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Wilder's First Term 

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With 80 percent of the popular vote and a mandate for change, L. Douglas Wilder, at 73 a nationally known politician and local celebrity, breezed into office in January 2005 promising to take on crime, clean up corruption in city government and push for accountability in schools.


So how has Wilder fared? Is the new strong mayor system working? What has changed, if anything, for Richmond under a revised form of city governance? The attempted school eviction on Sept. 21 brought national attention and embarrassment to the city. A lack of clarity in the new charter has resulted in continual jockeying for power between the City Council and the mayor. Gridlock has persisted.ÿ


An examination of the three areas Wilder pointed to at the beginning of his tenure reveal the complexities of the new system, a failure of leadership and a possible road map for future change in the city.ÿ


On the issue of crime, a high priority for residents living in a city with a staggering homicide rate for its size, Wilder has received high marks. In January 2005, Wilder hired Rodney Monroe as chief of police, who in 2007 earned the praise of Richmonders when the city ended the year with 55 homicides, the lowest total in 26 years and the third consecutive annual decline.


On his economic development platform, faced with robust suburban counties with growing commercial and residential assets and little interest in working with the city, Wilder has taken a strong-arm approach to developing the city. Wilder took on the corporate elite by forcing private plans for a performing arts center to be downscaled in 2005 and, recently, stood by as a key regional asset, the Richmond Braves, announced intentions to leave Richmond for a new stadium in Gwinnett County, Ga.


Meanwhile, Wilder issued an all-out assault on the Richmond Public Schools. Vocal on the need for improving schools from the start of his administration, Wilder has taken an adversarial role with the School Board, Superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman, who recently announced her resignation, and members of City Council.ÿ


By April 2008, some observers of the Richmond political scene were questioning for the first time whether Wilder would in fact seek the office again. A Wilder re-election bid would face strong opposition from the Rev. Dwight Jones, a member of the House of Delegates, pastor of a prominent local African-American church, and a longtime rival of Wilder. Jones has already garnered endorsements from at least one sitting council member. Polls show Wilder is politically vulnerable, and some local pundits have speculated he may choose to ride off into the sunset, or to a possible position in an Obama administration, rather than risk ending his career with an electoral defeat.


While the end of this story remains to be written, the first three and a half years of Richmond's experiment with the strong mayor system raise two evaluative questions: the first regarding the effectiveness of the Wilder administration and the second about the effectiveness of the new system itself. As to Wilder, few observers deny that he deserves at least some credit for the reduction in crime under Monroe, and for the expected success of a new master plan for downtown redevelopment spearheaded by another Wilder appointee, Rachel Flynn.ÿ


Richmond has also attracted new corporate investment on Wilder's watch. In 2006, the city saw the first resurgence of the city's population in several years, and Wilder has accumulated municipal capital-investment funds targeted at the eventual construction of state-of-the-art schools. Some observers also credit Wilder for being the first elected official in many years to buck the local corporate elite on a substantial issue, that of funding for the performing arts center.


On the other hand, Wilder failed utterly to build productive working relationships with City Council and the School Board. Nor has he been an effective advocate for the city's interests either in conversations with the surrounding counties or in the Virginia legislature. On the contrary, the constant in-fighting at City Hall has worsened the city's reputation. Critics such as City Council President William J. Pantele also charge Wilder with failing to tackle sufficiently waste and corruption in city government. Nor has Wilder made tangible progress on the ambitious, much-trumpeted City of the Future plan, involving the proposed closure of several older city schools and the opening of new facilities. Lastly, the departure of the Richmond Braves, while of minor economic significance, has called into question Wilder's competence as a leader capable of defending the city's interests.


From the standpoint of the conventional political barometer of whether the city is better or worse off than it was four years ago, Wilder's first term is a mixed bag of notable successes and high-profile disappointments. From the standpoint of the strong mayor system itself, however, the Wilder administration represents a severe disappointment in at least one respect: Wilder has failed to help the city overcome - or even meaningfully address - the structural problems as a city surrounded by totally separate counties, a city with large amounts of untaxed government property, and a city that regularly gets the short end of the stick on public school funding because of an outdated statewide formulate. Instead, Wilder has been more interested in exerting authority within the city - often, it seems, for little more than authority's sake. Wilder has interpreted strong mayor to mean strongman rather than strong advocate for the city's interests in a wider regional and state arena.


When Wilder took office, Richmond was a city with vastly higher poverty rates than its neighbors, a widely scorned public education system, and a serious problem retaining middle-class, tax-paying families with children. In 2008, little has changed on any of those fronts.


That Wilder is now vulnerable politically, however, such that his re-election and even his candidacy are in serious doubt, shows that it is much too early to judge Richmond's political system as a failure. The new system was intended to make it easier for people to hold their government accountable. Wilder started his term of office with a deep reservoir of support, a reservoir that has substantially evaporated as a result of the various conflicts and failures. That lack of support may now cost Wilder his job, the ultimate expression of being held accountable in a democratic system.


In this minimal but vital sense, then, the new system is a step in the direction of accountability. Whether the new system will or can ultimately produce a government in which meaningful accountability is a more regular feature of day-to-day governance, not just something that happens every four years on Election Day, remains to be seen. S


Excerpted from "Richmond, Doug Wilder, and the Move to a Strong Mayor System: A Report on a Political Experiment in Progress," by University of Richmond professors Amy Howard, director of the Center for Civic Engagement, and Thad Williamson, who teaches leadership studies.

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

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