The Obama Effect 

Hoping to turn the page on the old, failed politics of division, I helped lead a coalition of Richmonders to change the city charter, giving people the right to popularly elect their mayor in the summer of 2003. Now the political power brokers are back with an apparent strategy to undermine Richmond's new form of government.

They are prepared to risk creating a highly divisive situation that allows them to anoint their hand-picked candidate through a process locking out 99.9 percent of the people, in hopes of gaining control of the patronage and power of city government.

Via referendum in 2003, Democrats like me -- including then-Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, a former mayor of Richmond — joined with Republicans, Greens, Libertarians and Independents in an unprecedented coalition to support a nonpartisan mayoral election.

With a presidential election looming — and the prospect of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama becoming the first African-American to win the Democratic nomination — the "endorsement" of the Richmond City Democratic Committee for mayor could carry an enormous amount of influence in November. Only a handful of power brokers who make up the committee will decide who gets that endorsement.

The last thing we need is to wait until September or October — when the endorsement is expected — and have a public fight over the manipulation of the unfair political rules of an exclusionary process used to determine who may get to be the next mayor of Richmond. Think Florida and Michigan, where the battle over party rules has hurt the Democratic presidential nominee's chances of winning those key states.

Thus, Richmond is at a crossroads as the election approaches.

Back when the City Council chose the mayor, the Richmond City Democratic Committee never gave an endorsement to any of the candidates. But the committee decided to rethink that position with the passage of the new city charter to popularly elect the mayor. Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Justice was late in giving the final approval to the new law; thus the local Democratic committee was given little time in 2004 to decide whether it should make an endorsement or how to create a fair and principled selection process, open to all city Democrats as envisioned by the State Democratic Party of Virginia Plan.

This plan warns against locking out the people from the endorsement process. It doesn't even contemplate allowing unelected party officials, no matter their political power, to dominate an exclusionary endorsement procedure to the detriment of almost all other party members. Indeed, there's no mention of allowing such a process to provide a hand-picked endorsement by such a procedure in the state party plan.

To be fair, 2004 marked the first election under the new system, and the time frame for action was truncated. Once the local committee members decided to make an endorsement, they probably didn't appreciate the full ramifications of their actions in terms of effectively disenfranchising the very people they were supposed to represent.

At the time, I knew the committee members didn't represent the true will of the overwhelming majority of Richmond Democrats. But I did what a campaign manager has to do under those circumstances: You play by the rules and you play to win.

But it's 2008 and we don't have to make the same mistake. For example, let's compare the process for choosing a Democrat to run as the party nominee for the state Senate. Democratic Sens. Donald McEachin and Henry Marsh, who represent most of the voters of Richmond, have senatorial districts with close to the same number of residents as does our River City. McEachin and Marsh compete in either a primary or caucus, open to all voters, to determine who will carry the party's banner in the general election. There is no endorsement by any local Democratic committee or committees.

This is true across the commonwealth. The State Democratic Party Plan forbids unelected party officials from using their power at that juncture to try to tilt the playing field against other Democrats. But the Richmond City Democratic Committee is trying to do just that by manipulating Richmond's nonpartisan election law in a way grassroots Democrats never intended.

How? Because we officially have nonpartisan mayoral elections in Richmond, the candidates for mayor cannot be legally listed as a member of any party on the ballot in November. Thus, there can be no official Democratic nominee for Richmond mayor. The committee seized on this circumstance to justify doing away with the requirement that they use an open process to make their endorsement, because in legal terms an endorsement is only the preference of the committee members, not of the city's Democrats. That is to say, the endorsed candidate is not legally the nominee of Richmond Democrats.

But in practice, the committee's power brokers know that such an endorsement conveys the impression that this individual is the mayoral choice of Democrats. Such an endorsement enables the person chosen to be listed on the official Democratic presidential ballot handed out by the national party at the polls on Election Day.

One doesn't need to be a political genius to appreciate the advantage of having your name on the official National Democratic Party ballot in the city of Richmond, where the Democratic nominee for president — particularly if it's Obama — is likely to win by the biggest margin in city history. And that could be pivotal in winning the mayor's race this fall. For many voters, their choice for mayor may depend almost entirely on whose name gets the check mark on that ballot. The power of this ballot listing is the prize the power brokers are trying to control.

The 2004 process used by the local committee to endorse a candidate for mayor was fatally flawed and must not be repeated. If the committee decides to endorse this year, it needs to develop a truly fair and open process, one that's not designed to take the city back to the old politics where the people were effectively excluded and only a handful of power brokers really got to decide most everything, including who would be the mayor. S

Paul Goldman, a political consultant and candidate for Richmond mayor, is the former campaign manager and senior aide to Mayor L. Douglas Wilder.

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

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