The debate over an elected mayor is about to heat up again. Proponents say Richmond needs a strong mayor system and that voters are capable of choosing their leader. Opponents fear it will amount to a step back in time for the city's black voters. 

Is It Time?

There is a battle about to break out in Richmond. Forces are being massed in a struggle over what some see as Jim Crow revisited. The specter of race is haunting the city and is igniting the passion of some black leaders who see a revamping of local government as a means of destroying black voting power. Others see the proposed change as a way to strengthen local government and give the voters more power. Supporters believe a change can only be good for a city plagued with a multitude of social problems.

The issue: the popular election of a mayor. A seemingly innocuous change in the way the mayor is elected and the way government will be administered is fast becoming a rallying point for the NAACP, The Richmond Crusade for Voters, and some black elected officials.

But before any changes are made, which will require the passage of a voter referendum and approval by the Virginia General Assembly, Richmond City Council will have to draft a referendum. On Sept. 11 Mayor Tim Kaine will bring a bill to the Council floor to create a study commission on the popular election of a mayor.

The New Century Commission will review the current city manager form of government in an effort to recommend changes to the government. The present system, devised in 1948, requires City Council to select a mayor from within its own ranks and appoint a city manager who is responsible for most of the city's day-to-day operations. Kaine says that a city with Richmond's population and big-city problems needs to find a better way to do business. The lack of a popularly elected mayor leaves the city without necessary, strong leadership, he says.

An appointed mayor also stirs little interest in local elections. The last Council election in May only pulled 16 percent of the voters to the polls.

"An elected mayor would have a mandate from the voters," Kaine says. "I was elected Councilperson with less than 1,000 votes. You end up with less votes than a student council president."

Kaine believes the city has trudged through too many decades with an ineffective system of government and now is the time to make a decisive change.

"We are a real dinosaur of a system," Kaine says. "We have two-year [Council] terms, May elections. We have a number of electoral procedures that are outdated."

Kaine hopes that by letting the voters know that he will not run for the office of elected mayor he will ensure that it will be a policy, not a personality issue. Personality, and more specifically, personal ambition, crippled the initiative the last time it came up in the General Assembly. Leonidas Young, who was mayor at the time, was perceived by some to be an ambitious officer seeker, Kaine says.

The New Century Commission Resolution also enjoys the support of Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder. Those who remember the 1995 citywide mayor referendum may find Wilder's support more than a bit ironic. When the last referendum for a popularly elected mayor was sent to the Virginia General Assembly Wilder threw all of his energy into seeing that it was defeated. Now, Wilder is singing a different tune.

Wilder says he opposed implementing the last referendum because it did not clearly designate the powers and duties of the mayor. Neither does the new plan, not yet. But the new referendum would spell out clearly the role of an elected mayor, supporters say. Would he be the chief executive or simply a member of the legislative body? The 1995 voter referendum, which passed by a 2-1 margin but was defeated in the Virginia General Assembly, was unclear on this issue, Wilder says.

Wilder supports a strong mayor concept in which he mayor would be a chief executive. He also favors three citywide Council members. There are nine city council members now, including the mayor.

"We need to place that power in the hands of someone who is responsible to the voters," Wilder says. "People are running [as candidates] from postage stamp areas."

With a clear referendum, which should be on the ballot for the fall of 2001, a popularly elected mayor will work for Richmond, Wilder says. Those who oppose it don't have faith in the voters of Richmond, according to Wilder.

"It's no longer vogue to believe that everyone is stupid," Wilder says. "The only thing to fear is fear itself. And that's what those people [who oppose an elected mayor] are doing. It's very unfortunate that the specter of race hangs over this issue. There are people who devise their comfort from the past. We can't live in the past."

Wilder has revised his viewpoint on the issue, but other prominent black leaders have not. They still see the at-large mayor as an attempt to crush black voting power. To these leaders the memories of 1970, when Richmond added 47,000 white voters to the registration rolls by annexing a section of Chesterfield County, still leave a bitter taste in their mouths.

[image-1](Chad Hunt / Style Weekly)Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder opposed the last elected mayor referendum because it did not clearly designate the powers and duties of the mayor. Wilder is now a proponent of letting the voters decide who will be their chief executive.In 1977 the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that the annexation was a violation of the Voting Rights Act. To correct the inequity the court ordered the division of Richmond City Council into districts to ensure proportional representation from low-income and minority sections of the city. The ward system of politics has been charged with protecting black voting rights and any attempt to change it is seen by some as a move to thwart the interests of African Americans.

Kaine knows that the U. S. Justice Department will have the final say on whether the plan is constitutional. To ensure that there are no violations of the Voting Rights Act the city will be working closely with legal experts.

"Because of the history any changes would have to be approved by the Justice Department," Kaine says. "The city retains attorneys who are voting rights experts."

King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia NAACP, is perhaps the harshest critic of changing the method of selecting the city's mayor. To this civil rights activist the movement to alter the form of government is a descendant of the annexation maneuver. While the proponents of a popularly elected mayor invoke the right of citizens to vote, they are working under a populist guise. Their goal is to restore white control over the city, Khalfani says.

"They're going to put these Negroes back in their political place," Khalfani says. "That will be the end of black political power in Richmond."

Changing the system is a rash move considering that the current system of governing is an effective one, according to Khalfani. He does believe that one day Richmond will elect its mayor. But, he says, there are several steps between today and that day. An increase in black voter registration will be needed to ensure African-American input on political issues, Khalfani says.

"Why are they raising this now?" Khalfani asks. "We need to concentrate on voter turnout and registering people and getting them to the polls."

Roy West, mayor of Richmond from 1982 to 1988, has always considered voter turnout an important issue. Like Khalfani he does not want to see voters staying at home when Council seats are up for grabs. But unlike the NAACP leader West says that it is the responsibility of the majority black population to prepare itself for inevitable changes to the system.

Resisting new developments on the mayor issue by invoking the name of the Voting Rights Act is neither intellectually honest nor wise, according to West, who supported the elected-mayor issue in 1995. The legislation was designed to protect a minority group against a hostile majority. Now that the barriers to political participation have been removed, the black majority population of Richmond needs to take advantage of its political opportunities, West says.

"The Act's not designed to protect a majority population that is not using its numbers," West says. "Blacks need to realize that the crutch won't always be there. Once [the Voting Rights Act is] jerked and we're not ready, a golden opportunity will be missed."

West is confident that the voters of Richmond are able to make an informed decision about who should run their city. Those who oppose allowing citizens to choose their own mayor are "selling black folks short." Allowing the voters to choose a citywide mayor is a vote of confidence in the electorate, and the Virginia General Assembly needs to understand this, West says.

"I think it was an insult," West says. "For [the General Assembly] to use political emotionalism did the people a disservice."

Richmond has outworn a system of government that was created in 1948 and needs to move forward if it is going to address the issues of today, West says.

"It's time for black members of the General Assembly to say we're not going into the 21st century walking backwards," West says. "And that's what they're doing without allowing a citywide mayor."

If this change is approved and the voters get to select the mayor, a major issue for African-American leaders remains: Would a registered voting population that contains more whites than blacks elect an African-American mayor? Mayor Kaine points to the election of three African Americans out of the four elected officers in the city as a sign that today merit trumps race in the minds of white voters.

"Seventy-five percent of the people who hold citywide elected offices are African-American," Kaine says.

While African Americans holding elected office in Richmond is a good sign, it is not proof positive that we should make a major change, according to Richmond Crusade for Voters President Melvin Law. Richmond's history of attacking black political power during Jim Crow and the annexation of 1970 should force every citizen to be very wary of swift upheavals in the system, Law says. "Those are positive signs. But the election of those positions does not wipe out what the courts addressed in the order," Law says. "Thirty-five years of the Voting Rights Act hardly qualifies as a remedy when you compare it to efforts to deprive the vote such as the poll tax and the literacy test."

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