"Some of you aren't on my team," he told the group, according to one account. He challenged them, opened the floor to questions and reminded the department heads that he expected to hear from them individually or else. He was the boss, he said not Harrell, who manages the day-to-day operations at City Hall. Eyes widened, faces went blank. As if they weren't already worried about their job stability, in swooped Wilder, putting a live wire on the table and daring anyone to grab it.
"I am numero uno," Wilder told them, holding up his index finger.
It's a message that Wilder is fond of delivering. In case anyone dares to forget, the man himself is always at the ready to remind whoever chooses to listen: Yes, it is he who now runs this city.
No one is arguing. For the last 12 months, Richmond's first popularly elected mayor in half a century hasn't only shaken things up, he's jackhammered the foundation. Single-handedly, Wilder's taken on Richmond's ruling business class, challenged City Council at every turn and asserted his influence in a tight gubernatorial race. He managed to get all three candidates to visit with him, on his terms, and answer exam-like questions on urban issues before finally siding with Democrat Tim Kaine now governor-elect a week before the Nov. 8 election.
Love him or hate him, Mayor L. Douglas Wilder has ushered in a new era in Richmond, and for the significant influence he's wielded over life in the region in 2005, he is Style Weekly's Richmonder of the Year.
It's the third time Wilder has earned the title since Style started handing it out 20 years ago (see sidebar). Yet this time is different. Wilder has always been recognized for his firsts Virginia's first black lieutenant governor, then the country's first black governor since reconstruction. But his political reincarnation as a governor-turned-mayor has had a markedly different tenor.
Before Wilder's Jan. 2 swearing-in, there were campaign promises to improve schools, put a lid on violent crime and root out the "cesspool of corruption" that had been dogging City Hall for so long. Richmond had seen indictments, bribery scandals, fraud remember Paygo? that seemed to cast an unrelenting dark cloud over the city.
When Wilder hit the campaign trail, he did so like a man half his age. He blanketed the city and was embraced as a savior, the prodigal son who could restore some dignity at City Hall.
He won 80 percent of the vote in November 2004, earning him an undeniable mandate. That mandate, coupled with his status as a crafty, deft politician like no other in Richmond history, made for a powerful brew.
Wilder made lots of promises, but his first year in office will be remembered for how he dismantled Richmond's good ol' boy network and put an entire city on notice.
At 74, Wilder is perhaps more powerful today than he's ever been. And unlike during his days as governor, there are few figures in a position to challenge him politically. City Council is overmatched just ask Council President G. Manoli Loupassi, who routinely attests to the fact and no one inside City Hall comes close to being a counterweight.
Outside City Hall, there are few equals. Gov. Mark R. Warner comes closest, but even he's had to take a back seat to Wilder. Witness how the mayor trumped the governor and took the lead in announcing Richmond's biggest economic coup of 2005, Philip Morris' $300 million research park downtown. As for the upper echelon of the city's business elite which had supported Wilder's campaign clashes were inevitable and abrupt. But the mayor says they were to be expected.
"The most difficult thing is to show that change has to take place is going to take place because that is really what the people wanted," Wilder says. "As I said in the inaugural address, I wouldn't expect things to be changed in a year or even four years. But the start has to take place. So we've started, we've started the process."
Indeed he has. In addition to rejigging the power structure, Wilder says he's trying to change a laissez-faire culture at City Hall, one that is too wasteful, inefficient and unfocused on the important things such as fixing the city's ailing schools. At first, he says, the process looks a bit messy.
"When you first start a job, whether it's a new house or an extensive renovation of an existing house, the job site is a bigger mess than before you started," Wilder explains. "And that's sort of the situation that I've had this year."
The renovations started in late March, with Wilder buried deep in an overgrown budget. The mayor shot off a letter warning the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation "not to return to the city for additional funding." In his first budget, he put the entire city on notice by slashing most nondepartmental agencies including cultural institutions, arts organizations and such previous untouchables as the Greater Richmond Partnership and Richmond Renaissance. (Most eventually made it back into the budget.)
It was a rude wake-up call for many.
"I think I have been saying that change is coming, business as usual isn't here, and those who ran Richmond don't run it anymore," Wilder says. "In terms of poverty, in terms of schools and education and public safety, where was the business community when those things were rising? Where was council? Where was anybody?"
Wilder is here now, of course.
While many survived the budget brouhaha, perhaps the biggest casualty of Wilder's first year was the performing arts foundation, which endured his wrath like no other.
Wilder took aim at the business leaders who were driving the arts center and other downtown developments in the last decade such as grocery magnate Jim Ukrop, local investor Beverley W. "Booty" Armstrong and Media General Chairman J. Stewart Bryan. The city had promised millions of dollars in tax subsidies without any substantive financial analysis, Wilder says, and he simply couldn't believe the lack of accountability.
Perhaps Ukrop and Co. unwittingly sealed their fate late May, when the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation, with Ukrop as chairman, asked City Council to extend its fund-raising deadline for the arts center. (The foundation was required to raise more than $90 million by July in order to receive $15.8 million in city funds.) Wilder informed the foundation that he didn't support extending the deadline.
"Yes, to hell with him. That's what they said," Wilder recalls. "To hell with him. Didn't ask me for the waiver, didn't discuss it with me. Council never discussed it with me. So then they do it."
On May 23, Council ignored Wilder's request and granted the fund-raising extension, giving the foundation until December 2006 to raise the rest of the money. The next day, Wilder took off the kid gloves.
Avid Wilder watchers say the performing arts center was probably doomed at precisely that point. Although the foundation's officials may have felt they had no choice, going around the mayor to try to get what you want is a huge no-no, says longtime political analyst Larry J. Sabato, director of University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
"You need to listen carefully, and you need to work with him and find out exactly what he wants and try to meet as many of the requests as possible," Sabato says. "To ignore him or to work around him is to guarantee his enmity. He's the mayor. You have to come to him. If you try to do big things without him, you're in trouble."
Not surprisingly, the foundation eventually buckled under constant pressure from the mayor's office which persistently decried the project's financial mismanagement and waste of public funds. In November, Brad Armstrong resigned as president and chief executive officer of the arts foundation and a staff shake-up followed. The arts group also agreed to put off building the performing arts center until after completing renovations at the Carpenter Center.
Wilder got what he wanted. But did he go too far? Some people thought so. The battle was protracted, and like a soap opera, it consumed the attention of the news media. Lawsuits were threatened, building permits denied, feelings were hurt.
On May 24, Wilder's public dressing-down of Ukrop, a gentle, almost universally beloved figure in Richmond, was too much for some to stomach. Wilder, evoking a slavery metaphor, declared that Ukrop "might bully some people," but he "does not, nor ever will, own me."
Wilder's comments crossed the line, says Kathy Emerson, former director of the 17th Street Farmers' Market, and now director of Quirk Gallery on West Broad Street. Emerson supported the mayor but adores Ukrop, who owns the building she leases. Not only that, Emerson's partner at Quirk is Katie Ukrop, Jim Ukrop's daughter-in-law.
"I think it was completely uncalled for," Emerson says. "I couldn't understand it. Richmond is so lucky to have somebody [such as Ukrop] who is so committed to the revitalization of Richmond. I just don't think attacking people is a good idea. And I think a lot of people felt the same way."
Loyalties were split. Some people thought that the mayor, a master at pushing his politics to the brink and then pulling back, was being destructive. Meanwhile, some wondered what happened to the emphasis on fixing schools and reducing crime that perhaps ego and one-upmanship were getting in the way of the progress he campaigned on.
"My sense is that the problems that Doug inherited were much more serious than he knew. Therefore, the progress has been a little slower than he hoped," says Booty Armstrong, who, as former treasurer of the arts foundation, has been on the receiving end of Wilder's bluster. "And it's unfortunate that along the way his attention got diverted from his hallmark cornerstones of education and crime."
Wilder has made amends with Armstrong and Ukrop at least somewhat and has even tapped Ukrop to serve on his own committee looking into the performing arts complex and plans for the Carpenter Center. But he regrets nothing.
"Could I have done it differently? Could I have been more mellifluous, uh, softer, said things in how would you call it less strident terms?" Wilder posits. "Maybe so. But name me a time when I said something that was incorrect or that my factual basis was off or askew. Or that I maligned anyone."
Outgoing Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks says if anything, the mayor is changing Richmond's tolerance for debate and disagreement, something the city desperately needs.
"Our biggest challenge in this community is we have zero tolerance for disagreement," Hicks says. "If the [Founding Fathers] had the lack of capacity for debate that we have now, this country would have never been founded."
Wilder denies any "combativeness" on his part.
"I don't apologize one minute for what was done this year, because what was done had to be done," he says, pointing out a seemingly inconsequential but symbolic bus fare increase that he reversed shortly after taking office.
It was a small but important step.
"So we raise their bus fare, we'll even raise their meals tax," Wilder says of lower-income city residents. "But how can you look these people in the face and say you are representing them at a time when you're giving away millions of dollars?"
Fingers snap and the magic's back. When Wilder speaks be it at press conferences, in speeches or in interviews he shifts easily from backslapping, long-lost buddy to fire and brimstone. And just when it appears Wilder's ready to tear you apart verbally, he flips on the charm. One minute his voice rises to an angry staccato, his face tightens and bears down upon you, and then he's laughing again. The effect is dizzying.
The delivery works, Sabato says: "He's a great trial lawyer, he always was."
It's too early to tell if the mayor's style will ultimately help or hurt the city. Wilder's confrontational style of politics worked as governor, as he managed to pare down an unwieldy bureaucracy and get the state's financial house in order.
But will it overwhelm a smaller, much more fragile city government?
As governor, Wilder "was able to withstand pressure to raise taxes and close that deficit," says Daniel J. Palazzolo, associate professor and chairman of the political science department at the University of Richmond. "He's a tough guy. He's not going to buckle easy. [But] you are dealing in kind of a local community context, where constituencies are used to being brought to the table."
Sources at City Hall say the morale is low in many corners, and some of the more talented employees at City Hall have left to escape the bloodbath. Wilder admits that he's requiring more of his department heads, and he says morale is strong as far as he can tell. But he's also created an environment where few are willing to speak out against the mayor, sources say, and some Richmonders wonder if that totalitarian mind-set will ultimately stifle the city's ability to move forward.
At the department heads' meeting in September, the mayor says he could sense some nervousness in the room, and he understands it.
He recalls telling them, in so many words: "Yes, it is new; it's different because each of you has been operating in your own little fiefdoms. That's over with. It's me. If you've got some problems with it, let me know."
"I used to ask the question, What do you do?" the mayor continues. "And I stopped doing that. Now the question is, What do you produce? In other words, if you are not there, what would happen?"
He laughs, he lectures, he gets angry. But trimming the fat is paramount, Wilder says, pointing to a glass-enclosed cleaver hanging on the wall that he says Booty Armstrong gave him a while back. The plaque reads, "Cut the Fat."
Even after all the consternation, the veiled threats and the lawsuit that the arts foundation nearly filed against the mayor, Armstrong says he still supports Wilder.
"I do not agree with everything he's done, but that's normal," Armstrong says. "I still think he's the only hope we've got." S
Previous Richmonders of the Year
Jennie Knapp Dotts (2004)
The Young Black Male (2003)
Searching for hope
John W. Bates III (2002)
Real-estate attorney, downtown deal-maker
Gilbert M. Rosenthal (2001)
James W. Dunn (2000)
Executive director, Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce
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