October 27, 2004 News & Features » Cover Story


The Next Mayor? 

The juggernaut. The men who want to beat him. And the new power structure at City Hall.

Throngs have come for food and fun. But it's Oct. 2, a month before the city's much-anticipated mayoral election, and the Second Street Festival can't help but become a stage for the campaign.

All four candidates are present.

Big and tall former Richmond School Board Member Charles H. Nance, an attorney, stands out as the only white candidate. He appears to meander uncomfortably along the sidewalk, approaching potential voters as if he's working an assembly line.

Incumbent Mayor Rudy C. McCollum Jr. doesn't seem to be campaigning at all. He moves through the crowd wearing an official City of Richmond polo shirt, at times seeming to go unnoticed. He pals around with the self-proclaimed "Mayor of Second Street," 73-year-old Waverly Crawley, who denigrates Wilder on command. Crawley insists that moments earlier, Wilder had promised to take his mayoral title too.

A less visible Lawrence E. Williams Sr., an architect, spends time campaigning off the main drag, at the intersection of Second and Clay streets in front of the Jackson Center, a building he designed.

There are four candidates here. But this is the Wilder show.

People ask for Wilder's autograph, and he obliges them, smiling. He gives cordial kisses. He hugs stone-faced children and takes the cell phone of a woman who says her mother is on the phone and wants a word with him.

"I love him for so long but he don't know it," she says of Wilder, when her daughter later passes the phone to a reporter.

Today in Jackson Ward, Wilder's a superstar, and it's easy to see why. He was born in the capital of the Confederacy, the grandson of slaves. At 74, he's widely considered the city's savviest politician, its fortunate son.

On Nov. 2, Richmond voters will get to choose their mayor. Will he be strong? Will he lead the city and bring true change? How will he handle a realigned power structure in City Hall?

But the most pressing question - as Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, Bill Cosby and reporters from various local and national news outlets swirl around the frontrunner - is this:

Is it Wilder's race to lose?

"Is it a two-person race?" Mayor Rudy McCollum's campaign chief, Craig Bieber, asks rhetorically. "Yes, that's what our polling shows. Doug Wilder was known to 98 percent of the voters, and Rudy was known to 70 percent. Nance was not known to 80 percent of the voters."

He doesn't mention Williams.

Regardless of their polling, Wilder's string of endorsers seems to contribute to the conventional wisdom that Wilder is the runaway leader. They include the city Democratic committee, the Richmond Crusade for Voters, former Richmond Mayor Kaine, the Richmond Times-Dispatch and die-hard Republicans like Congressman Eric Cantor (R-7th District).

But on a recent morning, the McCollum camp expresses frustration that Richmonders — including local media — aren't asking difficult questions of the former governor.

"People generally like Wilder in a history-book kind of way," Bieber says. "But they don't remember what a lousy governor he was."

The McCollum campaign also feels stung by what it says are Wilder's allegations that McCollum is running a limited, racist campaign concentrating on African-American districts. "It's classic Wilder," Bieber says. "He has yet to talk about any plans for schools, or plans to fight crime other than to say, 'The murder rate is too high.' He is evasive on the stadium issue."

In contrast, Bieber says, McCollum is running a citywide campaign. "He has no hidden agenda," he says. "He wants to hear all sides. He's very open, very accessible, he really cares about the city. It really shows when you consider how much time he spends on city business — 70 to 80 hours a week doing that stuff. He's not getting rich off this. His law practice takes a back seat."

With the mayor running late this morning, Bieber delivers his spin sitting in the Spartan one-room office McCollum rents in an off-campus Virginia Union University building. The beige walls are bare except for a gaudy clock. Framed pictures and documents, stacked on the floor, await hanging. The lone clue that McCollum practices bankruptcy law here is a metal desk plate: "Rudolph C. McCollum, Attorney at Law."

Wilder, Bieber says, "ran for the U.S. Senate, then dropped out. He was all but declared president of Virginia Union and then decided he didn't want to do that. It's a legitimate question to ask: 'Is he in this thing for the long haul?'"

When McCollum arrives, he settles behind his desk and joins the discussion.

"The campaign has been gratifying," McCollum says. "Many of our citizens understand the city — where we are and the hard work we've done to get where we are. I've had encouragement from real people around the city."

"The downsides of the campaign are some of the tactics of the campaign trail," says McCollum, "I've never seen such nastiness. I don't think it should be like this. It's taken the fun out of it."

How will he do against the Wilder juggernaut?

"We are going to do better in Democratic areas," says McCollum, "Democratic voters are going to be responsive."

The mayor is also clearly bolstered by response to his recent bully-pulpit stands opposing a Shockoe Bottom stadium and plans by Virginia Commonwealth University and the state to demolish downtown landmarks.

Beiber says the preservationist stance has struck a chord in the 2nd District, which includes Carver and Jackson Ward. He also expects support from the 3rd District, and McCollum's home district, the 5th.

In the 6th, McCollum has had support from City Councilwoman Ellen Robertson. In the 7th, Vice Mayor Delores McQuinn and state Sen. Henry Marsh have rallied.

"Will we do well in the far West End, in Windsor Farms? Probably not," Bieber concedes. "Congressman Cantor and [former Congressman Thomas] Bliley have rushed to endorse Wilder. It stands to reason that he will do well with Republicans."

McCollum says he will continue to push his priorities. Most importantly: "People need to feel safe in their own city. Clearly, we've got to fight violent crime."

As to root causes, "We've got to create a sense in people's minds that they have value. We've got to do this through schools. When kids believe in themselves, they can make decisions for themselves.

"I am an African-American man in an African-American city with great needs," he says. "I grew up in Harlem on 140th Street and was one of seven kids. But I was fortunate, I had two parents. My mother pushed me and put me in special programs."

The McCollums moved to Richmond when Rudy was in the seventh grade. He graduated from Huguenot High School.

McCollum also cites community revitalization and the use of tax incentives throughout the city as priorities. "As I traveled around this country, I've seen that downtowns are critically important."

"And the year 2007 is clearly approaching," he continues. "We have a unique opportunity to come to grips with our history, to become a destination city. This is a critical juncture. We've got to keep and interpret the buildings and places that tell the history of Richmond, if we're serious about inviting people from around the world."

Charles Nance wants to meet with everyone in Richmond and tell them, individually, face-to-face, why he wants to be mayor.

He mentions it halfheartedly, with a nervous chortle. The statement seems to subconsciously sum up his campaign: If he had a million dollars. If he could run faster. If he could leap front porches in a single bound.

"My desire is that I meet everybody. And my next desire is that [Wilder] meet everybody," he says, laughing, immediately retracting. "No, I don't mean that."

But he does mean it. Wilder can turn people off with the big ego. Nance portrays the image of a teddy bear. It's just that his words tumble all over each other. It's Nancespeak. He rambles and stutters. With so many ideas for improving the city bubbling over, his sentences often bottleneck. Words blurt out.

Unscrambled, though, Nance regularly makes salient, insightful points and offers the kind of specifics that Wilder does not. For example, ask Nance about bleeding jobs to the suburbs.

"We always think of the jobs problem as just one of bringing in a new employer to somehow fix everything," he says. Instead, the city should focus on raising and encouraging entrepreneurs, especially in the schools. It should be easier for small business owners to do business with the city, he says.

How, specifically?

"I'd like to see both on a Web site and kiosk on the first floor of City Hall, what I would call the Richmond Business Express that would help any entrepreneur in the city or from out of town who has a vision for a new business. … to walk them through the process and be their partner and not their opponent," Nance says. "I guess the old joke is that some of these kids on the street are pretty good at sales. I want to help channel that energy into new areas."

Will it bring more jobs to the city? In due time, Nance says. But that's just it: Everything is in due time. It's about getting dirty, rolling up your sleeves. Nance promises to be a "hands-on, neighborhood-oriented public servant" if elected.

"We need a mayor that's more concerned about your streetlight, not the national spotlight," Nance says. "I have said that being mayor is so different from being governor. It's not flying around the state and country giving speeches, announcing great new programs. It's making sure the city works."

Nance considers Wilder a friend. He fondly remembers his inauguration as governor 15 years ago and has been a supporter. He wouldn't have entered the mayoral race if he had known Wilder was going to run. Pre-Wilder, Nance says, it was his own race to lose.

"To be honest, I was virtually certain to win before Wilder came into the election," he says. Nance says incumbent McCollum stood no chance after Richmonders overwhelmingly voted to elect their own mayor in a November 2003 referendum.

"Rudy is a nice man, but he's the defender in chief for everything that's happened in the last eight years," Nance says. "He cannot bring himself to say, 'We made a mistake.'"

Does he really believe he can beat Wilder? Nance insists the race is wide-open. Perhaps voters will wake up and see Wilder doesn't want to get his hands dirty as mayor, that he's running for the history books. It is rumored that Wilder doesn't plan to attend City Council meetings, for example, even though it's required in the new city charter. Wilder has a reputation for dropping in and out of races, quitting before the job is done.

Nance, perhaps, is the anti-Wilder. He's never missed a regular school board meeting, he points out, and always keeps his appointments. Perhaps his message eventually will sink in, if not in time for this election then the next one. Nance promises, jokingly, "to run for re-election in 2008."

While campaigning in Jackson Ward, he runs into a woman who feels indifferent about Wilder, a potential Nance voter. She asks Nance if he supports a new baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom, which he does not, and they hit it off.

"I supported Doug Wilder for governor and lieutenant governor," says Suzanne Keller, 49. "But as governor and since then, it's just very clear to me that he is interested in his own self-aggrandizement."

Nance politely asks for her vote and hands her a placard before crossing the street.

Lawrence E. Williams Sr. is not a famous former governor.

He is not the mayor, nor a lawyer fresh off the Richmond School Board.

He is also not a former city councilman — he lost that race, twice.

And he doesn't boast a campaign coffer in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, hovering instead in the like low triple digits.

In measure after measure, Williams is the mayoral candidate with the least. But in the category of self-assuredness, he's off the charts.

"I've already won," says the architect with the thin mustache, round glasses and salt in his hair, whose campaign manager has called the "invisible man" of the race.

But Williams contends that his neighborhood-centered campaign message — that City Hall's first priority should be to strengthen homes, families and children — has changed the culture, discussion and focus of the mayoral race.

Likewise, he says, he will change the city.

"If you want your neighborhood centers to materialize, and if you want to get your children out of caustic waters, then vote for Lawrence Williams," he says. "It's just not going to happen if I'm not elected."

Williams is always talking neighborhoods, even when he welcomes you to his home on Ford Avenue off Mechanicsville Turnpike. "You're in the real neighborhood now," he says, opening the front door to his 1924 carpenter-style, light-green house.

He grew up here, the projects visible from his street. Mosby, Fairfield and Whitcomb courts are within walking distance. So is Accommodation Street, which he considers the city's most troubled area.

But Williams, the youngest of four children, stayed on the right path. His late mother was a maid at a local school and a seamstress. His late father held a union job on the Reynolds Metals loading dock.

Williams went on to graduate with a degree in architecture from the University of Virginia, where he met his wife. (The two are now divorced.) He earned a master's degree in architecture from Harvard University and started his own architectural practice, focusing on church design.

He says he knows firsthand the benefits of a stable, loving upbringing — one with a strong mother, father and a church as central to his life: "You talk about Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream'? Well I have lived it."

He wants to bring good things back to Richmond, he says. All he needs to do is be the last man standing in a four-way race. To trust the voters "to see they need real change." To prove that he's the "fresh new alternative." To get attention away from Wilder.

He admits he has struggled with one reality of campaigning: negative attacks. "If I ran my campaign at 200 percent," he says, "I could win." But that would include running some candidates through the wringer, he says. "I have greater integrities."

Still, there are some things he doesn't hold back. Wilder, Williams says, is a politician who straddles "three sides of the fence" with a campaign that is "all about control." Williams believes the former governor should have stayed out of the way and in an advisory role.

After a mayoral forum sponsored by the Richmond Crusade for Voters, Williams lingers onstage while reporters swarm Wilder. "He may not last for two years," Williams says. "And is this a retirement plan for governors?"

Williams says that he is the "technocrat" in the race. After an interview, he calls a reporter to explain a concept he wants to develop as mayor: "holistic urban and educational strategies for inner-city communities."

He brings to the table an "ability to clearly see what needs to be done and to rigidly work on it." He has trained for this job, he says — through his service with former mayors, with the city's planning office, in his career, in his life.

"That is my office," Williams says. "The challenge is how to get there."

When something important doesn't happen the way you expect, you may go back to the beginning and look for signs you missed.

You do this especially if you are L. Douglas Wilder, you've already been Virginia's governor, and, at age 74, you're running for mayor of Richmond. You do this because you think you're the only one who can.

You discover the city has changed from the segregated pockets of prestige and poverty that held you growing up. Tug at them you did, but little evidence suggests you moved the city much. Sidewalks are cracked. Storefronts are empty. Schools are struggling.

Wilder considers these things while riding shotgun in a green minivan as his longtime friend Art Burton drives. The van is covered in blue "Wilder for Mayor" placards. It's a Tuesday in early autumn, a day when Wilder wants to meet the city again, district by district, hand to hand.

"We're seriously campaigning in all nine districts, not targeting five as some candidates are," Wilder says. Stops are planned in each area. Schools. Churches. Restaurants. In between, he and Burton size up the city.

The silver-haired Wilder speaks of the "silos of government," and how if he's elected, he'll make them fall. No municipal entity will be accountable only unto itself, he says. Take the housing authority, for instance, or the School Board. City Council for sure. He draws sharp distinctions between authority, responsibility and action.

Lunch is in South Side at O'Toole's, a place where every customer appears to be a regular. Wilder pushes his plate — a Reuben with fries — aside to greet a host of diners in booths and chairs. He signs more of the 8-by-10 pictures of himself that his staff keeps on hand for autographs. A tiny gray-haired waitress wants one, a volunteer tells Wilder, whispering the name "Mary" in his ear.

Wilder grew up in the Church Hill part of the city's 7th District.

"They haven't seen me for a while," Wilder says hesitantly, en route to his former place of worship, First African Baptist Church on Hanes Avenue. But Wilder's return, unexpected if inevitable, prompts only applause from the ample audience. Those gathered for the regular meeting of the Edge Hill Civic Association are mostly middle-aged-and-older ladies in hats — the sort inclined to be good citizens, registered voters and keepers of the faith in modest neighborhoods susceptible to decay.

Back in the van, Wilder and Burton reminisce about the neighborhood in its glory days. A beer was a nickel then, and there was only one place anybody who was anybody went to get one. "Abe's was the place to come," Wilder says of a long-gone haunt on North Avenue. He flashes Burton a knowing smile. "All the pretty girls went there," he recalls. "It was the crŠme de la crŠme."

That was then, this is now - and the future. Outside Ellwood Thompson's Natural Market in Carytown, Paul Goldman, Wilder's campaign manager and political analyst, administers the candidate's Web site live. Anyone who logs on can see Wilder in real time on the campaign trail. And anyone who logs on can ask questions in real time, e-mailing them to Goldman, who relays them to Wilder.

"Don't give up on us yet," Wilder tells a city resident who says she's thinking of moving to the county, citing safer neighborhoods and lower real estate taxes. Goldman sits at table beneath an umbrella, typing Wilder's response on a laptop as the man-who-would-be mayor dictates, leaning his shoulder in to see the screen. "I am a candidate for reform. It means just that," he continues. "It defines itself."

It's midafternoon when Wilder and company pull into Oregon Hill. A stop had been planned for the riverfront park gazebo. But mounds of dirt obscure the site, and the buzz of construction drowns out any audible conversation. Instead, the group improvises. Wilder arrives at Open High School on only a minute's notice.

After a few chaotic moments of explanation and introduction, Wilder's traveling troupe of eight is ushered into an upstairs classroom. The course is American government. Coincidentally, the textbooks have just arrived. And as the candidate addresses the class of about 30, a few of the students unload and stack the books. It quickly grows to form a lectern.

"Can anyone give me a definition of politics?" Wilder asks. The room is quiet. A minute lingers, as does the sheepish look on students' faces.

"What is government?" he tries again. No one responds.

"Isn't this a government class?" he asks, incredulous. Then he smiles a wicked smile. "Who can tell me what an oligarchy is?" Wilder spells the word, at once challenging and insulting them.

A student's arm shoots up. Wilder gives the boy a nod.

"An oligarchy is a form of government ruled by a few," the boy offers.

Wilder nods an approving yes. He tells the students that when he was growing up he was taught to believe government was exclusive, for other people. Thomas Jefferson says otherwise.

With that, Wilder concludes, "Government is what you make it." S

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