney of being a political operative with little experience in municipal governance.
Stoney, who served as the executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia at age 26, doubled down on his experience in state politics, pitching it as a way of knowing how to run a major bureaucracy.
"I hired … I fired … I inspired," said Stoney. "I've managed major budgets for the Democratic Party… I know how to keep track of money, and helped to get Barack Obama elected here in Virginia."
Candidates also fielded questions concerning how they could work through the web of city government often perceived to paralyze Richmond politics.
City Council President Michelle Mosby defended her tenure, asserting that without her leadership, Richmond's public school system would have been without millions of dollars needed to operate this year.
"Because I have a relationship with this mayor, he gave me autonomy to figure things out," Mosby said of outgoing Mayor Dwight Jones. "I had monthly meetings with the chairman of our school board. We brought people together to start looking for a dedicated source of school funding."
Controversial projects also served as a major topic of discussion, with the proposed Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium entering the two hour debate.
"I've stopped dangerous projects like the ballpark," Councilman Jon Baliles told the crowd.
Businessman Jack Berry rescinded his initial support for the Shockoe stadium, which proved to be deeply unpopular with the public as Jones continued to push for construction.
"We're not going back there," Berry said. "I learned my lesson, it was too divisive."
Morrissey currently leads the pack of candidates with 28 percent of support, according to the latest survey released by Christopher Newport University's Wason Center.
Berry received 16 percent of the vote, with nearly one in five voters still undecided.
Copyright 2016 WWBT NBC12. All rights reserved