For years, Parker Agelasto wanted to be an art curator, so how did he become Richmond’s 5th District Councilman?
After Parker Agelasto graduated from college, he moved to Washington, D.C. to work at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It was the ideal job for a young man with a degree in American Culture and a love of art, history, and a passion for putting things in order. There was just one catch–he didn’t have the job yet.
“It’s not the easiest thing to do, to get your first professional job,” Agelasto said. “So I got a job in a picture framing shop…directly across the street, knowing I wanted to work at the museum. And every day I would walk into the museum and say, ‘Any job openings?’ And they’d say, ‘No, no job openings today.’”
Not to be dissuaded, he visited the museum day after day, getting to know the employees and making sure they knew him. Finally, four months later, a job opened up.
“After four months of that, you get to know people, and they start to say, ‘OK, this kid’s serious,’” Agelasto said. “So I got the job.”
Despite his avid pursuit of employment at the Smithsonian, Agelasto left D.C. six years ago and moved to Richmond. His work at the American Art Museum had been in curatorial, doing research for collections and putting together exhibits, but he wanted to move into museum management.
Now, almost 15 years later, Agelasto no longer works for the Smithsonian; he’s a freelance curator living in Richmond’s 5th District. But the persistence with which he approached his first professional job hasn’t left him. In fact, it was that same drive, combined with a love of community and an ability to relate to people, that won a man with no political experience a seat on the Richmond City Council and has him fighting for historic preservation, cyclists’ rights, and improved communication.
— ∮∮∮ —
“The MBA from the Darden Business School was a very targeted choice,” Agelasto said of his time at the University of Virginia. “I knew that their business degree was general management…and that’s what I thought that the nonprofit sector really needed, a good balance of…human resources, communications, marketing, the whole gamut.”
After getting two master’s degrees–one in business and one in art history–he accepted a position at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts as manager of membership and visitor services. Agelasto said his work with the public at the VMFA prepared him in a way for dealing with constituents.
“You were the front line, your staff were the people that heard it the most: what’s the customer experience like, are there things that we can improve on, are there things that we’re doing well,” he said.
While Agelasto learned how to respond to customers’ needs, he also became involved in his neighborhood. Martin Smith, a two-decade Richmond resident and former neighbor to Agelasto, saw this firsthand.
“Parker is the kind of guy (who), if he’d walk through the neighborhood and he’d see something, he’d mention it or he’d write to the City Council or go to the meetings and put his two cents in,” Smith said. “If people were complaining, he’d let [City Council] know what should be done about it.”
Smith said that Agelasto was instrumental in starting a petition to improve parking on Granby Street and helped an older neighbor get trash removed from her yard when the City forgot to pick it up.
“I actually told Parker a few years ago he should run for Council,” he said. “He’s always saying, ‘This needs to be done, I wish they had done this,’ and I would always tell him, ‘Just do it, Parker, you need to do it.’”
Though Agelasto was already seen as the go-to guy for his neighborhood, it didn’t occur to him to run for City Council in 2012 until the last minute.
Malou Rawls, a Church Hill resident and Agelasto’s aunt, said Agelasto decided to run when the incumbent’s major opposition dropped out of the race.
“There was a lot of disenchantment with [incumbent] Marty Jewell,” she said. “The day before the signatures had to be in to City Hall…Parker said, ‘I just can’t let this man run unopposed.’” Within 24 hours, Agelasto had collected enough signatures to challenge Jewell and began the long process of campaigning–a large feat for a political novice running against a three-term incumbent.
Once the process was underway, Agelasto recruited Rawls as his campaign manager. A former vice president of national news sales for ABC, Rawls was another political novice. But she agreed to help her nephew with his campaign; her only condition was, “Just don’t make me do a spreadsheet.”
Though neither Rawls nor Agelasto had any background in politics or campaign management, they ran a classic grassroots campaign.
“He knocked on the doors, he had all the information about who lived where, he connected with people,” Rawls said. This connectivity, she said, helped them combat Agelasto’s status as an unknown and took them to a seven percent victory over Jewell.
— ∮∮∮ —
Now in office, Agelasto has turned his attention to both major and minor issues in the community. One of the big initiatives he has already started pushing for deals with abandoned and condemned houses, which ties closely to his interest in historic preservation.
“From the city’s perspective, it’s much better for us to have old structures rehabilitated than to have them demolished,” Agelasto said. “Unfortunately it requires a program to implement…and City Council doesn’t have the authorization to mandate how an operation is to be executed…so big initiatives are going to be slow to roll out.”
Agelasto said he’s also working with Richmond’s cyclist community on both big and small projects.
“We’ve got this Road World Championship bicycle race coming up, and one of the things that we need to be mindful of is what is the legacy of this race,” he said. “What most people are saying is that they would love to think that the legacy was that we…increased the safety for cyclists (enough) that everybody would feel comfortable putting their mother on a bike and sending her down Main Street…That would be a great legacy, but that takes a lot of education.”
Agelasto is also working on initiatives for the biking community like enforcing the Virginia Driver’s Manual rule that cars must park no more than 12 inches from the curb, so cyclists have more room to maneuver around them, or changing the bike registration process so that it’s simpler and more accessible.
Agelasto has also made an effort to improve communication in the months since his election, focusing on “letting people know not only what [is] happening, but where their representative [is] leaning.”
“The last thing you want to do is show up at City Council on Monday night and have no idea what your elected official is about to do,” he said. “The decision may not be made until Monday night…but you need to put out feelers and hear from folks.”