The Ballpark Ballot 

Want to be the next mayor of Richmond? Here’s how you do it.

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There's never been a political issue in Richmond quite like the baseball stadium brouhaha. With its twists and turns, for a decade it has been like a prime-time soap opera.

In 2005, the first pass at shoehorning a stadium into Shockoe Bottom fizzled fast. Collateral damage was the unraveling of regional cooperation that built The Diamond in 1985. The second pass, in 2009, was part of a far-flung development scheme, a declared juggernaut that shattered under scrutiny. Then, zombielike, the third pass reared its controversial head late in 2013 with an ad campaign to grease the wheels of its progress.

The tipping point for our most-discussed local dispute may be close at hand. Given the impact of recent events, the direction of the game seems to be offering a career-making opportunity for the right politician.

Calling all candidates: Who wants to be Richmond's next mayor?

Here's how a savvy political operator could establish him- or herself as the frontrunner to replace Mayor Dwight Jones:

Go populist. Announce that you have a viable proposal to settle the stadium issue. Say you can get it done this year. Talk about a referendum. Hold a public hearing in a big hall. Own the issue. Then have the chops to make it all happen.

Why make the move now?

Six months after announcing his revitalization plan, which included building a new stadium in Shockoe Bottom, the mayor appears to be losing his grip on baseball's location. The mayor's scheme is about to be picked to pieces. Schools on one side of it. Shockoe Bottom's history on the other.

By the way, if you ask local baseball fans, most of them have preferred the Boulevard location for a stadium all along. If that matters.

On the morning of Monday, April 28, a student walkout demonstration focused the media spotlight on the city's skewed spending priorities — spending priorities that seem to be stealing money from the proper upkeep of public school facilities. And stealing to pay for the stadium deal in Shockoe Bottom, which has had too many secrets associated with it.

Then came the disclosure of an alternative plan for a stadium on the Boulevard. To end a bad week for Jones, City Council stripped funds allocated as support for a Shockoe Bottom ballpark. His response has been to threaten a veto of that challenging maneuver.

Then, to top it all off, last week former Gov. Doug Wilder entered the fray, proposing to build a National Slavery Museum just blocks from Jones' proposed slavery heritage site and future museum.

As part of the strategy to seize the moment, a smart mayoral hopeful would start supporting the Citizens Referendum Group's petition drive. Pronto. Or, if a better referendum proposition needs to be written, get it written and launch a second petition drive. Either way, a referendum campaign culminating in November is essential to demonstrating the widespread opposition to baseball in the Bottom. Plus, it will stitch together political connections that should be there waiting for that mayoral run.

When 2nd District Councilman Charles Samuels tried to get a referendum on the ballot last summer, he flirted with exploiting the stadium issue. Since his proposal was voted down, 6-3, he's been curiously quiet about the usefulness of a referendum on where to play baseball.

Fellow Councilman Jon Baliles, who represents the 1st District, now seems in position to make the leap. His role in revealing the new Boulevard stadium option to the public and orchestrating the 5-4 vote to remove funding from the mayor's budget may signal where he's going. Separating the museum from the stadium probably would sink the plan for baseball in the Bottom.

Of course, someone could jump into the fray from outside the ranks of the city's elected officials. But if one particular bold Richmonder is seen in retrospect as having spearheaded the slaying of Shockoe Stadium, the gratitude factor will be huge. 

What's come out of the stadium debate should provide the road map for a successful run in 2016. If the front-runner takes popular stands on three key issues, he or she might be unbeatable:

1. Sunlight. Call for more openness into the entire process of evaluating large developments. That would include any proposals related to baseball stadiums. The candidate should call for more transparency, in general, into how City Hall collects and spends tax money. 

2. Museum: You'll make a lot of friends by saying that Richmond must find a way to build a world-class museum focused on telling the story of the slavery business in Shockoe Bottom. If there's one good thing to have come out of the stadium controversy, it's that after the success of the movie "12 Years a Slave," such a museum project will have a better chance of gaining proper support.

3. Education: With the baseball stadium issue in the rearview mirror, the most important issue of 2016 will be fixing public education. Say that improving the education system in Richmond is the top priority, and there will be no need for students to demonstrate at City Hall during your term in office.

The bottom line is that once the plan to put a stadium in Shockoe Bottom has been abandoned, a bright new era of politics will be on the horizon. With a chastened Jones on his way out, Richmond will emerge from a style of politics fueled in great part by old grudges. It's been story worthy of an HBO miniseries, but a breath of fresh air will be nice. S


F.T. Rea is a freelance artist and writer based in the Fan District.

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



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