Dec 10, 2022 - News

Meet the most powerful Richmonders of 2022

Illustration of two rows of dominos falling with text overlaid that reads Power Players Richmond.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

You might like him. You might hate him. You might avoid him because of his history of threatening physical violence.

  • Whatever your opinion, his political comeback is undeniable.

What’s happening: State Sen. Joe Morrissey tops our inaugural list of Richmond’s most powerful people.

How it works: We reflected on the past year’s headlines, considered what’s coming in 2023 and polled our most plugged-in sources about who they believe has shaped Richmond the most. 

Of note: Our unscientific list is produced entirely by our editorial team and is not influenced by advertising in any way.

Joe Morrissey

Longtime Richmond politician, state Sen. Joe Morrissey
Photo: Steve Helber/AP

Longtime Richmond politician Joe Morrissey looked like he was out for the count after losing a bruising mayoral race to Levar Stoney in 2016.

  • Flash forward and you could argue Morrissey has in some ways surpassed Stoney in influence from his new perch representing Richmond and Petersburg in the Virginia state Senate.

Why we picked him: Morrissey has leveraged his newfound status as a key swing vote in the Senate to torpedo Stoney’s dreams of holding a second casino referendum in Richmond.

  • Landing the casino has been a key priority for Stoney, and Morrissey appears to be successfully redirecting it south to Petersburg.   

What we’re watching: The Democrat’s opposition to abortion makes him pivotal to a GOP push this year to pass new state restrictions on the procedure.

  • On the other hand, his leverage could vanish if Democrats add to their Senate majority by winning a special election in Virginia Beach to fill the seat vacated by Jen Kiggans, who is headed to Congress.
  • Then there’s Morrissey’s well-known penchant for self-sabotage. His most recent dustups: physically threatening a local NAACP leader opposed to his casino plans and prompting two radio show staffers to seek restraining orders after an incident at the studio.

Enjoli Moon and Sesha Joi Moon

Portraits of the Moon sisters, founders of The JXN Project
Photos: Carlos Bernate/The Washington Post via Getty Images; Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

After the Confederate statues fell, sisters Enjoli and Sesha Joi Moon set out to tell a new story about Richmond, exploring what daily life was like for Black residents in Jackson Ward post-Reconstruction, when it was a thriving neighborhood known as the city’s “Black Wall Street.”

Why we picked them: By co-founding The JXN Project, the Richmond natives are bringing national attention (and money) to the neighborhood.

What we’re watching: The sisters won a $1.5 million grant this year to reconstruct the 18th-century home of Abraham Skipwith, the first Black homeowner in the neighborhood, whom they call the “founding father of Jackson Ward.” 

  • And they have a goal of raising millions more over the coming years to complete the project.

Matt Moran

Photo courtesy Creative Direct

Youngkin World is still a bit of an enigma to Richmond, but for lawmakers trying to make things happen, gubernatorial adviser Moran — a behind-the-scenes type who worked a decade staffing some of the General Assembly’s most powerful people — has emerged as a consiglieri.

Why we picked him: Moran spent part of this year volunteering as a deputy chief of staff for Gov. Glenn Youngkin while still on the payroll of a political firm with business before the state.

  • Ethical questions aside, he was almost single-handedly responsible for preparing the governor’s first legislative agenda. 

What we’re watching: Moran has moved over to Youngkin’s ambitious (and well-funded) political operation, which is focused on winning next year’s General Assembly elections.

  • The results will determine whether Youngkin spends his term nibbling around the edges of state government with executive actions or pushes through the conservative agenda he promised voters during his campaign.

Maritza Mercado Pechin

Richmond official  Maritza Mercado Pechin
Photo: Courtesy of Kate Thompson

Maritza Mercado Pechin is the brains behind the Diamond District selection process, a project that appears poised to break a decades-long debate over whether and where to build a new baseball stadium in town.

Why we picked her: It’s hard to imagine a more consequential economic development deal for the city.

  • And while lots of people all the way up to Mayor Stoney can claim credit, Pechin — as the head of the city’s office of equitable development — spearheaded a collaborative approach that brought City Council members into the project at the very beginning, heading off the kind of last-minute revolt that doomed past proposals hammered out in secret.

What we’re watching: Insiders say Pechin is emblematic of a broader shift at City Hall under Stoney’s new chief administrative officer, Lincoln Saunders, to bring smart people into key roles and then stay out of their way.

Lisa Ruggles

Portrait of Lisa Ruggles, an executive with CoStar
Photo: Courtesy of CoStar Group

Why we picked her: CoStar Group is one of Richmond’s fastest-growing companies, and Lisa Ruggles is the real estate analytics firm’s top executive here as senior vice president of global operations.

What we’re watching: CoStar’s hiring spree is literally changing our skyline, with the company building the city’s second-tallest office tower alongside its current building next to Brown’s Island.

  • When the expansion is complete — the company is aiming for 2024 — Ruggles will oversee more than 3,000 local employees.

Deb Freeman

Portrait of food historian Deb Freeman inside a home
Photo: Courtesy of Joshua Fitzwater

Why we picked her: Food historian Deb Freeman's podcast, “Setting the Table,” uncovers the country’s history of African American cuisine and celebrates the long-neglected contributions that Black cooks have made in American foodways.

  • In the process, it’s also shining a light on Richmond, exploring, among other things, Virginia’s untold story as the birthplace of barbecue.

What we’re watching: Freeman plans to debut the show's second season next spring.

Nils Westergard

Portrait of street artist Nils Westergard in front of a red brick wall
Photo: Courtesy of Nils Westergard

A Belgian American street artist who splits his time between Richmond and Amsterdam, Nils Westergard has lost count of how many murals he’s painted on Richmond walls. 

Why we picked him: We like his work, but we also like that his international connections have brought lots of other great artists to paint murals around the city.

What we’re watching: Who else will Westergard import?

  • Just last month, he popped into the Richmond subreddit to see if anyone had any big walls they wanted to be painted by two Swiss artists.
  • The results are stunning.

Go deeper: See all 200 of Axios Local's Power Players in 2022

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