August 06, 2003 News & Features » Cover Story


Who Will Run Richmond? 

A stunning series of scandals has a lot of people trying to picture the future of city government.

Kenney, Richardson’s former fellow councilman, has been appointed to fill out the term of Sa’ad El-Amin, who stepped down July 1, the same day he pled guilty to conspiracy to commit tax fraud. “Maybe it forebodes something,” Richardson says. After all, he continues, “It’s a coincidence that Walter is appointed on the same night that I’m here to speak.”

It’s July 28, the last Monday night Council meeting of the summer. The crowd is here mostly for the meals-tax debate (Before the night is out, Council approves a 1 percentage point increase to the meals tax to jump-start funding for the Performing Arts Center). But Richardson is here for something else, targeting Richmond Assessor James R. Vinson, the council appointee who is forced to resign after coming under fire for reducing his property assessment by nearly $44,000 while neighbors saw their tax bills soar.

In the old days, Vinson would have been swiftly dismissed, Richardson tells the Council.

“How long would he have lasted, Walter?” Richardson asks Kenney.

“About 15 seconds,” Kenney replies.

At once, Richardson’s call for leadership doesn’t seem trifling and hypocritical. The days when he outraged the city don’t seem so outrageous now.

In a span of about four weeks, Council has weathered two federal indictments, an unexpected death, an embarrassing public trial concerning Vinson’s tax reduction and a meals-tax debate that has raised the ire of typically reticent downtown restaurateurs.

All this seems perfectly timed to aid a renewed push to change who runs the city.

Council members currently appoint the mayor. But a growing number of city residents and political leaders — including former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder — are pushing aggressively to establish a form of government where voters throughout the city elect a strong mayor.

A petition drive backed by Wilder and others is underway to add a referendum to the November elections on whether the city should have what is known as an “at-large” mayor.

Many on City Council have been opposed to the plan. In fact, a commission Council created to examine the issue is set to release its own recommendations soon. Kenney, who served on the committee, says it will recommend the creation of a stronger mayor with more power on economic issues and who would have a full-time staff. But that version of the mayor would not be elected citywide, but selected by Council from its own ranks.

Not that Kenney sees a crisis. “I see nothing broke at City Hall,” he says.

Still, with strong political backing and the recent Council stumbles the movement to create an at-large mayor is gathering steam.

“They can’t argue any longer that everything is going fine,” says Robert D. Holsworth, professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University. “The public has already voted for an at-large mayor. The politicians who oppose it have to make a case in favor of the status quo. And it’s tough to make that case when 20 percent of your City Council is being indicted.”

It’s that same Monday in July, and Paul Goldman is spending his lunch hour in Carytown, trying to change the city.

He carries his tools with him: a pair of clipboards and a couple of gel pens. He trots up to a man and woman walking along the pavement. “Hi, folks,” he says. “Either of you registered voters in the city of Richmond?”

The woman says she is. The man says he isn’t. Goldman turns to the woman, holds his clipboard out to her and starts his pitch. “In Richmond you don’t have the right to pick your own mayor — they say you’re not smart enough,” he says. “Well, I don’t know about that — you look plenty smart to me. This petition says you want the chance to elect your mayor. All it commits you to is putting it on the ballot.”

The woman already is reaching for the clipboard and pen. Goldman points to the petition form: “Sign it here, write your name here, your address where you’re registered goes here. Date it here. Put the last four numbers of your Social Security number here if you want.” He adds, “Nobody does.”

The woman finishes filling out the form and hands it back. “It’s great that you’re doing this,” she says.

“Thank you,” Goldman says pleasantly, but his attention is shifting — he’s looking down the street for his next target. He starts off down the sidewalk, then tells the man, “You get yourself registered now.”

“I will,” the man promises.

Goldman and a handful of volunteers are seeking the 10,000 signatures from registered voters in Richmond needed to change the city charter. In late July Goldman presented the city clerk with 2,900 signatures on the petition.

Goldman has worked in Democratic politics for decades. His primary claim to history is that he oversaw the first — and so far only — successful campaign by a black American for governor: He shepherded Doug Wilder’s drive to the Executive Mansion in 1990.

He peppers his speeches with political arcana — percentages of election returns in the 1960s, for example — and repeated references to his own history, as when he emphasizes his role as strategist in the winning campaign of Gov. Mark Warner, and as when he criticizes Warner for, he says, not following his advice. For example, Goldman says Warner got sidetracked by transportation issues rather than focusing on education.

Lately, Goldman has become the front man for one of the most aggressive efforts since 1948 to change the way the city runs. He has been hired to run the operations of a commission co-led by Wilder and Republican former Congressman Tom Bliley.

The Wilder-Bliley Commission seeks to overturn Richmond’s current system of weak, Council- appointed mayors. It has mounted the latest campaign to create a powerful mayor elected by the entire city, not appointed by a city council that was elected by district.

This drive is the second phase of that effort, and it’s Goldman’s first experience of a petition drive. The temperature’s pushing 100 degrees, and pedestrians are sparse. But Goldman’s not complaining. Indeed, he seems largely oblivious to the heat and inspired by his sense of history.

“Obviously,” he says, “this is the most extensive petition drive in the history of the state. Put it this way: to put someone on the ballot for president or governor you need a half a percent of all the registered voters in the state or the jurisdiction. We need upward of 10 percent of the voters.

“No. 2,” he continues, “they’re going to check our petition. In the [political] parties, they just do a sort of a random sampling, and they don’t have much time to check — and no one really challenges it. So this is the most extensive and difficult thing ever really tried.”

Virginia is unusual, if not unique, among states in that it strips most real power from its local governments. To make any changes in, say, tax rates or electoral processes, the state’s cities, towns and counties must request them from the General Assembly. Without the assembly’s approval, the localities are powerless. This concentration of power in the hands of the legislature has frustrated previous tries to create an at-large or citywide mayor like those in many other cities.

After Wilder’s attempt three years ago to create a citywide mayorship met defeat in the General Assembly — largely because of opposition from Richmond’s City Council and its senior representatives to the legislature — Goldman was musing on how to make another try. In a sidewalk conversation with someone (he deflects any questions about who that was) he heard about an obscure provision in the city charter that would let the pro-mayoral forces circumvent City Council and take their case directly to the General Assembly.

Goldman started sleuthing through the charter. “I figured it might be mentioned in some bill by Frank Hall” — that’s Delegate Hall of Richmond — “because he does a lot of those bills to clean up the charter,” Goldman says. “So I went online and looked through those bills. And sure enough, there it was.”

It turns out that in a long-forgotten, never-used section of the city charter is a section that allowed a petition with enough citizen support to go to the legislature.

This was Goldman’s inspiration: to mount a petition drive that would show the General Assembly that Richmonders wanted another chance to vote on whether they would have an at-large mayor.

The current ward system dates to the 1970s, when the U.S. Supreme Court dissolved most of the power held by Richmond’s long-entrenched white politicians. A new voting system, overseen by the Justice Department, was created to keep political power from becoming concentrated by spreading it among nine City Council districts. No longer could one section of the city — meaning the white West End — dominate the rest.

Instead, power became decentralized. That gave Richmond’s city manager more power than ever. (That’s saying a lot: Throughout Virginia, cities have strong city managers to run the city and figurehead mayors with few official powers.)

Wilder initially favored a mayor who would be elected by a simple majority of Richmond voters. But after a series of public hearings the Wilder-Bliley Commission suggested a system in which the mayor must win by majority vote in at least five of the city’s nine districts. That, the commission said, would ensure that mayoral candidates would have to appeal to voters throughout the city and would keep one region from dominating the rest.

Based on the commission’s recommendations, Goldman drafted a proposal that would create a mayor who would serve for four years and who would hire a chief administrative officer rather than a city manager. The chief administrative officer would report directly to the mayor, not City Council, though his or her appointment would be “subject to the advice and consent of a majority of the members of City Council.”

Under Goldman’s proposal, the mayor’s salary and expense budget would be set by City Council; Goldman’s proposal also says the mayor can be removed from office “as provided by City Charter for Council members or any citywide elected official,” to be replaced by an acting mayor from City Council until a successor is elected.

There are a lot of ifs in that plan. “The proposal raises more questions than it answers,” argues Richmond Delegate Dwight C. Jones. For example, he says, Goldman’s proposal leaves unclear the precise powers to be held by the proposed mayor.

Others say Richmonders aren’t clamoring for change. “I think, when you talk to the guy in the street — and I’ve talked to a lot of them — they are not as positive as the last time they voted” for an at-large mayor, says state Sen. Benjamin J. Lambert III. Lambert says the people he talks to want to know how a new system will improve schools, facilities and public housing, for instance — not a mayor. “People are very much concerned about what’s going on.”

But some say the idea’s most effective argument is the one Goldman hammers home in his petition drive: Richmonders have no direct say in choosing their mayor.

“There is an enormous erosion of trust right now in the whole political process,” agrees John V. Moeser, an urban-studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and longtime observer of Richmond politics. “It’s not so much a fundamental management issue. There needs to be a direct check by the people.”

Monday night July 28, before the biggest turnout in at least four years, City Council mustered a show of some solidarity and stability. Bringing in veterans Kenney and Robert B. Jones Jr., who is well-versed in city government, and also passing the 1 percentage point meals-tax increase may have been Council’s way of saying Richmond could do the people’s work, after all. No change necessary.

“It is not the challenges that destroy you,” says Councilwoman Delores McQuinn, “it is how you handle them.”

Those who oppose changing the system argue the recent troubles of City Council say little about the effectiveness of local government. There is little evidence, these people contend, that an elected mayor will solve the city’s woes.

“The question is, If you have an at-large mayor would it have solved Sa’ad El-Amin’s problems? Would it have kept Joe Brooks from passing?” asks Delegate Jones. “It’s unfortunate that you have incidents that cause people to lose confidence in leadership. But the big picture tells a different story. And the big picture says the city is in better shape than it has ever been.”

Indeed, Richmond’s economy seems to be gathering steam — witness this year alone the new Convention Center, bonds for Broad Street, Brown’s Island, the addition of the headquarters of Philip Morris and new jobs from the Wachovia/Prudential merger.

Others agree the city doesn’t need to change. Jenny Knapp, a one-time candidate for City Council who heads the Association to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods, points out that much is going well — property values in the city are rising and many city neighborhoods are filling with new residents. “At a basic level things are working,” she says in an e-mail to Style. “If there were something wrong with Richmond city government, we wouldn’t have people clamoring to live here. …

“Why is anyone surprised at the behavior of some people in power?” Knapp continues. “Have they read no Shakespeare? Never heard of Faust? Are they ignorant of human nature? Those campaigning for a Mayor at Large have seized upon the recent fumbles of some council members to justify a revision of local government.”

And some say that having a powerful mayor whose salary and budget are set by City Council could be setting the stage for cronyism and political horse-trading. One council person explains that idea this way: “Everyone’s looking for support for one program or another. … ‘You work with me on my agenda and I’ll work with you on your budget.’”

Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney David Hicks offers another perspective: People are overly concerned with what the title of mayor conjures instead of what the role actually empowers one to do. “When you look at the details, we’ve gotten distracted on the race thing,” Hicks says. Hicks argues it’s not a matter of race, not a matter of how the mayor is elected, but rather how much power that person has. “We’re blinded by the title,” he says. What people want is an elected mayor who actually has the authority to say, “The buck stops here,” Hicks says. “Everybody asks, ‘Are you with Henry or Doug?’” Hicks says. His reply: “neither.” Instead, he says, “Richmond is clearly in the need of a complete overhaul of it’s political system,” which should include an elected mayor. (Names being tossed around include former 1st District Councilman John Conrad and 71st District House of Delegates Representative Viola Baskerville.) “The Wilder/Bliley Commission went off with the charge that we’ve outgrown our shoes,” he says of Richmond’s ward system. “For all the hubbub, what they’ve offered is the same size shoes in a different color,” he says, “a position without the mandate that the buck stops here. And that’s what nobody’s saying.”

Still, City Council is malfunctioning as rarely before.

In a span of about four weeks, the city’s governing body was beset by two federal indictments — El-Amin stepped down after pleading guilty to tax fraud, and Hedgepeth was arrested July 24 on federal bribery charges. Councilman Joseph E. Brooks died unexpectedly June 26, leaving two seats to fill immediately and perhaps a third, pending charges against Hedgepeth.

“If it does anything,” Wilder muses about the recent troubles besetting City Hall, “it just highlights a problem that is somewhat chronic. … So much has happened that people have become — I won’t say oblivious — they have tolerated so much. They say ‘That’s just Richmond.’ The latest shenanigans is a furtherance of the problems. It’s defying toleration.”

As for those who say that having an at-large mayor will not solve all the city’s problems, Wilder fulminates: “I hear some people saying that this will not be a panacea. Well, I certainly have never said it would be a panacea. Only a fool would make a statement like that. But it is the first step in terms of accountability … that people have a greater say about their governance.”

Nonetheless, two previous tries along these lines have failed.

In 1995, for example, despite a similar referendum with Richmonders voting almost 2-to-1 for an at-large mayorship, the General Assembly knocked down the proposal to create one. The city’s representatives to the legislature said the language of the referendum had been unclear, that the city’s voters hadn’t really known what they were voting for.

Among the loudest of the critics of the 1995 attempt: Doug Wilder.

Wilder says now that he was uncomfortable with the main backers of the 1995 effort — then-Mayor Leonidas Young and Young’s aide, Joel Harris. If so, Wilder was soon proven correct. Young and Harris were indicted on obstruction and drug charges, and both wound up in federal prison.

In 2000, Wilder reversed course and backed the idea. He led the second try to create an at-large mayor but was defeated in the legislature by opponents — primarily state Sen. Henry L. Marsh — who emphasized that creating a powerful political figure could send the city back to the days in which whites could dominate the political landscape.

That argument continues to carry force.

“Honestly, I think it’s going to come down to a black-white issue, like everything else in Richmond,” says Lambert, the state senator who has long resisted the elected mayor movement. “I do think we need some sort of change, but I don’t know that the mayor-at-large is the way to go or not.”

Could the proposal fare differently in the General Assembly this time? VCU professor Holsworth — who works closely with Wilder — says the momentum has clearly shifted in favor of an elected mayor.

“It’s a far different General Assembly than it was two years ago,” he says, pointing to the Republican majority in both houses of the legislature. He also notes that a recent redistricting of Richmond gave more local Republican lawmakers a role in representing the city.

“The Richmond delegation is no longer all Democratic, and then if the people vote for it, opponents are then put in a position of saying the people are wrong,” Holsworth says. “Tough case.”

Some powerful people agree. Standing in the corridors of City Hall that Monday, James E. Ukrop, the supermarket chairman and current chief of First Market Bank who has backed the at-large mayor idea for years, suggests that the time for a mayor-at-large is around the corner.

“Sometimes before things can move forward ... you need a catalyst for change,” Ukrop says. “Perhaps this is it.”

Perhaps. And perhaps it has more significance. Some of those involved have begun speaking of the campaign in near-spiritual terms.

“The thing about this is … we’re either going to get behind one leader or we’re not,” Goldman says. “The pundits and everyone miss the importance of this. The importance of this isn’t just the creation of a mayor and the powers of the mayor. This is a chance for a city that symbolizes so much division to say we’re going to put this behind us. We’re going to put the past behind us, and all the communities are going to vote together and come up with one leader.” S


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