Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones' chief of staff, Suzette DenslowSarah Walor photo
Leadership in Action Part 2 of 12
Mayor Dwight C. Jones tapped Suzette Denslow as his chief of staff. Denslow, who has worked for the budget offices in the cities of Charlottesville and Richmond, had the ear of three Virginia governors as deputy secretary of education and legislative director. She also has headed the Tennessee Municipal League. Denslow first worked with Jones when he served as a delegate in the General Assembly, and she also has served on the board of the Richmond Public Library Foundation.
Q. Back in the late 1990s, the book A Prayer for the City chronicled Philly's new mayoral administration of Ed Rendell and his chief of staff, David Cohen. At the end of the book, Rendell describes his chief of staff sometimes as a younger brother, sometimes as a scolding father, but at all times a friend. How do you envision your role with Mayor Jones? A. We work together well, and I think that he wants somebody who understands government well from the inside who can help him take his vision for the city and implement it. I hope to serve as an adviser, as a confidante and as somebody who wants to keep the ball moving at City Hall.
Q. Again, the title of that book was A Prayer for the City . What is your "prayer," your greatest wish for the city of Richmond? A. My greatest wish for the city is that all city leaders use this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work together for the common good of Richmond. We have the chance for a new beginning with a new slate of elected leadership. … Equally important is that we are in a time of serious economic challenges, with the silver lining that tough times are times of opportunity. We are going to need to work with our residents, regional neighbors and business leaders to position ourselves to not only weather but prosper in tough times. The mayor is coming in talking about collaboration, cooperation and communication — this is the theme that will help us all make Richmond a tier-one city."
Q. What have you worked on with Mayor Jones in the past? A. I worked with then-Del. Jones on unemployment-benefits legislation, figuring out agreements that provided good benefits for unemployed workers while controlling the costs for the business community. In addition, we worked together over a number of years on developing critical blight legislation to give cities the tools needed to keep neighborhoods safe from the domino effect of blighted, dilapidated buildings. We also worked on maintaining an ongoing dialogue between governors Warner and Kaine and the legislative black caucus, which Del. Jones chaired.
Q. What was your most frustrating day last year in the governor's office as legislative director, and how did you come to terms with it and move on? A. It can be frustrating at times when people are trying to accomplish goals, and there is just a lot of politics involved. That is not a most frustrating day but that's a sense of it. That's not unique to the governor's office or to either political party. It is unique to the process. … Politics meaning that there are other constraints that are being brought to bear that have nothing to do with whatever people's goals are, and everybody knows it, and it's just one of those practical realities. … For the most part, in general, the right thing happens at the end of the day. The process isn't always pretty, but most of the time the right things happen.
Q. Even no decision on transportation after a special session was called? A. That's not one of the "most of the time" parts.
Q. Who reports to the chief of staff, and do you have a daily meeting with other members of the mayor's staff? Take me through what the first week has been like. A. I like to think that everyone will work with the chief of staff. My job focuses on where we are heading in the short term and long run, in line with the mayor's vision for the future of Richmond. In the first two weeks, I have met with the chief administrative officer and chief finance officer several times to start to get a handle on our financial situation. I've met or talked with members of City Council, department heads, and local and regional leaders, starting to learn about the key issues facing us, and beginning the ongoing, critical job of building relationships.
Q. What did you learn during your time in Nashville? A. I moved to Nashville in 1998 to become the executive director of the Tennessee Municipal League after about nine years of experience at the Virginia Municipal League. It was a challenging time for the TML, and I wanted to test my skills at improving an organization in a new setting. I stayed for two years, and I learned many things, among them that I missed my friends and family in Richmond too much. The job was rewarding, and I think I helped the TML bring calm to a divisive and unhappy organization.
Q. You worked with Bill Leighty, who served as chief of staff to both Warner and Kaine. What did you take away from working with him? Anything in his leadership style that you plan to use here? A. He led by example and always made sure things were being done, and being done in the way that would represent the state well. … When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Bill Leighty got on the phone with a new governor of the state and said, "I'm here to help you." With Warner's blessing and encouragement, he went down and helped, hands-on. Not just the offer of help but the outreach with help.
Q. Should the Dillon Rule be repealed? Is there a middle ground? A. The Dillon Rule says that a local government has only those legal authorities that are spelled out in state law. For example, until recently, the city of Richmond could not accept payments for taxes or fees over the Internet, because state law did not explicitly allow Richmond to accept payments in that fashion. This is the problem with the Dillon Rule, it doesn't allow cities to operate in a nimble way that reflects current technology and needs. On the other side, the business community worries that local governments would have too much power — in zoning, land use or taxation, without the Dillon Rule. I think that there is a middle ground that would give cities and counties more ability to respond to changing conditions, with some reasonable checks and balances.
Q. You've served with three governors. What have you learned from each? A. From Gov. Kaine — do what you know to be right. From Gov. Warner — work really, really hard and leave no stone unturned. And from Gov. Wilder — to take opportunities that you can see in front of you, regardless of the naysayers.