Wilder's Midterms 

In the first City Council and School Board elections since the mayor took office, candidates are taking sides — and hoping for Wilder's endorsement.

In the first City Council and School Board elections since Wilder took office 18 months ago, their campaigns are shaping up as a bellwether for the mayor, who swooped into office with 80 percent of the vote and often refers to his broad public support when challenged.

But the climate has changed, and so has Wilder's influence. Witness the withering relationship between the incumbent City Council and the mayor — last week, council members overturned most of Wilder's line-item budget vetoes. Then there's his well-documented disdain for the Richmond School Board.

Considering that, it would be surprising if Wilder were to rally behind critics running for office, such as School Board member Carol A.O. Wolf, or those he's "separated" from city employment, such as City Council candidates Paul Goldman, former mayor policy advisor, and Marie F. Coone, former parks director.

Asked by Style whether he will endorse specific candidates for Richmond City Council and School Board, and if so, whom, Wilder replies: "I will exercise that option to speak on that at some future time."

Regardless of whether the mayor endorses any candidate publicly, the election will likely come down to those who are aligned with the mayor and his administration — especially in the School Board races — and those who are not. The results may serve as a kind of public poll for gauging the mayor's power and influence.

For Patrick Kjellberg, who is running to unseat Councilman William J. "Bill" Pantele in the 2nd District, the time to choose sides is now: "Some of the current council are not happy about losing power, and they're taking it out on the person and not the position," he says.

In contrast, council members who spoke to Style say they feel maligned by an autocratic mayor. They offer a caveat for candidates embracing the mayor. "Wilder will alienate them," says one council member who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They may be on the same squad in the beginning — but it won't last."

Some know from experience. Most City Council members declared unbridled support for Wilder before he was elected in November 2004, donating to his campaign, putting placards in yards and slapping stickers on bumpers.

Since then, many of those relationships have soured. Add to this what must be a shaky climate at City Hall: In recent weeks three department heads handpicked by Wilder have either been fired — Human Resources Director Elliott Wheelan and his deputy, Annja Stoudmire — or come under fire — housing czar Freed "Mike" Etienne and Economic Development Director William Jabjiniak. Etienne had to apologize for his own blighted property in Church Hill, and Jabjiniak reportedly is under review for a reported personnel-related grievance.

Then council mustered its might in a display of solidarity June 26, overriding most of Wilder's vetoes. It was an unexpected showdown.

According to a source close to council who asks to remain unnamed, during its informal session last week, "at 3 p.m. the votes were there to sustain the mayor on three or four of his vetoes," regarding money for a Slave Trail, the Broad Rock Community Center, surplus money for the School Board and, most likely, a Church Hill Teen Center.

Wilder sent in a staffer who, as each of the mayor's items for consideration came up, asked council that they be continued. The move "infuriated some members of council who took it as a calculated insult," the source says, so they changed their minds and overrode all but one of Wilder's vetoes.

"I really think [Wilder] made a serious policy blunder," the source remarks.

Wilder, who says he takes none of council's actions personally, may see it as an opportunity to start stacking the deck for the November elections.

Consider the 44 candidates for City Council and School Board.

Two council members — Chris Hilbert in the 3rd District and Kathy Graziano in the 4th District — are unopposed. Two School Board members — the 2nd District's Lisa Dawson and the 9th District's Evette L. Wilson — have no rivals, and Kimberly M. Bridges is also unopposed.

But 39 contenders must duke it out. Many think those contests will come down to who stands with Wilder and who doesn't.

When told that he's widely perceived as a "Wilder man," Pounders, one of five Council candidates seeking to replace Loupassi in the 1st District, says he's "flattered by that." The mayor didn't ask him to run, Pounders says, adding that Wilder previously has shown confidence in him by naming him to his Neighborhood Roundtable.

Those elected officials who once sided with Wilder and today find him irascible just don't understand the mayor, Pounders says, figuring the mayor must feel alienated from council too.

"Others may see this as a bad thing," Pounders says of the bouts between council and the mayor, "but there's a lesson to be learned."

Reva Trammell agrees. Turning something bad into something positive is what the former 8th District Councilwoman aims to do by aligning herself with Wilder and winning back the seat she lost to incumbent Jackie Jackson in 2004.

"I was on council when there was a city manager who was in control as long as he kept five members happy," Trammell recalls. "With Wilder, he's good not just for one district but for the whole city."

But there is strength in numbers. It takes four council members to sustain a veto and six to override, thus making a mayor's veto power, without a council contingent, virtually symbolic. Fifth District Councilman Jewell is the lone member who consistently sides with Wilder.

Will that change come November? Trammell and the Wilder nine have signed their names to it. "I just think if you want to get things done, you're going to have to work with the mayor," Trammell says. S

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