Taming Wilder 

For the first time, anti-Wilder sentiment is spilling into the streets. Is Richmond tiring of the mayor's wrath?

Richmond's African-Americans "voted for this mayor to make sweeping changes," Holland says. "What we found was, he went in the opposite direction."

The "Day of Solidarity" last week drew only a handful of people. Wilder himself mocked the gathering a few days later.

"There was no group," Wilder says. "There was no expression." The eight or so participants don't even count as a protest, he adds: "How many does it take to make a protest demonstration? That is the question. Next witness."

But could this first public protest, however small, be a sign of things to come?

Several city leaders and observers say that some people are beginning to lose their patience with the mayor. Even Richmond bloggers, mostly enamored with the mayor since his inauguration, are regularly mocking King Wilder.

The mayor has always been a bit prickly. He enacted dramatic changes in the first year and a half of his administration. He fired dozens of top city officials and replaced them. He aggravated City Council members and obtained veto power over their ordinances. He keelhauled plans for the performing arts center and replaced them with his own, and introduced the ambitious "City of the Future" proposal, which promises to rebuild city schools and improve overall quality of life.

During all this, Richmonders watched for the most part in awed fascination. Hurricane Doug was a welcome change from what many considered the stagnation and corruption of the previous Council-dominated government.

"Doug Wilder is the greatest in terms of getting people to see the need for change," says Thomas J. Shields, director of the Center for Leadership in Education at the University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies.

But most of the sweeping changes promised have yet to materialize. "People are having some expectations of what he can accomplish," Shields says, "and they want to see something now." Richmonders want to see improvements not on paper, he says, but in their own neighborhoods.

Councilwoman Ellen Robertson, an outspoken Wilder critic, agrees. "I think City Council and the citizens of Richmond endorsed this new government with a tremendous degree of enthusiasm," she says.

But 18 months is enough of a grace period, Robertson says. "We are just beginning to hear from the citizens, City Council, the business community," she says, and the prognosis isn't sunny. "This new government structure was to expand citizen involvement. It has instead reduced citizen involvement."

Robertson cites Wilder's dismantling of the city's neighborhood team process — nine geographically selected chairs who reported back to the city administration — as well as his reliance on handpicked, closed-door advisory committees and most recently, his education advisers' suggestion that the School Board be appointed rather than elected by the public. "That is a major development and concern for the city of Richmond," Robertson says, yet the public has not had an opportunity to offer input.

Citing "fractious and counterproductive internal operations," the mayor's education committee says the public should be given the opportunity, via a referendum, to let the mayor, with City Council, appoint the members of the School Board.

Paul Goldman, the mayor's former policy adviser and Wilder's friend of 20 years, reacted strongly to the suggestion. Why is the committee focusing on this issue instead of the concrete school improvements outlined in the "City of the Future"? he asks.

Last week, Wilder presented the school system's plan to close 17 city schools and build or renovate 13 others.

"We wanted to give the public more power because we believed it was necessary to empower them more," Goldman wrote in a recent e-mail. "Now, the answer is to take away power from the public, again for what end?"

Goldman drew the line at saying anything overtly critical of Wilder, but he hinted darkly at the origins of the committee's recommendation.

"Either this community had its own agenda, or they're basically a front for other people who want to remain in the background," Goldman says. Wilder has maintained that the committee's findings are its own, not his.

"Is the mayor saying that they didn't talk to him?" Goldman adds. "Who did they talk to to come up with this idea? Is this something they've decided on their own?"

Robertson says City Council, in the very near future, will be working to ensure there is an "open democracy" at City Hall by addressing the lack of citizen input.

The unrest generated by Wilder could be council members' chance to take the lead, UR's Professor Shields says. "The council was once ridiculed," he says. "Now people no longer talk about the City Council as this place where everything ends and there's no accomplishment."

Councilman E. Martin Jewell is considered to be one of the council members most loyal to Wilder. Yet after Wilder in March likened the city's libraries to flophouses for the homeless and said he wanted the homeless out, Jewell says, "I went to him and I scolded him about it."

The no-homeless edict came soon after the mayor announced his intention to shift city bus routes so riders would no longer congregate in front of the Library of Virginia on East Broad Street. "People are talking about you declaring war on the poor," Jewell says he told the mayor.

A string of recent columns and news articles in the Richmond Times-Dispatch suggests the mayor's shine may be dimming as well; the latest of these criticized the mayor's nine-member, $500,000 security entourage and his education committee's recommendation that the School Board be appointed by Wilder.

For his part, the mayor says a reporter is wrong to suggest any kind of backlash against him exists. "There is no negative response," Wilder says. "I disagree with you and your assumption. You can't make a case. You don't have a case."

At the end of a June 7 press conference, one reporter asked the mayor, "Do you have any changes in your spirit?"

"Not as I'm aware of," Wilder replied. And he laughed and laughed. S

News Editor Scott Bass contributed to this story.

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