Instead of moral leadership, Richmond suffers from the bigotry of low expectations.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE

Having been the one who wrote the original elected-mayor law and put in the sweat equity to make sure the 7,000-plus signatures needed to get the measure on the 2003 referendum ballot were collected, it seems a reasonable question for me to ask: Do the people of Richmond really want a mayor?

Mayor Dwight Jones apparently believes the answer is no. If men and women were angels, Virginian James Madison wrote, there would be no need for government. So Americans created the presidency, a unique office in the annals of human history, to provide moral leadership. In turn, we have governors at the state level and mayors at the local level, to do likewise.

Except here in Richmond. This is particularly baffling because Mayor Jones is a preacher and his staff wants him to run for governor. Yet his silence on the recent developments regarding Sheriff C.T. Woody — the rampant nepotism, accidental release of prisoners and so on — in addition to his mysterious disappearance during Hurricane Irene, underscore his lack of moral leadership.

The soul of any majority black city, as the late Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out in different ways, are the children living in poverty, for they carry the heaviest burden of society’s previous failures. 

When I was the chief cook and bottle washer for L. Douglas Wilder’s historic campaign to remove the no-blacks-need-apply sign from the Executive Mansion, the African-American community was fully engaged. As Wilder told me on many occasions, he felt honored to be the symbol for those long denied and wanting a chance to show they could provide the moral leadership they felt lacking.

Perhaps it is telling that state Sen. Henry Marsh, Mayor Jones’ political godfather, opposed Wilder’s efforts to break the color barrier in state politics. He told me Wilder would lose badly in his run for lieutenant governor and this would set back the black community for a generation. Their rivalry is well-known and thus Marsh’s position could be seen as an attempt to create a political reason to oppose Wilder for personal reasons.

Over time, I’ve come to look at Marsh’s position differently.

Mayor Jones and his political posse mouth the right platitudes, but show no real interest in doing the hard work needed to help the city’s disenfranchised children. The mayor is more concerned with flying to Denmark to celebrate a bike race that’s years from coming to fruition than helping school children have a real chance at being all they can be. In effect, they have been written off. 

Let me be brutally honest: The mayor, the school superintendent and sheriff, and frankly City Council until now, doesn’t give a damn about providing the moral leadership required of them on this issue. Nada. For example, they eagerly spread a misleading statistic about how these poor school children — 75 percent of whom are African-American youngsters living at or below the poverty line — “graduate” at record rates.

“Our goal is not just to graduate students, but graduate students who are college- and career-ready,” Richmond schools spokeswoman Felicia Cosby told the Richmond Times-Dispatch last week.

But they know it’s a smokescreen. As President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush — who don’t agree on much — have said, test scores, “crumbling” school buildings, unqualified teachers and lack of a scholarship policy prove this bragging to be self-serving, indeed a huge disservice to the children and their families.

In reality, only half of the city’s high-school seniors take the SAT exam, and their scores average 25 percent below the state average, which is hardly college-ready. A recent state report found that more than half of the high-school graduates in our community colleges couldn’t do first-year work without remedial help.

The political leaders of this city have chosen to feather their own nests at the expense of these innocent children. It isn’t just about high salaries, perks and privileges for family and friends. That’s one dimension. The larger dimension is the moral one, that they feel so free to mouth platitudes they know promote a false picture.

In truth, Mayor Jones supports the very status quo he and Marsh blamed on the old power structure. 

Instead of moral leadership, Richmond suffers from the bigotry of low expectations — but not only as relates to the children. Our leaders are confident they can cite fantasy statistics, go to college basketball games, ride bicycles and literally skate by at the new downtown ice rink.

So I ask again: Does Richmond really want a mayor? It seems that Mayor Jones’ own staff is sure we don’t because it feels no pressure to prove otherwise.

Whatever one may say about Wilder, the former governor and mayor — and I have been as critical as anyone — at least my old boss gave a damn about stuff. True, it was too much “me” and not enough “we.” The Richmond School Board became his white whale in Moby Dick fashion.

But I submit that Mayor Jones, despite having a far more user-friendly style, is morphing into a different kind of self-absorbed politician. Let’s not forget that Wilder earned his political stature by championing policies to change a failed political establishment that held people back. Jones is said to be considering a run for governor as well, but sees no reason to assert anything resembling moral leadership. After nearly three years in office, he’s yet to confront the city’s most vexing problems.

A mayor has to provide the moral leadership required, or a city — in this case Richmond — will just drift along. Mayor Jones and his posse don’t get it. But they are betting residents don’t much care. S

Paul Goldman is a longtime Democratic strategist and former senior policy adviser for former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.



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