Halfway There 

Richmond said it wanted a strong mayor. Six years later, what do we have?

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There's a sinister desolation in death, and it's fallen over Hillside Court on a biting-cold afternoon in late January. The housing project off Commerce Road feels even more isolated on a Saturday like this, when the buzz of 18-wheelers and weekday industry goes deafeningly quiet. The crowd of family members, residents and police officers gathering to mourn Regina Doctor offers little relief. Candles are lighted, memorials are given, hymns are sung.

“It's praying time,” insists Alicia Rasin, who organized the vigil for Doctor, who was shot to death Jan. 18 while taking out her trash. But the people here are searching for answers, and they need something more. It's the third homicide in three weeks at Hillside, and prayer alone won't abate the frustration.

Ameen Dawan, who owns a beauty salon on Hull Street, wants to know why the city's highest elected official isn't here, standing with the people while the temperatures dip into the low 20s. “When will the mayor be accountable to us?” he asks, the crowd catcalling in agreement. “You're going to respect Hillside Court like you respect Windsor Farms,” he says. “Where's our officials at? Where are our mayors at?”

 

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Mayor Dwight Jones gives an update on the city's progress during his state of the city address at the Hippodrome Theater on Feb. 3. He tells Style the city is making progress despite enormous fiscal strain: “We have absorbed $50 million worth of cuts without layoffs, without furloughs. Government is running efficiently.” Photo by Scott Elmquist

Two years into the first term of Mayor Dwight Jones, and six years after the city shifted to an elected, strong-mayor form of government, the question reverberates in the echo chamber that is Richmond politics: Where is the leadership?

Jones is credited with cleaning up City Hall after a tumultuous four years under his predecessor, Mayor L. Douglas Wilder. He's helped guide the city through a recession, balanced the budget amid funding shortfalls and installed a new economic-development strategy.

But there's something missing, critics say: the Richmond mayor who leads, comforts in times of need, speaks out for the people and the city.

The impetus for shifting to an elected-mayor form of government in 2005 was to give the city a singular voice, a mayor with the political base to instill a broad vision for Richmond and the region. If Wilder's four years were defined by tumult, power grabs and political grandstanding, Jones has been the calm after the storm. His first two years can be defined by cooperation and collaboration, unity between City Council and City Hall. But some are beginning to wonder if the esprit de corps lacks a general.

“You look at the specific policy directions that he's taken — his instincts have been good,” says Thad Williamson, an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond, noting the mayor's carefully constructed economic-development strategy as an example. “I think it's fair to say that the average citizen probably doesn't know a whole lot about, ‘What is the vision driving these policies?'”

Others are more pointed, questioning whether the mayor's leadership style simply doesn't match the role of a strong mayor. He rarely speaks publicly about the major issues afflicting the city — economic segregation in schools, the lack of a true regional transit system — and defers weighing in on pressing political conflicts, such as the sexual harassment scandal that has rocked City Council since early January. And he's simply not that accessible, says one City Hall official.

“He's kind of removed from it all. He doesn't walk around City Hall. He doesn't come to executive staff meetings,” says the city employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It almost feels very hierarchical, like he's above it all.

“You just don't see the prince.”

Mayor Jones says the criticism is unwarranted. In an hour-long interview with Style Weekly, he says his first priority was to get the city's financial house in order, to recalibrate a City Hall that was in a state of upheaval when he took office in 2009.

“There were many vacant positions, there was little attention to efficiencies,” Jones says. “The organization was pretty much on autopilot. Not to mention the lawsuits and the combative relationship between the branches of government.”

Indeed, the city was in state of dysfunction. Wilder's reign as mayor led to a leadership drain with directors and department heads getting fired or fleeing City Hall for more stable jobs. Jones also dropped two legal appeals from Wilder's regime. One challenged a lower-court decision that affirmed City Council's authority to hire and fire its own staff and council appointees. The other related to Wilder's late-night attempt to evict the School Board from City Hall in 2007. As the first mayor under the new city charter, Wilder — who served as the 66th governor of Virginia — spent much of his four years testing the boundaries of his authority, and he did so at lightning speed. Jones, by contrast, moves deliberately and slowly, without any of the political grandstanding of his predecessor.

The transition, however, couldn't have offered a starker contrast in leadership. Wilder, some observers say, was in constant overdrive, perhaps even reckless, but there was no mistaking he was the singular voice and most powerful elected official in the city and the region. Critics say the current mayor is stuck in the slow lane. It took Jones nearly a year to hire a chief administrative officer, which accounts for much of the slow start to his term. And he recently lost the city's chief financial officer, Marcus Jones, who left to become city manager in Norfolk. For all the talk of economic development, Jones has yet to hire a director for that department.

While acknowledging the mayor has made considerable strides, City Councilman Chris Hilbert says that still-vacant post is an ominous sign. “This one is quite troubling to me, actually,” Hilbert says. “We are now in the 25th month of the administration without [an economic-development director]. We keep hearing that they have someone in mind, but quite frankly we haven't seen the follow-through.”

Jones dismisses such criticisms. “If the absence of an economic-development director meant that there was no economic development taking place, then you might have a point,” he tells Style. “But you don't — because economic development is more aggressive now than it has been in the recent history of the city.”

 

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Mayor Jones says those looking for him to push a regional agenda will have to wait. “We can't provide leadership for the region until our house is in order,” he says. Photo by Scott Elmquist

Perhaps. The city has $981 million in ongoing, active development projects, Jones says, and his office has worked to retain jobs and help local businesses expand. But businesses relocating to the city still remain few and far between. In his state of the city address earlier this month, Jones touted the retention of companies such as Pfizer and Williams Mullen, but these are businesses that simply chose to remain in Richmond, representing jobs that largely were already here.

Part of the problem is that too many people view economic development in terms of new buildings, Jones says. Sustainable economic development links communities with jobs, job training and access to capital, he says. Planning and community involvement are also important, but it's an approach that takes time.

“We have a robust economic-development agenda that includes Dove Court, that includes the Boulevard, that includes Shockoe Slip and Shockoe Bottom,” he says. “We have retained businesses such as Pfizer and BB&T.”

So let the critics circle. Jones says he's doing the job he was elected to do, just without the pomposity of his predecessor. “So you either want the flash or you want results — so you choose,” he says. “I can pontificate on every issue that comes along, but if it doesn't add to the solution then it doesn't do any good. There is something I can speak on every day. But the question is, ‘Will it do any good?'”

Clouding expectations, perhaps, is that Jones has earned his keep with a booming voice in the pulpit for the last four decades, as pastor of First Baptist Church of South Richmond. He declines to discuss his role as pastor, insisting it has no bearing on his job as mayor. But on most Sundays the mayor transforms into a fiery Baptist preacher. On Super Bowl Sunday the message focuses on setting a spiritual action agenda.

With a call-and-response, rhythmic oratory, Jones' sermon in the predominantly black church builds like slow jazz, rising until it crescendos into a powerful, bass-thumping call: “Now it's time to take action!” he tells the packed congregation on Decatur Street, just off Hull Street Road in Manchester. “When you have the right kind of leaders … you can climb any mountain!”

Jones now shares the podium with his son, the Rev. Derik E. Jones, but the mayor insists on keeping politics and his dogma separate. “I don't talk about the church,” he says. “I'm a person of faith. And my faith position is private.” It's difficult for some people to reconcile the Baptist preacher, however, with the sermonless mayor.

At times Jones seems to be holding back. During his recent State of the City address, he almost appears restrained while speaking to a full Hippodrome Theater. His pastoral cadence is unmistakable, but there's no hint of the impassioned Baptist.

“It's almost like he's got a dual personality,” says the City Hall employee, who occasionally tunes in to his sermons, televised on WUPV Channel 13. “If you see him there, it's like ‘Wow, who's this?'”

Jones chafes at the notion of a reporter visiting his church, and won't comment on his involvement in both church and state. “People don't understand the culture of churches, and they really don't understand the culture of black churches,” he says. “So you don't even talk about it.”

As action agendas go, the lack of a public political agenda is what has been missing in Jones' first two years as mayor, says Williamson, the University of Richmond professor. Richmond no doubt needed a calm period after Wilder, he says, and Jones has most certainly done an admirable job of cleaning up City Hall and making city services more efficient. But at some point, he says, the mayor should be willing to step out more into the public arena.

“In city politics, as a general rule one of the big fights is control of the agenda,” Williamson says. “If the mayor isn't out there pushing the agenda every day, the public attention is going to focus on these issues such as the [Richmond] Coliseum and the baseball stadium, the classic development projects that probably don't make a major dent in poverty.”

Issues such as expanding regional transit, for example — particularly full-service buses into the job centers of Chesterfield and Henrico counties — really haven't emerged as a priority under Jones, even though expanded bus lines would provide a critical link between the poorest city residents and the entry-level retail jobs in the suburbs. Richmond, after all, has the highest concentration of residents living below the poverty line in the region — and the state.

“It is the responsibility of the mayor, or any elected official, to go out and fight for those things even when it's going to cause some friction. The caution has carried over too much,” Williamson says. “If Chesterfield and Henrico are not willing to cooperate in extending transit, make that known, make that visible. I don't see anything to gain in the long term by keeping that conflict quiet.”

Indeed, political leaders in Chesterfield and Henrico say they are willing to discuss expanding transit — just not right now, amid a lingering recession and state budget cuts. Chesterfield County Administrator James J.L. Stegmaier says the county is willing to sit down to discuss expanding buses into the county — but the subject has been broached only once since Jones took office.

“It hasn't been the highest priority in the past year,” Stegmaier says. “There isn't any money available.” Ditto for Henrico County Manager Virgil Hazelett, who concurs: “All of these localities are under tremendous economic pressures. Things in the future have to take a back seat.”

That's precisely why some people say more vocal leadership is needed from the mayor. In October 2008, while campaigning for office, Jones addressed the need to expand transit, and the need for more regional cooperation. “I think that much needs to be done and it will depend on the next leader of Richmond to initiate the kinds of discussions that are needed in order to bring us together,” he said during one mayoral forum sponsored by Style.

Today Jones is a bit more circumspect. When pressed why he hasn't spoken publicly about the economic segregation of city schools, he fires back: “So what would that conversation be about? The fact that the state has a composite index that is detrimental to the city of Richmond? I don't understand what that conversation would be about,” he says. “Those are things that are out of our control.”

Jones says critics searching for a regional head of state have misinterpreted the true intention of the city's move to an elected-mayor government. 

“I understand that you want a champion, you want a president for the region,” Jones says. “You don't have that. My understanding of mayor at large is that my first responsibility is to take care of the city of Richmond. I've got to set this house in order. And that's what we are doing.”

Jones is “absolutely right,” says John Moeser, a senior fellow at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at UR. The new city charter did away with a mayor appointed by City Council from within its ranks. Moeser says the charter “focused exclusively on the how the chief executive would be selected, not on any regional role that the mayor would assume.”

But being mayor of Virginia's capital city offers something more. “The mayor could be a voice for cities across the state, particularly since most cities are experiencing enormous fiscal stress,” says Moeser, who commends Jones for healing rifts between the mayor's office and City Council. “Also, because the suburbs wouldn't exist were it not for the city, the mayor has a unique opportunity to speak to the region as a whole, particularly on pressing matters like poverty that affect city and county alike.”

That plans for a new Coliseum and a new ballpark for the Richmond Flying Squirrels have emerged as the top regional priorities — both would require financial contributions from surrounding jurisdictions — shouldn't be brushed aside, Jones says. “I do think I have a responsibility to provide some leadership, to be able to speak for the city, to be able to sit at the table with our county counterparts as an equal and even as a leader and provide direction,” he says. “And I think to minimize the Coliseum and the ballpark as first efforts toward regional cooperation — sometimes you have to take a baby step before you take a giant step.”

But does the baby stepping come with kid gloves? Stegmaier, who says dealing with the Jones administration is “like a breath of fresh air,” says the collegial approach is infectious. The county and city are working together to jointly improve key corridors along Midlothian Turnpike, Hull Street Road and Jefferson Davis Highway, projects that simply didn't gain traction under the previous mayor. “In terms of Chesterfield's relationship with the city, it is on a much higher level and much more responsive than it was two and a half years ago,” he says.

Richmond Delegate Manoli Loupassi, former City Council president during Wilder's term, says the mayor has done a good job of righting the ship after Wilder, and that the regional cooperation will come soon enough.

“The challenge for the mayor is to put us in a position to work together when the economy rebounds,” Loupassi says. “I haven't worked with Jones too much, but I feel like the potholes are being fixed, the trash is being picked up. From what I can see, he's doing a pretty good job.”

Hazelett says those who are searching for a mayor who sets a regional agenda are looking in the wrong place. “Perhaps it's not working like everyone thought,” he says of the new elected-mayor form of government. While there were those who hoped the new city charter would usher in a mayor who charted a regional course, Hazelett says it was never the expectation in the surrounding counties.

“A lot of people will criticize him for his speed, or his manner,” Hazelett says of Jones. “I don't want to compare him to Doug Wilder. Dwight is a different personality. … Do I think the mayor speaks on behalf of the region? No I don't.”

Jones is only halfway into his first term. And some observers say the vision that many people expected is beginning to emerge. The Jones administration is working to define more clearly his mantra of turning Richmond into a “tier-one city,” which he says starts with being fiscally and structurally well-managed.

The timing will be critical. Entering his final two years, the mayor now has more statutory authority than Wilder had — including his ability to veto City Council legislation. At the same time, council appears to be weakening in the wake of the recent sexual harassment scandal involving Jennifer Walle, aide to Jones' most vocal critic, Councilman Bruce Tyler, and David Hathcock, senior liaison to City Council President Kathy Graziano. At his recent state of the city address, Jones took the stage following a skit that appeared to liken him to the late Martin Luther King Jr. In the performance by members of Jones' youth academy, a teacher prepared a lesson about “a phenomenal speaker, [a] community leader who later became Time magazine's 1964 Man of the Year.” The student interrupts the lesson, saying he knows of someone living who's making a difference — Mayor Dwight Jones. The skit wasn't intended to draw comparisons between Jones and King, says his press secretary, Tammy Hawley.

Jones says there will come a day when the city can play a larger role in setting a regional agenda, take action and address the broader social and economic ailments that afflict metro Richmond. Just not yet.

“I think that as time goes on that can happen. I really do,” he says. “But it's going to take a minute to get trust. It's going to take a minute to get out of the recession. It's going to take some time to do some projects together so that everybody feels like they are winners, and there's something in it for them so that we can deal with issues like regional transportation, which is hugely important.

“I think that it's important to get people to where the jobs are,” he continues. “I think it's important for the people in the county to have a way to get to cultural things in the city. So I think it's a two-way street. It's not just to benefit us. It's to benefit the entire region.” S

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