December 24, 2008 News & Features » Cover Story


The Score 2008 

A wild year of political haggling, resume polishing and a nose-biting, French monkey mime.

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We get up close and personal with the animal kingdom.  +1 

In Richmond our coyotes are elusive, our lions imaginary, our monkeys nasty and our bears very, very flat.

It's an interesting year for fish-out-of-water fauna roaming around city streets and distressed suburbs.

Richmond's animal tales start tragically in May, when a series of black bear sightings around the city end abruptly on the grille of a Williamsburg-bound furniture truck on Interstate 95. 

By mid-June our animal obsessions turn to coyotes, wild dogs with what appears to be a far healthier survival instincts than bears. Groups of the wily scavengers are seen first in Ashland. In a jealous fit of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, Bon Air in Chesterfield (also a quirky community of stately Victorian houses) becomes Richmond's other hotbed of coyote sightings.

And then there is the nasty monkey. Furious George first chatters onto the scene with his owners during a stroll through Carytown dressed as a “French mime,” according to one local blogger, who at first thinks he's encountered a “drunk dog.” As events soon prove, you should never trust a French mime — especially a French monkey mime. On July 4, local news outlets report that the chimp has chomped the tip of an unsuspecting teen's nose in Dogwood Dell.

No menagerie is complete without a lion. And this menagerie, technically, remains without a lion — in much the same way we also lack Bigfoot or the Abominable Snowman. But tell that to witnesses, including CBS 6 reporter Jon Burkett, who claims to have seen a cougar or mountain lion skulking in the woods around Bon Air.

And so, Bon Air proves again you might outfox a fox, but you can't out-crazy crazy. Let's see those folks up in Ashland come up with an imaginary lion.

Wait, did someone say fox?

Richmond becomes a staging area. +7 

What would the Electoral College be without the Electoral Animal House?

While the 2008 presidential campaign rages, Virginia becomes a battleground state and Richmond plays host to both parties. It's a thrilling place to be, even if the star-power, snark and sour grapes from the campaigns leave a sticky residue on our floor, littered with red and blue plastic cups.

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>John McCain stops by Shockoe Espresso on the way to a June 9 fundraiser at the Omni Hotel and touches off a bit of civic uproar. After ordering coffee for his wife and a cup for himself, he leaves a $20 tip and most of his java untouched. Martin Agency strategic planner Rye Clifton seizes the mug and auctions it off on eBay for $213.61 and gets banned from the coffee shop.

The neighborhood drama is reflected on a much larger screen when, coincidentally, MadTV runs a sketch set in a Richmond coffee shop where Barack “Hope and Change” Obama sets off a scandal by musing that his coffee mug may indeed be half empty.

Obama holds court under a stand of trees behind John Tyler Community College in Chester Aug. 21. Earlier that day, reports circulate that McCain cannot remember how many homes he owns. It's a stumble that Obama amplifies here, launching the sound bite of the day.

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Gov. Sarah Palin's Oct. 13 visit is moved to Richmond International Raceway after the projected attendance outgrows the previously scheduled rally at the Arthur Ashe Center on the Boulevard. During her speech, Palin becomes distracted by screaming fans asking her to turn up the volume.

Confusing them for detractors, she says, “I hope those protesters have the courage and honor to give veterans thanks for their right to protest.” The misdirected punch line, like much of the criticism she receives, lingers through several water-cooler cycles.

And who knows where Joe Biden is.

Now that it's all over, we all need a little coffee to cure our political hangover. Wait, is that a posse of male strippers, or did the gubernatorial candidates just show up at the door?

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>The status quo is turned on its head at Richmond Public Schools. +2

Still reeling from Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's military-style coup d'etat in 2007, the district's leadership seems fractured at best in 2008.

By July, faced with a deeply unflattering city audit of her division, Superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman gets while the gettin' is good, heading to Harvard University to teach other educators about the pitfalls of running an urban district. Among the policy legacies she leaves is a district that logs more suspensions each year than it has students. 

In March, the citywide PTA president blasts the district for creating boutique schools to cater to upper-class children while failing to put needed resources in poor-performing schools serving poorer students. She cites those bloated suspension rates — and the city's former Juvenile Courts chief judge supports her claims. 

 Taking a little of the edge off, test scores are up, and the number of fully accredited schools is at an all-time high, according to statistics released by the Virginia Department of Education. But that isn't enough to pacify November voters soured by too many months of bickering between School Board members and … well, just about everybody they encounter.

When the dust clears on the morning of Nov. 5, there's no surer sign the public has eaten its fill of substandard schools, unresponsive representation and administrative bloat. Just four of nine incumbent board members will return in January. The board's former chairman, George Braxton, chooses not to run, but the man he endorses loses by a long mile on a short track. The vice chairwoman, Lisa Dawson, goes down in flames despite a pitched campaign battle that culminates on Election Day in near-fisticuffs with her opponent, Kim Gray, over an ex-governor's endorsement.

And then there's Carol A.O. Wolf, the board's vocal minority opinion. Her hand-grenades help instigate many recent changes. But she won't be back. A snafu with the petition signatures she needs to run again leaves her riding the pine on the sidelines.

The Bottom gets a new (post-Braves) ballpark pitch. -4

Five years ago they told us the Richmond Braves would leave if we didn't build a ballpark in Shockoe Bottom, just north of the 17th Street Farmers' Market.

With the Braves long gone, Bryan Bostic and his baseball buddies are back with a new, albeit strikingly similar plan to build a ballpark in Shockoe Bottom, just north of the 17th Street Farmers' Market. 

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>It's an exciting plan! It's just one piece of a massive $785 million multipronged construction project that will turn the Bottom and the Boulevard into sprawling retail shopping destinations with restaurants, condos, hotels — and, yep, baseball.

And it'll cost hardworking taxpayers almost nothing! Highwoods Properties, the developer, is essentially giving away money and steel to make Richmond one heck of a cool town.

Oh, there will be cynics who say the country's financial crisis, not to mention the depressed municipal bond markets, will make financing this deal pretty much impossible in the next two to three years. Or suggest that this is somehow a bait-and-switch deal allowing Highwoods to gain control of valuable city property. But who cares? This is baseball, baby!

Still not convinced because there's no quantitative evidence that baseball stadiums generate any kind of economic impact or spinoff? Or that, realistically, the research suggests that baseball stadiums are more likely an economic drain on their host cities, sucking away valuable tax dollars that could be used on things such as schools or extra police officers?

That's the kind of thinking that holds Richmond back. No baseball and this city's not attracting those young professional hipsters so vital to the city's future — you know, creative types like Bostic and his baseball buddies.

Ask questions and overanalyze the economics if you want. We say, play ball!

The Cultural Action Plan tells us what 2,800 people like. (Apparently it's not theater, but we love the past.) +2

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The Valentine Richmond History Center's Bill Martin assembles a Cultural Action Task Force populated by local arts leaders to figure out just what the hell people in this city like to do. They recruit the services of Boston-based consultants at Wolf Brown, create a survey and gather 2,800 people to fill it out, in person and online.

If we know what we like, the thinking goes, we'll know where to gather our resources. Like a leak in a dam, except what's leaking out is cultural interest. And the goal is to expand that leak, maybe? Or no. Wait. Forget it.

But the point is, what they found out is that Richmond's fairly similar to a lot of cities. People of all kinds find most culture in their own homes, on yonder Internet or the radio. After that, arts exposure comes from going to church (especially among blacks) or going outside (especially with whites). Also, the more money you make, the more likely you are to go to the theater, a museum or a gallery — but sadly, the less likely you are to go to bars. It's all in the numbers.

But we differ in a few ways: Our theater support is lower than other towns, and people are more interested in learning about their family history here than elsewhere. Meetings in the New Year will determine what we do with all this knowledge. Maybe we can bring things into alignment by staging plays about people's ancestors.

To read the report, click here.

Foodies see a dream realized.  +3

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>Fanatics who once trekked to Washington for their Whole Foods and Trader Joe's fixes point their SUVs west instead, to the improbable new food Mecca of Short Pump. Both grocery chains finally find Richmond a reasonable market for their organic and natural foods, and open within a month and a block of each other. Ellwood's, Good Foods and Ukrop's take the hint and counter-punch with expansions, advertising and more organics, and suddenly consumers are loading their pantries with brands way more exotic than Campbell's.

Richmond lays claim to the World's Worst CEO.  -3
Rick Wagoner graduated from J.R. Tucker High School in Henrico County and eventually became the chairman and chief executive of General Motors, one of the world's biggest companies, if not one of the most troubled.

Wagoner somehow presided over $39 billion in losses during the last three years and engineered a genius turnaround plan that's led to a precipitous drop in market share (from almost 30 percent to 20 percent).

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Oh, and did we mention he's landed one of those Wall Street bailout deals that's essentially a giant welfare check? Don't forget his heartfelt column in the Wall Street Journal, explaining how the money from the government would preserve an eco-conscious company that helps build strong communities and even contributes to bake sales in Kansas.

Yup, that's good old Richmond boy Rick Wagoner. He's agreed to take a salary cut next year — from about $2.2 million to $1 — but that's not what we really want. Go ahead and give him the money, but with one condition: clemency for anyone who decides to punch the next gray-haired, suit-wearing blue blood who sneers as he passes the homeless guy on the corner begging for pocket change. Deal?

Feed More feeds more.  +8
A bit more than 2,000 years ago, there was this carpenter who kicked around Galilee and occasionally did this nifty trick with some fish and a few loaves of bread. Good guy — talked in allegory a lot, but loved to lead by example.
In this case his message happened to be that to do good you sometimes do more with less.

It's a good message; applicable even if you're not a huge fan of carpenters of mysterious parentage who hail from Nazareth.

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>Just take a look at the newly minted Feed More Inc. Formed this summer as an umbrella organization for the city's already overworked Central Virginia Foodbank Inc. and Meals on Wheels Serving Central Virginia Inc., the consolidated organization's objective is to stretch a few fish and loaves — and cans of donated pork 'n' beans and Le Sueur baby peas and not-quite-fresh Little Debbie snacks — and feed even more people. It's not quite a miracle, but there's something miraculous about two nonprofits setting aside egos, shaving their administrative overhead and using the savings to put food on people's tables.

So far, it's paying off in spades. Unemployment is up and food supplies are barely keeping pace with new demand, but with upgraded facilities and a horde of volunteers the organization now prepares an average of 5,000 meals and delivers more than 50,000 pounds of food each day.

That's a lot of fishes, loaves — and Little Debbie snacks — on tables all over Richmond.

We lose more economic landmarks.  -9

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Recessions in Richmond used to be no big whoop. After all, people may cut back on eating and drinking to excess when the economy tightens, but we keep buying Marlboros.

Not so much this time around. Aside from Philip Morris, tobacco is no longer king in these parts. What is? Well, that's kind of the problem. Ask anyone: What is Richmond's economy? We lost our manufacturing base decades ago and the big banks are long gone. Are we all shopping centers, condos and dirt lawyers?

The home mortgage crisis sends LandAmerica into bankruptcy as the financial crisis pummels stalwarts such as Genworth Financial, Chesapeake Energy, Media General and, of course, Circuit City. The electronics retailer is the worst of the bunch, considering the company's storied reputation as one of most innovative retailers in U.S. history. It's in bankruptcy because it fired all of its best salespeople and forgot how to sell electronics.

Not having an actual economy isn't all bad, though. It means we're hurt a little less than say, Charlotte, N.C., which stole all of our banks in the mid-1990s. That city needs Wachovia and Bank of America to be healthy — they aren't — or a whole heap of jobs disappear. Maybe we should be glad we're out of the bank biz.

But what are we?

Virginia pays tribute to civil rights legends in Capitol Square.  +9

Even 7-year-olds understand the importance of symbolism. As Virginia's first lady, wife of then-Gov. Mark Warner, Lisa Collis, and her youngest daughter, Eliza, noticed what graced the state's front lawn — and what didn't.

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>Missing among the grounds' statues was acknowledgment of Virginia's painful civil rights history, and the people who helped overcome it. So in 2005 Gov. Warner and the General Assembly set up a commission to raise money and pick a rightful remembrance.

Three years later, a crowd turns out on a sweltering July 21 to help dedicate the Capitol Square Civil Rights Memorial. In particular it recognizes Barbara Rose Johns, who at 16 helped lead a school walkout in Farmville over school segregation and equal rights. Students and parents eventually got help from Richmond attorneys Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood Robinson III, whose case becomes part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. They are part of this memorial, too, designed by sculptor Stanley Bleifeld. The Richmond Boys Choir sings a jubilant finale to the event, and a new symbol stands to remind us how far we've come.

North Carolina smuggles its stench across state lines.  -2
In June, wildfires in the eastern end of North Carolina and Virginia's Great Dismal Swamp send massive clouds of smoke as far north as our otherwise-spotless city. The skies are hazy and burning peat soil in the swamp gives the whole beige spectacle a special smell, rather like chicken-fried moss. The smoke comes through town periodically throughout the summer, but stops bothering us well before fall, even though the fire burns a total of 121 days. Ninty-nine percent of North Carolina is ultimately incinerated, but we can hardly be bothered, as a cloud from West Virginia's Great Irritable Bowel Forest heads toward the city.

The Times-Dispatch ain't too proud to beg.  0
On Nov. 2, the Richmond Times-Dispatch endorsed one Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for president. As of press time, he's the loser, but that doesn't stop the T-D from “proudly” offering up for sale a reprint of its double-page, board-mounted spread of President-elect Barack Obama from the paper's Nov. 5 front page. Only $69! Seriously!!!

Hey, it's difficult to criticize the T-D for its flip-flop-for-profit strategy, considering how Media General's stock price has tanked. Newspapers have to find new ways to make money these days. In that spirit, we urge the marketing folks to capitalize on other significant editorial stances. Here are a few missed merchandising opportunities of the past:

Sept. 16, 2001: Editorial page Editor Ross Mackenzie suggests that the United States respond to the terrorist attacks by detonating a nuclear bomb, further advising the Joint Chiefs that “quasi-benign bio/chemical weapons, should not be out of the question.”

T-D OMG (opportunistic marketing gimmick): Put your tinfoil hat in the T-D's Missed Nuclear Engagement Commemorative Microwave ($119) and watch the action the nation missed.

Oct. 6, 1987: The editorial page backs the nomination of conservative Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, calling his detractors “civil rights groups, braying their same old me-first litanies” and “feminist groups that seek not equality but supremacy.”

T-D OMG: Enjoy retirement or unemployment with your Bork Memorial Tackle Box complete with race bait, jail bait and night crawlers ($99.99).

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>Feb. 24, 1960: The editorial page rails against student-led civil rights sit-ins at downtown lunch counters. Six years earlier, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People argued in the Brown v. Board lawsuit that schools had a legal obligation to integrate. Therefore, the editorial writers argue, the NAACP's encouragement of protestors to enter “establishments where they have no legal right to go” amounts to “rank hypocrisy.”

T-D OMG: Remember your housewife or favorite domestic servant with these collectable Racial Purity Self-Organizing Salt and Pepper Shakers! They're forged of reverse-polarity magnetic material to ensure they stay on opposite sides of your lunch counter ($30/pair).

Henry Hager gets married.  +2
First twin Jenna Bush gets hitched to Richmonder Henry Hager this summer, but the hometown plays only a bit part.

 Instead of a grand White House wedding, or a traditional Country Club of Virginia affair, the pair opts for her parents' ranch in Crawford, Texas.

The groom's father, John Hager, is as politically connected as they come. He's Virginia's former lieutenant governor, former state Republican Party chairman and new adviser to mayor-elect Dwight Jones. He keeps his lips zipped on any wedding details.

Richmond buddies Gibson Luck, a project manager with Kjellstrom and Lee, and Hilton Graham II, a state lobbyist with a downtown firm, confess that they are among the wedding-goers but decline to add further detail.

Richmond isn't totally snubbed, though. Jenna Bush holds an engagement party at the Windsor Farms home of her future parents-in-law. It's the same night as the Democratic Party of Virginia's annual fundraiser, the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner — when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are in town. It's a lovely event, sources say, and we're certain Jenna has all her thank-you notes out within a week.

After the wedding, they couple moves to Baltimore, where she planned to teach and he took at job with Constellation Energy. In December the Baltimore Examiner reports that the division where Hager works will be significantly downsized. So he might soon be in the same boat as his father-in-law.

The most-hyped bar in recent history melts down.  -3

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Count it down but not thawed. Infuzion, the nation's first fleeting glimpse of an ice bar, gets an initially warm welcome with hype that's memorably over-the-top. But perhaps the business opens at too high a cost in an area of town not yet ready, or for some the concept is just too conceptual. It eventually gets a cold shoulder from a skeptical Richmond, and closes within months of its splashy unveiling. Still, never say die — the club, lounge and vodka bar is poised to make a comeback, at least for private parties if not something more solid.

The Boulevard gets into the game, even though the game moves to Georgia.  0
While sentimentalists bemoan the loss of the Braves, whose ballpark began falling on its patrons some years ago, the prospect of redeveloping the area in its stead is tantalizing. The clear-cut will include all of the North Boulevard city-owned land consisting of The Diamond, the Arthur Ashe Center, and the less-conspicuous city vehicle maintenance and public-works complex, and may include Sports Backers Stadium.

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>The chief developer, Highwoods Properties, may finally get a longtime set of ideas under way, but with the state of the economy we aren't holding our breath. If there's a miracle, let's hope the rejuvenation will match the spirit of what's already happening privately on the other side of the tracks:

Bow-Tie Cinemas is giving Richmond its first modern movie house, outfitted with 17 screens and fancy digs. Buz & Ned's continues to offer mind-blowing barbecue while Carpool washes off the sauce. River City Tattoo has painted and pierced enough of our citizenry that its owners have opened Stronghill Dining Company just across the street. Even the new brick walkways seem to glimmer by the nightglow of the sign on the Triangle Adult Book Store.

As always, the future of one of our city's gateway entrances looks simultaneously horrifying and wonderful. All the Whos in Whoville may be singing, but the zombie walk of thousands after the Fourth of July fireworks shows will be missed.

We get a view from the (nearly) full-frontal center of the universe. +3

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If Richmond is a small city with big-city problems, Ashland is a quaint village with Village People costumes. Witness this year's Nekkid Men of Ashland calendar, a fundraiser that asks people to put their money where the suggestion of a penis might be. The calendar exists somewhere between parody and exploitation: Its heart is in the right place, but the head isn't really attached. To look upon it fouls the wiring in our working concept of small-town America, proving once again that self-mockery without insight is not funny, it's frotteurism. Further proving that our northern satellite has indeed had trouble marking the passage of days this year, big-city travel writer scorns the town on national television, and local officials lose the Ashland time capsule on the occasion of the sesquicentennial. Luckily, the capsule only contains artifacts from 1983, a year which has now been completely and thankfully erased from memory.

First she was in, then she was out, now she's in again.  -2

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>The odds don't look good among betting Richmonders when Sheila Hill-Christian leaves her cushy job as head of the Virginia Lottery — which includestesting all the scratchy games and passing out cartoonishly large checks to lotto winners — to play chief administrative officer and nursemaid to living civil rights monument Mayor L. Douglas Wilder.

He'd spent the previous three years chewing the scenery around City Hall, and keeping the revolving door spinning for an expanding list of ex-administration officials. Some people think Hill-Christian might tame the wild beast. Instead, she gets chewed up too — and that seems to be the end of dear Sheila.

But a new day and a new mayor means a resurrection of sorts for our stately Lady Lotto. Within days of his victory, Mayor-elect Dwight C. Jones announces Hill-Christian will be on his transition team. So she's again wandering the chambers of City Hall — and no doubt haunting the dreams of her former boss, Wilder.

We offer no excuses for falling off the good-citizenship wagon.  +7

Many local voters, distracted by the thrilling presidential elections, are beginning to realize they missed one of the approximately 1,537 Richmond mayoral candidate forums — maybe more. We've lost count.

Not Bob Patrick Millieux, an ordinary man with an extraordinary appetite for patriotism, public affairs, good citizenship — and a near-inhuman ability to sit for hours on end listening to five men discuss their hopes and dreams for Richmond.

“I was just doing my duty,” Millieux says. “When the Guinness Book called I told them the same thing: Obama ain't the only one running for office! Also, I have a hard time making up my mind.”

The record-book officials discovers Millieux after a bored Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter, forced to attend all the candidate forums, notice him as the one common audience member at every event. Millieux even out-forums mayoral candidate Paul Goldman, who drops out in the middle of the race.

“He kind of became a good-luck charm to see him in the audience,” mayoral candidate Bill Pantele says of Milleaux. “Except the luck went to Jones.”

Millieux, a retired technician with a local cardboard-box company, could never have imagined himself as the model of voter fortitude he's become. The city's 1 Percent for the Arts Commission is requesting proposals from artists for an LED sculpture to replace the Braves Indian at the abandoned Diamond, an art piece that Eugene Trani has purchased as a Christmas present to Philip Morris USA.

Unfortunately, Millieux forgets to cast his ballot on Election Day because he's attending a city Q&A on leaf collection services.

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>A former Richmond Police detective leads his alma mater to its first national championship.  +5
University of Richmond football coach Mike London after the Spiders' 24-7 win Dec. 19 against Montana.

The National becomes the newest public bathhouse. +8

Sure sure, the National is a success story. The 1920s cinema is spared the wrecking-ball fate of many of its architectural contemporaries, rejuvenated to become an exemplar of the possibilities of New Richmond, using the beauty of the past to inform the beauty of the future, blah, blah, blah. You've heard it. You'll hear it again. We have a whole review on page 27. And sure, the Feb. 25 opening completes the promise of a new era of live music begun the year before by Toad's Place. You can read all about that in our Set List every week.

But even with all the architectural finery and a sound system that the National's handlers claim is top-five in the country, still its most magnetic feature — come on, be honest with your lying self — is the 10-person hot tub tucked way back in the VIP suites. Right next to the cedar-wood sauna. And the steam shower built for three. Or maybe four, if one is an L.A. lead singer and the rest are 18-year-old girls. Yes, the promise of true rock-star excess is alive in our city, perhaps for the first time. It's not the first public bathhouse in the city, sure, but it's certainly the most famous. Just think: That hot tub's filters may well have collected some of the most valuable DNA in the entertainment world. You could make a small fortune off the wet towels alone. For this and many other reasons, almost all in the city are thrilled by its refurbished landmark.

But not all. The most vocal complaint comes from Albert McCarthy, 96, who attended the recent Lamb of God and Municipal Waste metal show, apparently thinking the venue was still a movie theater. Emerging at show's end 'mongst the long-haired and the tattooed, McCarthy's review is brief: “I'll just never get those Buster Keaton pictures.”

Wilder's become so irrelevant that he only gets this blurb.  -5

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We thought about writing a long perspective piece on the legacy of Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, the mayor not the governor, but then we realized no one really cares anymore. It's official: Wilder was such a complete bust that he merits only a couple of paragraphs. It hurts to even bring it up. It's downright sad to see him smiling on the front page of the Times-Dispatch wearing a hard hat beside a sidebar listing of 11 real estate “accomplishments,” 10 of which have yet to happen.

No, it wasn't a dream. Wilder did beat up lots of people and took credit for a whole bunch of things that don't actually exist. But pinch yourself. It's over now.




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