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Opinion: The School Modernization Referendum Deserves the Broadest Electoral Coalition 

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From the Democratic-leaning Richmond Crusade for Voters to the nonpartisan Sierra Club, over to the Richmond Republican Committee – including all the city’s elected Republican officials – the School Modernization Charter Change referendum on the Nov. 7 ballot is building broad bipartisan support.  But its anti-establishment or populist roots have some natural supporters staying neutral so far.

This circumstance has surprised, among others, the Richmond Free Press, which is often considered the conscience of the city’s African-American community. Anyone reading its editorial of Oct. 19 urging strong support for Proposition A surely would agree the measure is the proverbial no-brainer. Richmond Public School students – 90 percent minority and overwhelmingly from families with limited means — attend decrepit, obsolete facilities so self-evidentially deficient only 7 percent of city residents considered them adequate in a recent poll.

In 1955, the U.S. Supreme Court warned Richmond that such intolerable conditions violated the constitutional guarantee of equal educational opportunities. For 62 years, candidates have promised a plan to fix it. This happened again in 2016. As 2017 draws to a close, there are promises of maybe a partial plan in 2018. Proposition A merely says: “Enough already.” The measure cuts through this Gordian knot of inaction. It requires the mayor, after consultation with City Council, the School Board and the public, to finally present a fiscally responsible fully funded plan to fix it by a certain date.

As the Free Press said: Proposition A is the first opportunity ever for residents to specifically and pointedly give a voter mandate to get Job No. 1 done in 2018.

But no-brainer or not, referendums have long been considered too populist a mechanism for tradition-bound Richmond. Back in 2003, the Richmond City Democratic Committee got heartburn when I led a referendum campaign to attain for Lt. Governor Tim Kaine what he had tried but failed to achieve as mayor: a charter change giving residents their right to directly elect their mayor. The public wanted it. But the committee and the Democratic mayor chaffed at the populist approach and thought the law I had drafted for the Wilder-Bliley Commission too hastily written. The referendum easily passed. Their doubts proved unfounded.

In 1985, state Sen. Henry Marsh, the godfather of the city’s Democratic Committee, opposed the nomination of Richmond native Doug Wilder for lieutenant governor. They and the leaders of the Virginia Democratic Party were certain that nominating an African-American for statewide office would sink the entire state Democratic ticket. But grass-roots Democrats disagreed, leading a populist uprising to take down the No Blacks Need Apply sign from the door to statewide office. As the widely acclaimed book “When Hell Froze Over” documents, I was the only white Democrat willing to be Wilder’s campaign manager. Eventually, those doubting leaders realized their mistake. They joined the party faithful in achieving what surely qualifies as an electoral miracle.

Now comes 2017. No thoughtful person disputes Proposition A’s basic premise: The city’s decrepit, obsolete and unhealthy school facilities are the true, living and breathing monuments to segregation. But once again, the populist nature of a referendum challenge to a failed status quo has elicited the usual initial response.

Each time there arises some new unfounded doubt. Here in 2017, there is a claim my reason for pushing the School Modernization Charter Change is to embarrass Mayor Levar Stoney. That’s provably false. If you go to my Facebook page, you will find a photo of Gov. Terry McAuliffe – Stoney’s political mentor – and me speaking before the Richmond Crusade for Voters in 2009. One key topic? School modernization in Richmond! Stoney has known of my outrage with the situation in the city for eight years now, and we have had numerous conversations on the matter.

Proposition A isn’t about assessing blame: It is about keeping faith with our kids. Yes, it is a populist mechanism. But the culprit is a 62-year political logjam. Proposition A provides an open, transparent process, consistent with what all the winning candidates promised in 2016 and premised on a fiscally responsible approach backed by McAuliffe, indeed every Democratic governor in the modern age: Raising taxes should be a last resort, not a first resort.

In the view of the all-time record number of petition signers needed to qualify the measure for the ballot – 15,000 city residents personally signed on a piece of paper – it says simply: You can’t solve a problem until you have a plan to solve that problem.

Am I disappointed that once again the city’s Democratic Committee won’t put out a sample ballot on Election Day urging voters to back Proposition A? Sure, it would help get the biggest possible mandate. But tradition looms large in our town. That’s why the city charter allows referendums when public exasperation reaches such a fever pitch.

Yet it is perhaps fitting for the burden to be on the people to again do what we did in 1985 and 2003: Embrace the change, be the change and make our own history.

For the children, I ask you for a big yes vote on Proposition A.

Paul Goldman is the former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia.


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