March 01, 2006 News & Features » Cover Story


The Man Behind the Curtain 

Paul Goldman has spent 25 yearsbehind the scenes creating change.Maybe he's ready to step out on his own.

Goldman proudly called himself the Secretary of Change. His enemies were our enemies: Potholes! Faded crosswalks! High heating bills! Crummy school buildings! When he left the mayor's office in February after a year as senior policy adviser, many people shook their heads and said, Now there was a man who Got Things Done.

But Paul Goldman is also a man who takes the credit for Getting Things Done when they are, in fact, quite a long way from becoming reality.

He is a man who chafes against restraint, a man without a lot of patience for the necessarily methodical ways of government. He comes up with ambitious plans and leaves others to do the work of grinding out the details.

Is his motivation altruistic or political? One of the mayor's closest confidants, Goldman had the ear of L. Douglas Wilder, while alienating members of City Council, the School Board and others in City Hall with his aggression and relentless pushing. The rules do not apply to Paul Goldman, he seemed to say, and sometimes he was right.

As for Goldman, he wants only to talk about what he has done, not so much how he did it. "I'm a field general," he says. "I'm not just a spectator."

He says often that he has no use for critics, although he has reacted to past criticisms — whether of his personal appearance or his plans — with mass e-mails full of rebuttals bold and underlined.

Goldman portrays himself as the fearless leader who, much like his longtime friend and former governor, Wilder, had the courage to shake things up in City Hall. He exhibits a curious mix of pride and self-deprecation. He would like you to know, he says, about the 28 things he accomplished for the city in just 12 short months.

"You'll have to judge for yourself whether they're significant or not," Goldman says. He closes his eyes and shakes his head. He's not the man who can make them happen, he says. "Ultimately, I'm just the staff guy."

Not anymore. Goldman resigned his position in the mayor's office Feb. 15 after a six-week suspension for performing unauthorized consulting work for the campaign of now-Gov. Tim Kaine. Some think Goldman grew too unmanageable and was pushed out. Others theorize that his resignation is just one more strategic move in a grand chess game played by Goldman and Wilder.

One thing is certain: Richmond hasn't seen the last of Paul Goldman.

In the early 1970s, a young, longhaired Goldman spent a year and a half working in the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago with VISTA, a federally funded organization that sent volunteers to improve the lives of the poor.

Home to about 15,000 residents at its peak, Cabrini was a vast collection of high-rises and low-rises on the north side of the city, plagued with drugs and crime.

"I would go door to door. Knock on doors," Goldman says. When residents answered, often suspicious of the skinny white kid outside, he asked them if they wanted to participate in a cooperative food-buying program. They would tell Goldman what they needed and give him money for it.

Each Friday morning, Goldman and his fellow volunteers rose at 4 and collected a rental truck Hertz gave them. "Never heated, though," he recalls, the memory of Chicago's zero-degree winds sharp. "The one they couldn't rent [to] everybody else."

He hit the markets then, buying 20 pounds of green beans at a time, 30 pounds of rice. The job of haggling with the merchants fell to Goldman — "You're the bigmouth," his friends said.

The market men looked askance at the New York kid, but Goldman recalls how he finally won over one man. "Well, you must really believe in what you're doing," he told him, and taught Goldman the art of cutthroat bargaining: Just because green beans are on your list, don't overlook a good deal on carrots. Some guys give you better deals than others. And you can play one guy off another — no one takes it personally. "It's all part of how it's done," he explained to Goldman.

Other VISTA volunteers worked on bigger projects: establishing a credit union for residents, laboring to improve health care.

Haggling for groceries week after week had little of that cachet. Yet because of the grocery program, Goldman says, some families had a little more money to spend and a little more food for dinner. "When you add up all the little things that it does, it becomes a big thing."

This is how Goldman, now 60, sees his career: a lot of little campaigns that add up to a long record of making things better.

As a VISTA volunteer he made a difference in the lives of many, he says, but "the one thing we couldn't do was fight Mayor Daley."

Richard J. Daley was the boss of the city's political machine and a man not known for his attention to the plight of the city's poor minorities. So Goldman went to work for the gubernatorial campaign of Daniel Walker, a Democrat who was no friend of Daley's. It was on this campaign that Goldman hatched the idea of a whistle-stop Jeep tour of southern Illinois, which he would later adapt for Wilder's campaign.

Walker won. Goldman went on to work for the campaigns of New Jersey Gov. Brendan T. Byrne and New York Gov. Hugh L. Carey.

But Goldman made his name by doing the seemingly impossible: getting Wilder elected lieutenant governor in 1985. He was the first black man ever to win a statewide election in the South.

Goldman, a native of Long Island, met Wilder in 1981, when both were involved with Charles S. Robb's campaign for governor. When Robb was elected a year later, U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. retired from his seat and the Democrats proposed party chairman Owen B. Pickett as a replacement.

Wilder, then a state senator, said he'd run as a third-party candidate if Pickett were nominated. A reporter asked Goldman's opinion, and he said Wilder would have a much better chance running as the Democratic nominee than as a third-party candidate.

Wilder read the quote and took it personally, Goldman says, until he explained to Wilder that it didn't matter if running as a third-party candidate meant he needed fewer total votes to win. "It's counterintuitive," Goldman said, "but it's easier to get 50 [percent] than 33.4 [percent]." Without the support of the Democrats, Wilder's campaign would be marginalized, he said: "Nobody's going to see the real you."

Wilder assented. Goldman says he told him, "If you ever think of running statewide, I'll come down and help you."

Two years later, Wilder called. And Goldman came.

Goldman says he intended simply to find someone to manage Wilder's campaign for lieutenant governor. "In a practical sense," he says, "you needed a white person to do it." If Wilder was to prove he could win the votes of white Virginians, he needed to show that he could at least get a white person to work on his campaign, Goldman's reasoning went.

"It's never been done before, tried before, thought before," Goldman says. "I said, 'He'll win.'… I was the only person willing to give him a chance." So Goldman became Wilder's campaign manager.

Journalist Dwayne Yancey wrote a book about the campaign that's famous in Virginia political circles, called "When Hell Froze Over."

"At first glance," Yancey writes, "Doug Wilder and Paul Goldman are a most unlikely political odd couple — the polished, immaculate Southern black with the soaring cadence of a Baptist preacher, whose hopes of winning depended on how well he courted the state's conservative establishment, and the ill-kempt New York Jew who mumbled vague nonsense and had made a political career out of attacking the establishment."

Goldman exasperated Wilder's supporters no end. When labor leaders met with Goldman in September 1985, Yancey writes, they couldn't get a straight answer from him even for such basic questions as where Wilder intended to be on a particular day or which congressional districts he was expected to carry.

"Well, we know one thing for certain," frustrated Virginia AFL-CIO President David Laws said afterward. "Doug Wilder's biggest problem isn't the fact that he's black."

But Goldman proved to be a brilliant strategist, despite his perceived lack of organization. He adroitly crafted Wilder's image, deflected attacks and accompanied Wilder on a station-wagon tour of the state. And it was during this campaign that Goldman demonstrated his talent for misdirecting the press and public.

One example: Goldman publicly bemoaned the campaign's meager finances, while in reality, Wilder had hundreds of thousands in contributions in the bank. Reporters swallowed the poverty story and the public bit — until Goldman blindsided everyone with an ambitious, $200,000 television ad campaign.

When the long race came to an end, Wilder pulled Goldman with him as he stepped onstage to claim victory. "I thought he deserved it," Wilder said later.

Four years later, Goldman would again help Wilder make history, directing his successful campaign to become the first black governor of Virginia — and the country's first elected black governor.

Goldman lingered in Virginia politics and in the early '90s became chair of the state Democratic Party. In 1998, he made headlines by seizing on a seemingly obscure issue: the constitutionality of state lawmakers voting to raise their own per-diem out-of-session pay and office allowances.

Goldman and his ally, former Delegate Alexander B. McMurtrie, held protests and press conferences, urging then-Attorney General Mark Earley to rule this "money corruption" unconstitutional. Goldman was relentless. Earley, a former state senator, was pressured into condemning the per-diem raises, thus alienating his legislative colleagues — which some Earley supporters believe was Goldman's sole original intention.

The whole affair preoccupied Earley and his staff at a time when Earley was just getting his bearings as attorney general and also was preparing himself to become the presumptive Republican nominee for governor. Earley eventually deferred to the state Supreme Court on the matter. "It just tied us in knots," says one former Earley staffer. "And Goldman knew it would."

Goldman later worked on the successful gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Mark Warner. He re-emerged into the public spotlight in 2003 when he led the petition drive for a voter referendum that would restore Richmond's elected-mayor system. People saw him everywhere collecting signatures himself.

Goldman arranged to have the signatures counted weekly, rather than at the final deadline, and in the second week of the drive, he brought in a batch too late for the counting deadline. The result: He says the news media counted the signatures from the first week as two weeks' work and said, "Oh, Goldman's in trouble." He didn't disagree: "I'd make it sound like I was too embarrassed to say we were doing badly." More help poured in, and Wilder easily got his 10,000 signatures.

Here again Goldman adeptly misdirected public perception, in a minor way. Yet he also still talks of his sacrifice in putting up $20,000 of his own money to fund the petition drive. "I expect to get paid back," he said in December. What Goldman didn't mention was the fact that he'd already received nearly $50,000 from the Mayor Referendum Campaign. That sum includes reimbursements for expenses as well as $36,883 in consulting and other fees.

Wilder's victory in the 2004 mayoral race was certain. And in January 2005, Wilder made Goldman his senior policy adviser, a position new to City Hall that paid $145,000 in salary and benefits.

Goldman's job description included "working with the General Assembly on the City's legislative priorities, as well as building productive alliances and partnerships" with local agencies, according to the city's announcement of his hiring. Goldman would also work with city personnel on "research and other support services for legislative, administrative and public policy development."

But from the beginning Goldman set his own agenda. He wasted no time in launching his initiatives, from the small — free annual physicals for students and buying a new machine to fix potholes permanently — to the monumental "City of the Future" plan. Despite some internal concerns about how these things would be accomplished, people inside and out of City Hall praised Goldman's ability to think outside of the brown box of bureaucracy.

Even political analyst Larry Sabato, who drew Goldman's ire 20 years ago for declaring Wilder had one shot in 100 in winning the lieutenant governorship, spoke highly of his efforts.

"I've been struck by the creativity of many of the reforms he has been proposing and implementing," Sabato said via e-mail in November. "Paul has always had a strong idealistic impulse, and this position is giving voice to that side of him."

"Paul Goldman is a very smart guy," says Councilman Bill Pantele. "And he works really hard. And he's aggressive. And I think on a number of initiatives, those three things were very welcome, in terms of charging through and attacking a number of things large and small that really needed that kind of push behind them."

The trouble was, sources in City Hall say, Goldman pushed hard to get his plans out in the open, no matter how far-fetched, without first consulting with the city staff that would have to implement them. And he often picked fights and floated ideas that were rooted in his own mind, not necessarily in reality.

His biggest project was the "City of the Future" plan. Poring over city finances one day, Goldman noticed that soon the city would begin collecting millions of dollars in real estate taxes from property owners who had enrolled in the city's tax-abatement program a decade ago. (The program allowed owners who made substantial renovations to old properties to delay paying the accompanying rise in real estate taxes for 10 years. Then the increase in taxes would be phased in over the next five years.)

But this generous tax vacation was coming to an end, Goldman noted. According to his calculations, after 15 years the city could expect an extra $11 million per year in real estate taxes. Goldman figured the city could use that windfall to float revenue bonds to address the city's pressing needs.

"If you leave it to the normal vagaries of the politicians," he says, "they're going to spend it on anything but schools, because that's what they've always done."

His first thought was that the money could be used to build schools. Consulting the school system's master facilities plan, he came up with a list of 12 to 15 schools that needed to be modernized or completely replaced. The total bill: around $175 million.

There's a vast chasm between having $11 million and spending $175 million. But Goldman believed he could make it work. The city could save money by closing old schools, using historic tax credits on old school buildings and instituting other "efficiencies" that, he says, would come to $21 million a year.

He consulted finance experts and found that over time, the city could potentially borrow a total of $250 million. "So I said to myself, 'Well. What do you do? That's a lot of money.'"

What about a magnet school for the arts? What about a science and mathematics school, located right next to the Science Museum of Virginia?

"I said to myself, 'All right, what else could you do?'" (Goldman gets many of his best ideas from himself.) Renovate the technical vocational center, he says. Add some new sidewalks. Replace old traffic lights.

"People say, 'Well, Paul, you're making this stuff up.'" He's not, he says. It all works fine. His numbers are conservative. "Superconservative!"

In early January, the mayor announced the "City of the Future" plan: schools, traffic lights, sidewalks, the whole thing. But in the audience, some city staff could be observed looking a little shellshocked. For the plan the mayor was pitching was based on Goldman's "superconservative" estimates, not on hard research as to whether the city could sustain such an enormous investment. And it bubbled from the top down, not the usual way of government spending. When asked about the school building plan, School Board member Steve Johnson said he didn't know which schools Goldman was talking about specifically, nor where they would be built.

"My biggest concern is if he's going to build new schools, where's the land to build them on?" he says. The School Board rebuffed the mayor's office when it was asked to endorse the plan before Wilder unveiled it, Johnson says.

Do council members believe the plan can work? "Oh, I think it's much too early to tell," Pantele says, because the City Council has not yet seen any concrete details of the proposal. "I would expect that there would be significant interest on City Council in addressing the physical condition of our schools in this city," he says.

Some questions remain unanswered: Which projects would take priority? What would the city do if an emergency comes up while its debt load is strained to the maximum? How would the city efficiently manage all these projects?

Goldman, however, is impatient. He says he's surprised the city has not moved further along in its analysis of how to execute the plan. He can't believe the council hasn't come out for or against it. If he were on council, he says, he would have already proposed an alternative city-improvement plan of his own.

Goldman, of course, won't be around to oversee the implementation of his plan. He was suspended without pay for six weeks Dec. 20 after it came to light that he'd accepted $15,000 for consulting work on Kaine's gubernatorial campaign.

The work, while legal, raised eyebrows at City Hall for its potential conflicts of interest, including Wilder's endorsement of Kaine. Others considered it unapproved moonlighting. Wilder has since created a new, clarified policy that prohibits employees such as Goldman from accepting outside work unless a supervisor first clears it.

Goldman spent his six weeks working on a book about Wilder's 1985 campaign and trying his hand at writing lyrics for country songs.

He asked permission to do more outside consulting work to pay the bills and was denied, City Hall sources say. Come early February, he did not reappear in his City Hall office. And on Feb. 15 he resigned.

Why? Goldman won't say anything beyond his one-page resignation letter, in which he wished Wilder well. He does hint obliquely that someone in City Hall — the mayor? — knew about his consulting work for Kaine when he did it. But when pressed, Goldman only repeats a version of his favorite saying: "Truth and reality eventually catch up to each other."

Wilder won't discuss Goldman, other than to say he made "valuable contributions and suggestions" as adviser. The mayor also acknowledges that Goldman made "significant contributions" to the "City of the Future" plan, including coming up with the name — credit that was not given Goldman when the mayor announced the plan. Goldman says this doesn't bother him.

Let people criticize his decisions, he says. "To be a critic, you don't have to do anything. To be a doer, you gotta do a whole lot."

Now what?

Priority one is finding a job, Goldman says: "Gotta pay some bills." What sort of job, he won't say.

It seems unlikely Goldman will be able to withdraw entirely from city politics. There's been talk of him running for the council seat in the 1st District, as Councilman Manoli Loupassi has said he won't run again (see page 11).

Goldman says he's been receiving dozens of e-mails from people who want him to run, some from acquaintances and some from strangers. Some have said they'll contribute should he launch a campaign. Delegate A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, who paid Goldman as a consultant last summer, has been telling him to run, Goldman says.

So will he?

"I guess it would depend, you know," he says. On money, mostly. "It costs a lot of money to run," he says. "I'm a practical person. I understand how politics works."

But Goldman's complaints about campaign funding sound an awful lot like what he said about Wilder's low reserves back in 1985. And the gleam in his eye as he talks about running belies his nonchalance.

Besides, he's already thought about his strategy: "I would run, obviously, on a record of achievement."

What about working harmoniously with council members? Goldman has criticized them for being reluctant to rock the boat, for being slow to act, for lacking innovation. The council, for its part, tried to eliminate his job in June.

He wouldn't be their "favorite guy," he acknowledges, but says he believes they'd all be able to work together.

And what of his continued relationship with Wilder?

The 1985 campaign forged a lifelong bond between the two men, which remains strong despite several public falling-outs. They form a sort of political yin-yang: Wilder the charismatic, fiery leader and Goldman the detail guy, who has a knack for figuring out the strategies to support Wilder's visions.

Goldman maintains that his many initiatives originated from the mayor's directives. "It's not unusual at all for me, for us to talk and [Wilder] say, 'This is what we're going to do. Go out and figure out how to do it. Keep me posted.'"

Others in city government say Goldman often convinced the mayor to sign off on his many schemes. And when things went awry, the mayor wouldn't hear of anyone criticizing his adviser and longtime friend.

If Goldman becomes a councilman, would he continue his role as Wilder's right-hand man? Would he focus his ambitious quest for urban improvement on the 1st District? What will he do next?

At a recent interview at Peking, after a simple lunch of broccoli and rice, Goldman does not crack open his fortune cookie. A concoction of flour, sugar and hydrogenated vegetable shortening has no place in his diet.

But this is what his fortune said: "The best prophet of the future is the past." S



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