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How the business community lost its hold on city politics.



Quietly and unceremoniously, Benjamin J. Lambert IV, son of the longtime state senator, withdrew from the 3rd District School Board race in early August when the brokerage firm he worked for deemed his candidacy a "conflict."

It wasn't exactly front-page news. But Lambert's premature bow highlights an important shift in city politics, namely the slow disappearance of one of its most influential power centers: the business community.

Lambert's employer, Banc of America Financial Securities, a subsidiary of Charlotte-based Bank of America, one of the many North Carolina banks and financial institutions that gobbled up and replaced Richmond-area banks in the 1990s. Before that, Richmond was a banking center on the East Coast.

When these financial powerhouses were answering to bosses in Richmond, it would have been difficult to imagine Lambert being denied a foray into politics. In days of old, Richmond would have encouraged budding politicians such as Lambert, says John Moeser, a longtime urban politics professor who is a visiting fellow at the University of Richmond's Center for Civic Engagement.

Instead, the North Carolina firm cut short a potentially promising political career.

"The business community was [once] very interested in getting its ranks on the School Board, City Council," Moeser says. "Businesses are now controlled beyond the borders of the community. The business community is much more fragmented."

The decentralization of city politics and the creation of the ward system in the late 1970s systematically changed how Richmond's business elite influenced city politics, Moeser says. Before the nine districts were created, the city's corporate power brokers routinely handpicked City Council candidates and controlled City Hall with an iron fist.

By the mid-1990s, after North Carolina's historic takeover of Richmond's biggest banks, the business community slowly became even more disconnected. With the banks went some of the biggest law firms. Meanwhile, the tobacco industry was spiraling into a slow but steady decline.

Then came the Calvin Jamison years. Jamison, Richmond's former city manager, had been a human-resources executive at Ethyl Corp. He was handpicked by former Richmond Mayor Timothy Kaine to take over City Hall.

In return, Jamison reconnected Richmond's remaining corporate power brokers with city government. Through the political and business nonprofit group Richmond Renaissance, the business community, in many respects, took the lead on economic development projects, helping to create the Greater Richmond Convention Center and the Broad Street Community Development Authority, which issued millions of dollars in bonds to tear down 6th Street Marketplace and spruce up East Broad Street.

But Jamison left in December 2004, and the business community since has been in a more perverse state of flux. The relationship effectively ended when Mayor L. Douglas Wilder took office nearly two years ago. As Wilder dismantled the last major business community project, the downtown performing arts center, the result was the end of Richmond Renaissance, which no longer initiates economic development projects for the city and has since been rolled into a new organization called Venture Richmond.

It also meant tossing aside the manifesto created by James A. Crupi, a consultant hired by the business community in the early 1990s to gauge just how the city's corporate fathers could become more involved in the city's development. Crupi spent two months interviewing Richmond's business leaders before issuing his 1993 report, "Back to the Future: Richmond at the Crossroads."

In his assessment of Richmond, Crupi underscored the need for the city's leaders to become more involved in the economic development of the city.

Of Richmond he wrote: "Its business community has seen the passing of an older generation of leaders who nurtured their business growth alongside of that of Richmond, and whose influence over the city's political process was pervasive. That passage, along with changed economic circumstances, has left in its wake a disparate group of business leaders."

In the last few weeks, the collective soul of the business community, if there is such a thing, has become even more active in the City Council races, and it's manifested itself most visibly in the five-way race for 1st District. There, three of the city's most prominent businessmen, Beverley W. "Booty" Armstrong, S. Buford Scott and Henry Valentine II, sent a campaign letter urging support for candidate Bruce Tyler as "the one candidate for City Council who has the business experience Richmond needs now."

It may go down as ineffectual, but the response is significant for what it represents. In a rare move, three well-known campaign backers decided to discard the old Richmond way of doing things — remaining behind the scenes — and put themselves front and center in a hotly contested race.

Without City Hall, the public arena may be the only way for the business community to become involved in local politics. S

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