February 12, 2003 News & Features » Cover Story



The Wilder-Bliley Commission for never giving up when they've got their minds set on something.

One's a Democrat, the other a Republican. One is a fiery lawyer, the other a low-key retired undertaker. Together, they just might change Richmond's government.

Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder has been pushing since 1999 to get Richmond a full-time mayor who is elected by a citywide popular vote, something it hasn't had since 1948. By signing on ex-U.S. Rep. Tom Bliley, a Republican and former mayor, Wilder has kept his quest on the front pages.

A lot of people say the city doesn't need a mayor elected the way Wilder wants. They say such elections would just return to power the well-off whites who dominated Richmond from Reconstruction until the 1970s.

Wilder doesn't have a lot of patience for people like that.

City Council, Wilder says, "has reduced itself to a menagerie." A mayor, he adds, would lead the city, not just entertain it. As for the issue of race, the only black governor elected in U.S. history says we're past that.

Wilder loves a good fight, and he's found one. He's spurned City Council's attempts to join forces with his commission (in order, he suspects, to dilute its mission). He's welcomed the opposition of his political nemesis, state Sen. Harold Marsh, who is doing just fine under the current system, thank you. He lambastes any who oppose the idea, calling them self-serving or incompetent.

Last year, a few years after Wilder's first proposal to change Richmond's charter got killed in the General Assembly, he turned to a never-used loophole that his chief adviser, political strategist Paul Goldman, found in the city charter. The charter, it turned out to everyone's surprise, allows any item to be put to a citywide referendum if enough people sign a petition supporting it.

Wilder, with Bliley's typically taciturn support, started a commission of local civic activists, staffed it with a pair of the state's top political pros -- one from Wilder, another from Bliley -- funded it with $50,000 from donations primarily from downtown businesses, and announced a series of town-hall-style meetings to debate the topic.

The result was never in doubt. After four meetings to hear a variety of viewpoints on the subject, the commission announced that it had come up with two options.

The first option was to elect a mayor-at-large who would serve for four years. The second: to elect a mayor-at-large who would serve for four years.

In January, the commission picked option No. 2, in which the mayor would oversee a professional city manager. Next, Wilder and his commission plan to bring their referendum to the people and then, next year, to the legislature. They'll have a brutal fight on their hands. You get the feeling Wilder can hardly wait.

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