Politics

Wilder's Last Crusade

Virginia's ex-governor has made a career out of accomplishing the unexpected. He is betting he can do it one more time as mayor of a proud but messed-up city.
by | June 2005

For a short time after L. Douglas Wilder took office in January as mayor of Richmond, those who wanted to speak to him faced a dilemma: Should they call him "Mayor" or "Governor"? On the street, at meetings, even in city hall, people vacillated, unsure whether the respect due a former governor of Virginia somehow overshadowed his new political station.

It didn't take long to sort out. "Mayor Wilder" is what the city's new chief executive wants to be called, in part because he doesn't wish to leave any doubts about his position at the apex of Richmond life. "There's a guy who likes to call himself 'mayor' of one of the streets down here," Wilder says, gesturing out his office window. "I said, 'That's all over! I'm going to be the mayor of every alley, every street, every avenue, you name it.' I cede no part of the city to anyone!"

This is not hyperbole. Capping a lifetime of firsts--the first black state senator in Virginia since Reconstruction; the first black lieutenant governor; the first African-American elected governor anywhere in the United States, Wilder this year became the first directly elected, constitutionally powerful mayor of Richmond since the 1940s. At the age of 74, when most politicians would be pondering where to store the gilt-edged photographs of their past glories, Wilder has plunged into one last great act.

He has embraced it with the self-assurance of a man in the habit of playing the lead role. Another newly minted mayor, faced with weaning his city from diffuse governance by a city council and city manager, might move gingerly to avoid antagonizing interest groups accustomed to getting their way. Wilder has chosen the opposite tack. He has seized Richmond by the scruff of the neck and thrown it and himself headlong into an unusual urban revitalization project: crafting a standard of strong leadership in a city that had forgotten what that looks like.

Wilder is convinced this is what Richmond wants. The 2003 referendum that created the new mayoralty produced a four-fifths majority in favor of the move, and Wilder himself got a similar margin when he ran for the post last November. "When you're 74 years old," he says, "and the people have reposed the confidence in you to say, 'Look here, old man, we believe you are the guy who can do what you say you'll do,' well, you can't rise any higher in terms of people's expectations."

You can, however, test the limits of what they expected. Now that he's getting down to brass tacks, Wilder is forcing the city to confront what it chose for itself. Business leaders who supported the change and helped fund the campaign for it have found their pet causes held up to new scrutiny in city hall. Nonprofit and community groups that relied on a steady stream of city funds have seen themselves zeroed out of the budget. Every week brings news of some high-level departure from a city agency, and sometimes rumors that an entire agency might disappear. In the few months it has taken Richmonders to get used to saying "Mayor Wilder," he has transformed the political landscape around them.

"It's not just the magnitude of the change," says John Moeser, a professor of urban studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, "but the swiftness of the change. In many respects, it's unprecedented. But throughout his career, Wilder has been full of surprises, and this is going to be mainstay Wilder. He's going to call the shots as he sees them."

SENSE OF NEGLECT

That Wilder was presented with this opportunity is thanks in large part to, well, Doug Wilder. In 2002, he joined with Tom Bliley, a former Richmond mayor and longtime Republican congressman from the area, to form a commission exploring the possibility of abandoning Richmond's council-manager form of government, in which one of the city council members, chosen by colleagues, was given the title of mayor. Very little management authority went along with the title. It was a widespread feeling that the system lacked accountability that jump-started the city's makeover.

At the time, Wilder seemed pretty much to have given up on politics. A longtime Democrat, he had explored the idea of running for president in 1992 and ran a brief campaign for the U.S. Senate as an independent after finishing his term as governor in 1994. The Senate run in particular--a challenge to Democratic incumbent Chuck Robb--wound up alienating some longtime allies. Then, in 1997, Wilder was blamed by many Democrats for the party's gubernatorial defeat because he failed to support the Democratic nominee. Gradually, he slipped into what seemed to be a comfortable semi-retirement, teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University and occasionally commenting on state policy.

Richmond, however, was entering a particularly bleak stage in its history. Between 1997 and 2004, the city saw a mayoral aide plead guilty to cocaine distribution and racketeering; the mayor he served resign from the council and plead guilty to federal charges of mail fraud and obstruction of justice; a city councilman and his wife convicted on federal tax-evasion charges; the vice-chairman of the city's Industrial Development Authority convicted in a bribery scandal; and a former aide to the city manager plead guilty to charges in a city hall billing scam.

Quite apart from the ethical taint that all of this was giving Richmond, there was a pervasive feeling in the city that it was adrift--and that, especially in its African-American community, the lack of direction from city hall was proving disastrous. Decay downtown, neighborhoods that felt neglected, a high crime rate, widespread poverty, illiteracy and sexually transmitted disease--all of these fed the dissatisfaction. "You name the category--public health, education, employment, the economy--we were hurting and the leadership had not addressed it," says Marty Jewell, a longtime community activist who was elected to the city council last November. "No one was accountable. The mayor was saying, 'Well, under the statute I preside over meetings and cut ribbons'; the manager was not required to respond to any citizen or citizen issue; and the council was in a situation where you couldn't get three council members to agree on what was for lunch, let alone set benchmarks and hold the manager to those benchmarks."

For Wilder, who grew up in Richmond and built his political career there, the last straw was a meeting of a group called Richmond Renaissance, a biracial collection of heavy hitters from the political and business worlds. The former governor had become increasingly vocal about Richmond's ills, going so far as to call the city "a cesspool of corruption and inefficiency." Asked to speak to the group about his concerns, Wilder was stung by the response: Rather than being challenged on his argument, he was castigated for criticizing the city. "That told me that the group's leadership was weak," Wilder says. "If this was what was supposedly the combination of forces directing the affairs of the city, then we were in bigger trouble than I had thought."

The problem was that, even if there was public sentiment for change, the obstacles were daunting. Virginia functions according to "Dillon's Rule," the hoary legal structure that makes cities and counties creatures of the state--any change to the way a community operates has to be approved by the state legislature. And the city council wasn't about to request that it be required to hand over power to a strong mayor. The ad hoc commission--for which Wilder recruited Bliley, a white conservative with strong ties to Richmond's business and social elite--was essentially designed to produce a proposal that, if adopted by the voters, would make an end run around the powers-that-be.

In Richmond, with its history of segregation and resistance to change, race is still a potent subtext in any political discussion, and this was true in the mayoral reform debate. The city is 58 percent African American, and while the move to a strong mayor elected citywide was supported by white business leaders, the black establishment--most of Richmond's state legislators, its African- American newspapers, and its organization of clergymen--opposed the idea, worried that citywide election would reduce the influence of black neighborhoods and allow a heavy turnout among white citizens to swamp lighter turnout among the African-American majority.

In answer--and to secure Justice Department approval under the federal Voting Rights Act--the commission proposed a twist: The mayoral winner not only had to win a majority of the citywide vote, but carry at least five of the nine councilmanic districts, ensuring that he or she could not win without the support of African-American voters. After a frantic two-month effort to collect signatures--led by Paul Goldman, Wilder's longtime political and policy adviser, the commission's proposal went on the November 2003 ballot.

Wilder campaigned for it full-bore, countering his opponents' arguments by pointing out, as he puts it now, that "after 27 years of black-majority rule, we saw very little changing. Crime was up, we were losing jobs, health was deteriorating, economic development was down, school populations were decreasing. And we were not producing the quality of leadership that in my judgment was needed to correct those things." The electorate obviously agreed, not only giving the initiative 80 percent of the vote but approving it in all but six precincts. It went on to passage at the state capitol. "It was monumental that it took only a year and a half to accomplish," says Tom Shields, a political scientist at the University of Richmond. "If it had been anyone else behind it besides Doug Wilder, it wouldn't have happened."

NO DEBTS TO PAY

Given all this, it must have seemed inevitable to some that Wilder would move in as the city's first strong mayor in 60 years. He insists, though, that he initially had no intention of running for the post. "I told people, 'I like my life, I go on my boat when I choose, my grandchildren come down to visit. This isn't anything I need.'" While there were various other possibilities--Bliley says that for a time he hoped the candidate might be Robert Bobb, a longtime Richmond city manager who had gone on to be administrator in Oakland, California, and is now in Washington, D.C.--none panned out. Meanwhile, some of the very people Wilder held responsible for Richmond's troubles were eyeing the mayoralty. "We didn't fight this hard to see a recapitulation of what we had," Wilder says. Once he got in, the race was essentially over.

Watching a man of his political skills, it's hard to believe Wilder could have done anything else. In person, he can be charming, warm and very persuasive. He has a way, as he works a crowd, of listening gravely to whoever is speaking to him at the moment, and people who meet him nearly always leave with the feeling that he has heard them. Underneath, however, Wilder is always pursuing his own agenda. "Rule No. 1," a local columnist reminded readers a few months ago in a "primer" for dealing with the new mayor: "Doug Wilder owes only Doug Wilder. Rule No. 2: Doug Wilder will not do anything unless it benefits him or his cause (in the current case, the city of Richmond). Rule No. 3: See Rules Nos. 1 and 2. Rule No. 4: No, really."

This reputation for holding no fast allegiances did not serve Wilder particularly well when he was governor, but it works in his favor now. Wilder and all around him are intensely aware that he is creating the template for what any strong mayor in Richmond will be expected to do, and his independence has allowed him to convince a lot of people that his only interest lies in seeing Richmond thrive. "The good thing about him," says a longtime nonprofit executive in town, "is that he isn't loyal to anyone. At his age, he can do pretty much what he wants, because he's not going to be running for some other office."

The result is that Wilder gets the benefit of the doubt when he insists that the city needs wholesale change. In truth, the sense of urgency may not be quite as obvious as it would have been a few years ago. Even before Wilder became mayor, there were heartening signs: a solid bond rating; reduced crime rates; a new convention center downtown; a growing population and booming residential market in several neighborhoods on the edge of downtown; the re-engagement of a once indifferent corporate community in city life. "People sense that Richmond is back, that this region's time has come," says the Chamber of Commerce president, Jim Dunn. Bill Pantele, a city councilman allied with Wilder, tells a story about being summoned about a year ago to meet with constituents in a hard-pressed neighborhood. They wanted to complain about their tax assessments going up. "That was a conversation no one thought we would have five years ago," Pantele says. "We have homeowners concerned about normal homeowner issues now: getting sidewalks fixed, street trees, getting an alley resurfaced. Five or six years ago, no city council person would have had conversations like that."

Wilder and Goldman--who is now his chief city hall adviser and agitator for change within the government--tend on the other hand to see how empty the glass remains. They point to the city's 25 percent poverty rate, the loss of 3,500 jobs over three years, a decrepit public health system, plenty of downtown buildings that remain boarded up, schools with high truancy rates, neighborhood infrastructure that has gone ignored for years. Nor was the city apparatus they found when they moved into city hall anything to write home about. A commission appointed by Wilder to study its effectiveness found a litany of problems, from departments performing duplicate tasks, to services that cost several times what they do in cities of comparable size, to lax hiring, procurement and contracting processes.

"You look at the workforce in your utilities department, so much of that work is outsourced to the tune of millions of dollars," Wilder says. "You look at the housing authority, they're spending a million dollars in outsourced legal work when they could do that through the city attorney's office, yet they're coming to us for money? We've reached our debt capacity, we've got holes in our retirement account. So you start asking yourself the question, Who has been in charge? And bottom line, you come to the conclusion that there hasn't been anybody in charge."

NO TIME TO LOSE

Wilder has made it clear that someone is in charge now. To begin with, he went to the legislature and had it fill in the blanks left when it approved the city's move to a mayor elected at-large. These changes have given him veto power over council actions, authority over the city budget, even a measure of control over the school board. He jettisoned the previous city manager and police chief right away, and in the months since taking office has overseen the departure of a series of administrators from the old regime. He called in city employees and asked them not only what they did but what they actually accomplished--"It's amazing what you see when you ask someone what would not happen if they were not there," he says, laughing. With Wilder, one gets the sense that exercising mayoral power is not simply a means of furthering a policy agenda; exercising power as mayor is his agenda.

"I had a couple guys in the legislature say, 'Why don't you go slower, just take a year or so and see what happens,'" he says. "But I know what's needed now. I go back to that old axiom: If a thing is right, the time is always right. It's not a question of arrogating nor rushing. It's a question of clothing the office with what it should have. No more but no less."

This has been clearest in Wilder's dealings with Richmond's business community. In recent years, encouraged by business leaders, the council and manager cut a variety of economic development deals that looked promising but have left the city on the hook for millions of dollars. Particularly galling to Wilder and Goldman is an arrangement by which the city picks up the tab for shortfalls in running the convention center--a regional entity--while suburban counties are projected to receive rebates from the project. "These businessmen go on about how great the convention center is," Goldman fumes. "It's running in the red millions of dollars, yet only one locality has to bail it out? Who cut that deal?"

Wilder has turned a skeptical eye on a variety of other projects that have had strong business backing. He is openly questioning whether the city should live up to its pledge of $27 million for a performing arts center if the center's board is unable to come up with the private funding it has said it could raise. He is in an open spat with the Richmond Braves minor-league baseball team, which wants a new stadium in the historic Shockoe Bottom neighborhood. And much to the chagrin of many of the prominent businessmen who funded his strong mayor referendum, he has pulled city funding for Richmond Renaissance and for the Greater Richmond Partnership, a regional development organization that has, so far, been more successful at bringing businesses to outlying counties than to Richmond itself. "With every negotiation that takes place...for the remainder of my term," he said in April, "we are not going to have these types of open-ended, loose- ended commitments for the city with nothing coming back."

This is not to say that Wilder's goal is to put distance between himself and business leaders--just that he wants the city to be a lot more careful. Indeed, just before he said that, he announced a deal with tobacco giant Philip Morris for a $300 million research and development facility downtown that will involve a donation of city land and a 10-year rollback on taxes.

On balance, Wilder still enjoys the support of the city's corporate elite. While opposing cuts in the regional economic partnership, the Chamber's Jim Dunn sympathizes with Wilder's overall goal. "The mayor absolutely has to look at every nickel the city is spending," he says. "It takes resources to change the things that need to be changed."

That is, in fact, the whole point of Wilder's first budget, a 2-inch- thick document that landed with a decided "thud" the first week in April. It not only slights favorites within the business community, it cuts nonprofits that have long depended on the city for support. Instead, it gives funding priority to police, schools, street repairs and parks--basics of city government that Wilder argues went neglected for too long.

While conflict is inevitable as Wilder forges ahead, he is sanguine about the future--in particular, the future after he leaves office. Even though he has the better part of four years to go in his first term--and hasn't hinted one way or another whether he intends to seek a second--many are nervous about what will happen to the strong mayoralty when someone else is filling it. Wilder tells them that by then, city hall will be more responsive, more efficient and more accountable, and a less commanding figure will still be able to run things. "I tell people not to worry about what happens when I leave," he says. "Because if we're successful in creating the machinery that we want, the public won't allow it to become anything else. They'll say, 'Wait a minute, we know you can do this!' They'll know that government can be what they thought it ought to be."

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net

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