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AUGUST 8, 2005

Best for Last

From the imposing neoclassical building Thomas Jefferson designed as
Virginia's state capitol to the elegant gray-stuccoed mansion
Jefferson Davis used as the Confederate White House, Richmond is
filled with impressive monuments to political power. Richmond City
Hall, however, is not one of them. An ugly and architecturally
undistinguished 17-story office tower built in the early '70s, City
Hall went from eyesore to public safety hazard about ten years ago
when it started shedding its white marble skin onto the sidewalk
below. Even now, as the city nears completion of a $20 million
project to replace the marble with an aluminum and stainless-steel
faade, the building appears to signify not so much political power
as political ineptitude. And the symbolism, unfortunately, seems
apt, as Richmond--with its history of poisonous racial politics and
government corruption--has been a textbook case of civic
dysfunction.But, on a recent morning at City Hall, Richmond Mayor L. Douglas
Wilder sat in his second-floor corner office and pledged that the
dysfunction was coming to an end. "My job, quite frankly, is to get
the thing straight," he said. And, while Wilder has been on the job
for only seven months, he has wasted little time in shaking up the
city government he once called a "cesspool of inefficiency and
corruption." Almost immediately after becoming Richmond's first
popularly elected mayor in nearly 60 years--previously, the mayor
had been appointed by the City Council--Wilder showed the door to
the previous city manager and police chief; since then, he has
forced out or accepted the resignations of a number of other
high-level public employees and even eliminated whole agencies. He
submitted a budget that, as one local columnist put it, took the
city's "sacred cows" and "carved [them] up into hamburger." And he
has pushed for--and received, from the City Council and the state
legislature--even greater authority for the mayor's office. "It's
hard to overstate the magnitude and the speed of the changes
[Wilder has initiated]," says John Moeser, an emeritus professor of
urban studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. "In just a few
months, he's completely transformed Richmond's political
landscape."

Fifteen years ago, as Virginia's governor, Wilder worked in much
more plush environs across the street at the state capitol. But the
dinginess of his City Hall office--whose views, on that recent
morning, were obstructed by scaffolding and whose walls were
virtually bare--has not seemed to dampen his enthusiasm for his
current job and the freer hand it has afforded him. "In state
government, the bureaucracy is more fixed, and, when a governor
comes in, you're not going change too much in terms of the format,"
he explained. "Local governments are more flexible, they're more
pliable." One of Wilder's favorite tactics to bend bureaucrats to
his will is confrontation. "I like to ask them, 'What do you
produce?'" he said. "It surprises a lot of people when you ask it
that way, they have to do a double-take, and it's not the majority
of time that you get a satisfactory answer."

That Doug Wilder relishes a good fight is no surprise. When he was
governor of Virginia, he squabbled with the legislature and
powerful members of his own Democratic Party, oftentimes over the
pettiest of issues. Now, as mayor of Richmond, he's embroiled in
battles not only with recalcitrant bureaucrats but also with both
the city's black political class and its white business
establishment, and, as is Wilder's wont, the battles are frequently
nasty. But the fact that Wilder is even in a position to fight with
these groups--in other words, the fact that he's Richmond's
mayor--is a surprise. Wilder, after all, is the man who The
Washington Post once called "arguably the most important black
American politician of the 20th century"--serving as Virginia's
first black state senator since Reconstruction; Virginia's first
black lieutenant governor; and, most important, the nation's first
(and, to this date, only) black elected governor. And, with each
accomplishment, Wilder, whose ambition was striking even for a
politician, set his sights on a higher office. As a politically
moderate African American Democrat from the South--a rare but
potent combination--national office certainly appeared within reach.
But, after ill-fated campaigns for the White House and the U.S.
Senate, Wilder seemed to realize that his political career was
over, and, in the mid-'90s, he left politics to teach and give
speeches.

Now, however, at the age of 74, Wilder has returned to the political
arena to take a low-profile job that very few local
politicians--much less any politicians of national stature--even
wanted. What's more, he all but concedes that, whatever ambitions
he might have once had, this low-rung post will almost certainly be
his last. It is, by almost any measure, an odd and unlikely final
chapter in what has been a remarkable career. But, if Doug Wilder
succeeds in his plans for Richmond--if he reforms its sclerotic
government and heals its racial divisions--then his final political
act might well serve as his most impressive and lasting
achievement.

When Doug Wilder was growing up in segregated Richmond in the 1930s
and 1940s, the city had a thriving black business class, so much so
that one particularly bustling black neighborhood was known as the
"Black Wall Street of America." But black political power was
another matter. Most black Richmonders could not vote, thanks to
literacy tests and poll taxes, and the city was run by a white
oligarchy. After the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the
abolition of the poll tax, however, blacks in Richmond finally
gained the power of the ballot--which meant that, for the first
time since Reconstruction, a significant number of black
Richmonders were able to achieve elected office (including Wilder,
who, in 1969, won one of Richmond's two seats in the state Senate).
And, since Richmond, like many other cities, featured a growing
black population and a shrinking white one, it appeared inevitable
that the old capital of the Confederacy would soon have, for the
first time in its history, a black-controlled city government.

But, in 1970, in a desperate, last-gasp attempt to maintain white
power in Richmond, the city's still-white majority City Council
moved to annex part of a predominately white adjoining suburban
county, thereby watering down Richmond's black vote. Richmond's
black leaders sued, and, during the six years it took for the case
to be decided, the city was enjoined by the U.S. Supreme Court from
holding Council elections. Finally, the courts mandated the creation
of a City Council comprised of nine single-member districts
(instead of the existing nine at-large members), with a majority of
those districts being black-majority. In 1977, the first Council
elections in seven years gave Richmond its first black-majority
City Council, which, in turn appointed the city's first black
mayor.

Black-controlled city government, however, did not necessarily
translate into good government. And, over time, Richmond became
something of a civic basket case. Its crime rate soared, its bond
rating plummeted, and city services dwindled. Worst of all was the
seemingly endemic corruption. In 1997, a mayoral aide pled guilty
to cocaine distribution and racketeering; two years later, the
mayor that aide served resigned from the City Council and pled
guilty to federal charges of mail fraud and obstruction of justice.
And, in just the last two years, at least seven public employees,
including two City Council members, have been indicted on charges
ranging from corruption to drug- peddling.

The biggest obstacle to good government in Richmond was not the
government's racial makeup; rather, it was the government's form.
Since 1948, Richmond had operated under a council-manager system,
which meant that the City Council appointed the mayor and a city
manager, with the mayor serving in a mostly ceremonial capacity and
the manager overseeing the daily operation of the bureaucracy. But,
with the city manager reporting to nine different bosses on the
City Council--and with those nine different bosses representing
nine different parts of the city--the council-manager system was a
recipe for dysfunction. And the dysfunction seemed impossible to
correct because of Richmond's long history of racially polarized
politics: Whenever anyone suggested scrapping the council-manager
system for a system that had a strong mayor, the proposal was
almost invariably denounced by some of Richmond's black political
leaders as an attempt to dilute hard-earned black political power.

But, in 2002, the racial argument in favor of the council-manager
system lost some of its potency when Wilder called on Richmond to
adopt a strong mayor form of government by 2005. Wilder was eight
years removed from the governor's mansion at the time and living in
a kind of political exile--a pariah in his own party. As governor,
he had angered a number of powerful Virginia Democrats, including
his two immediate predecessors, Chuck Robb and Gerald Baliles; and,
when he ran as an independent for the U.S. Senate in 1994--before
ultimately and humiliatingly dropping out of the race before
Election Day--he had angered more of them. The final break with his
party came in 1997, when he refused to endorse the Democrats'
gubernatorial candidate, thus costing him black votes and
delivering the office to the Republicans. "He eventually realized
that, because of his governorship and because of all the arguments
he had with other people in his party," says University of Virginia
political scientist Larry Sabato, "that there weren't any other
elective options open to him, and he went into a nice retirement."

But Wilder still had some political capital in Richmond, and he
retained a soft spot for his hometown. More important, he felt some
responsibility for its plight. "I have been negligent," he said in
announcing his support for a strong mayor form of government. "I
have not involved myself in city politics for the entire time I
have been involved in politics." So, throwing himself back into
politics, he teamed up with a white former congressman, Tom Bliley,
who had also served as Richmond's mayor during the years the
Supreme Court enjoined the city from holding elections. He and
Bliley formed a commission to study the possibility of Richmond
adopting a strong mayor form of government. The commission
eventually backed a proposal that stipulated that the mayor had to
win a majority of the citywide vote and at least five of Richmond's
nine Council districts, thereby making the dilution of black voting
power less likely.

This plan won the enthusiastic backing of the city's white business
establishment, but it still did not quell the doubts of Richmond's
black political class. And, when the strong-mayor plan was put to a
voter referendum in 2003, many of Richmond's black leaders,
including the local chapter of the naacp, denounced the proposal as
a racist plot; some even went so far as to brand Wilder, who
vigorously campaigned for the plan, an Uncle Tom. Their opposition,
though, didn't seem to matter to Richmond's voters, 80 percent of
whom voted to switch to a strong-mayor system beginning with the
2004 elections. Nevertheless, the prospect of becoming Richmond's
suddenly strong mayor did not prove terribly enticing to the city's
best and brightest political leaders. With the field of potential
mayoral candidates looking less than impressive, Wilder reluctantly
decided to toss his own hat in the ring. "It wasn't something I
sought, something I worked for, or something I wanted to be
involved in," he said in announcing his candidacy. "It was a matter
of time running out to determine who that person would be." The
people of Richmond seemed to appreciate that Wilder portrayed the
race as his sacrifice. Last November he was elected with nearly 80
percent of the vote.

Nine months later, Richmond is still adjusting to its new mayor--and
Wilder isn't necessarily going out of his way to make the
adjustment any easier. On the morning I visited with him at City
Hall, he was looking forward to his next meeting, which was with
the schools superintendent. Technically, the superintendent reports
to the school board, not the mayor, but Wilder isn't one to defer
to bureaucratic flow charts, and he was in a lather about
Richmond's truancy problem. "We're number-one in truancy in the
state!" he practically shouted. "And they've got no truancy plan at
all!" He had summoned the superintendent to his office to discuss
the matter. "I haven't been confrontational with her, but she has
not been direct with me, and the whole purpose of the meeting
today," he said, as a mischievous smile spread across his face, "is
to find out how we're going to get along."

This sort of feeling-out process with Wilder has been most difficult
for Richmond's City Council, which has seen its power greatly
diminished under the new strong-mayor system. At first, Council
members seemed to be almost too accommodating toward Wilder:
Shortly after being sworn in, the mayor demanded even more power
for his office--including a line-item veto and oversight of the
school board's budget--and the Council readily acquiesced (thereby
paving the way for the state legislature to grant the mayor's
office those new powers).

But, when Wilder presented a budget in April that included more than
$10 million in cuts to so-called nondepartmental spending--on
things ranging from old economic development plans to civic and
arts groups--the Council balked, restoring some of the cuts in its
own budget. Wilder declared the City Council's action
illegal--claiming it had restored the cuts at an improperly called
meeting--and said he would not enforce its budget. The Council then
threatened to take the issue to court, and a nasty war of words
ensued before cooler heads prevailed and a compromise was reached.
Nonetheless, even though the budget fight was somewhat unseemly,
many in Richmond see the give-and-take between Wilder and the
Council as a good sign. "They now realize they have to justify
their projects," says Paul Goldman, Wilder's chief political
adviser. "Richmond is now slowly being run the way a city is
supposed to be run."

The Council isn't the only group coming to grips with Wilder. Those
black political leaders who opposed the strong-mayor plan on racial
grounds--and who were quick to play the race card on other matters
in the past--now find themselves effectively neutered. Where once
they were thought to represent the views of black Richmonders, the
overwhelming black support for both the strong- mayor referendum
and Wilder's mayoral candidacy revealed them to be paper tigers.
And the appeal of racial pandering appears to have diminished:
Where race was once the subtext of almost every political dispute
in Richmond, during Wilder's recent squabbling with the Council,
race hardly ever came up. "In Richmond, for many years, we've been
held hostage by the sins of earlier generations and the racial
politics that went on here," says Jim Ukrop, the owner of a local
supermarket chain and one of Richmond's most prominent white
businessmen. "But Mayor Wilder has moved us beyond racial
politics."

But that doesn't mean that Wilder has kowtowed to the white business
establishment, as his black critics initially argued he would. In
fact, he sometimes seems to go out of his way to anger the white
business community, particularly those who supported the
strong-mayor plan and his candidacy. Most prominently, Wilder has
opposed one of the white business community's pet development
projects--building a performing arts center in downtown Richmond--
on the grounds that the spending is wasteful, leaving some of his
past supporters perplexed. "The white establishment is now
uncertain as to what Doug's next move will be," says Raymond Boone,
the editor and publisher of The Richmond Free Press, the city's
black newspaper. "And I think that's healthy, because in the past,
they had taken city funding and revenues for granted."

Indeed, Wilder has done something that many once considered
impossible in Richmond politics: He has staked out a position
independent of either the black political class or the white
business establishment, confounding both of them. As Ukrop, who has
had disagreements with Wilder since his election, concedes, "Doug
Wilder sits in no one's pocket. He doesn't represent anyone's
interest other than his own and what he considers the best
interests of the city."

In a way, Wilder is making the most out of his greatest flaw. As he
rose through the ranks of Virginia politics, he acquired the
reputation as a politician who was out only for himself. And that
reputation was not undeserved, as, time and again, he changed
positions or abandoned allies. Indeed, Wilder's failure to move on
from the governor's office to the U.S. Senate was largely
attributable to the many important Virginia Democrats he had
alienated over the course of his career. But now, Wilder's
vices--his quarrelsome nature, his stubbornness, his allegiance
only to himself--have become virtues. With his self-interest
aligned with Richmond's, the city has a fighting chance, because
Wilder has rarely failed to act in his self-interest. Sitting in the
back of a town car while being driven to a meeting on the other
side of the city, Wilder boasted that he had opened a new chapter
in Richmond's history. "We've got people saying, 'Look, we'll move
back into the city. We feel we have a shot, we've got a chance,
there's a new breath of air,'" he said, pointing to a bustling
street scene as evidence of the rebirth. "For too many years," he
added, "this city has been satisfied with stultified mediocrity. ...
I'm not satisfied with mediocrity."

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