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The Grazianos with their 1 1/2-year-old grandson, Eamon O'Connell. Casey Templeton photo.
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Graziano, along with Mayor Jones and Councilman Bruce Tyler, welcomed representatives from Saitama, Japan, Richmond’s sister city. Steve Skinner photo.
Although she's pushing 70, Richmond City Council President Kathy Graziano doesn't steer clear of bodily harm. On a hot summer day this year, she went tubing down the James River with her grandchildren.
But it was not fun, she grouses, "because when the river is low, your ass hits the bottom every five minutes."
It's that kind of candor that makes the longtime Richmond politician so likable. When asked about her plans down the road, the 69-year-old throws back her head and hoots: "It's a short road."
In fact, it's hard to find people who harshly criticize Graziano. Her constituents use the word "love" when describing her. Her fellow City Council members say she's fair, efficient and capable of collaboration, a particularly welcome trait after the conflictive relationship between Richmond's City Council and former Mayor Doug Wilder.
But some 18 months into her term, there are rumblings that City Council is part of a malaise that's engulfed much of Richmond's city government. Though the paralyzing conflict of the Wilder years is happily over, too little action is being taken to address the city's gravest problems of unemployment, education and poverty, politicians and political analysts say.
In early August, the subliminal chatter surfaced in a media report that used off-the-record sources. The report claimed that Mayor Dwight Jones was trying to persuade City Council members to replace Graziano as president with Councilwoman Ellen Robertson in January, while moving Councilman Doug Conner into the vice-president's seat. On the day the article ran, Graziano was on vacation. From the beach on her cell phone, she said she heard that Conner had talked with council members about a Robertson-Conner slate. But that's all she would say.
Neither Robertson nor Conner were available for comment. But in an interview with Jones, the mayor said he was not involved and described the report as an example of "bad journalism."
Still, "there's a sense of restlessness — that now that we're all getting along, we need to move forward on several fronts," says John Moeser, senior fellow at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, part of the University of Richmond. "There's a kind of yearning for some vision for where we need to go."
But Moeser adds that vision is not usually the responsibility of city councils. Usually, it's the job of mayors.
"The assumption is that the chief executive sets the agenda, articulates the major concerns — jobs, schools or both — and says what the government will do about them," Moeser says. "That's what people, including the city council, expect of the chief executive."
The mayor's agenda, according to Graziano, is economic. He wants to increase employment, decrease poverty, bring about economic development and improve the city's infrastructure. "If you look around, you'll see roads being fixed, drainage issues being resolved," she says. "That's very important."
And together, she says, the mayor and City Council have kept the city running without "increasing taxes or cutting services" despite the economic abyss into which all of the United States has been sunk for more than two years. "That's a big deal," Graziano adds.
Jones says "just because we're not in the media all of the time with a brouhaha doesn't mean we're not getting things done." The city's bond rating has improved under his administration, moving it toward a goal of a Triple A rating. "We've set that as a goal, suggesting that we're not willing to be a second-rate city." He says his administration has gotten major projects off the ground, including construction of four new schools, new jail plans and investment in the Hippodrome Theater.
Earlier in the summer, Graziano is sitting with her husband, Ed, in their kitchen. Its large windows open onto the woodsy terrain of her neighborhood just off of Huguenot Road. She's perfectly put together in elegant but trendy clothes — a wide black belt on tweedy trousers, black-and-white snakeskin shoes, and a white jacket.
The back patio is so cluttered with toys it could serve as a day-care center, which it does on Wednesdays. She spends the day with her four children's eight kids because, "I'm not going to not know who my grandkids are because I was on City Council. Spending that day is awesome." She pauses for a moment. "On some days."
But this morning, she's recapping her political life, which is hard to follow because it's taken so many turns. In the 1970s, Graziano went from putting together field days at her kids' school to community organizing. She was part of what were known as Teams for Progress, community efforts to promote biracial politics by electing more African-Americans to public office.
In the 1980s, she worked behind the scenes, running campaigns for Gilene Williams, who would become Richmond's mayor in 1988. Turning to Republican party politics, Graziano ran campaigns for would-be state legislators. In the 1990s, she worked as a lobbyist, representing midwives and massage therapists, as well as the medical establishment. Somewhere in between all of that, she started a wallpaper-hanging business.
Then several years ago, she says, "two guys took me out to lunch and said, ‘Why don't you run for City Council?'" (The guys were Ernest Brown, former board chairman for the Bank of Richmond, and Stephen Pearson, a lawyer and lobbyist.)
And that started her career as representative for Richmond's Fourth District.
She was elected in November of 2004, on the same day that Wilder won Richmond's first popular vote for mayor. (In the past, the City Council elected the mayor from among its own members.) At the same time, responsibility for appointing the city's powerful chief administrative officer, who manages the city's day-to-day operations, was moved from City Council to the chief executive's office.
So Graziano was part of Richmond's transition to a new form of government — and it was a wild ride.
"Not long after [Wilder] was inaugurated," he went on the attack," says Moeser. For example, he demanded that the City Council's entire staff resign, Moeser says. When other people, both inside and outside of government, describe Wilder's relationship with City Council, they use words like chaotic, tumultuous and dysfunctional .
After Wilder elected not to run for a second term, Jones won the 2008 mayoral race, and Graziano — going into her third term as a councilwoman — was elected president by her peers in January 2009. Since then, Jones and Graziano have made cooperation a priority. "Kathy gets along with Jones, and he gets along with her," says Councilwoman Reva Trammell, who represents the Eighth District. "Kathy gets along with everyone."
But Councilman Marty Jewell, of the Fifth District, says congeniality is not always a mark of success. He says the city's loci of power — the mayor's office, the Council and the schools system — are not tackling Richmond's high poverty rates and unemployment or its need for educational reform. "That's why we can be so congenial with each other; we're not doing anything," Jewell says.
To those kinds of observations, Graziano responds with a question. What is it that the City Council is not doing? She says private business — not City Council — generates jobs. She says she just started meeting with city and school officials to smooth out the badly needed but troubled process of auditing Richmond schools. The first priority, she says, is to get city and school-system auditors to agree on what will be audited and who will do it. As for pressuring school officials through a City Council resolution, Graziano says "we need to work with them" instead.
Graziano has tended well to her own district, which stretches from Forest Hill Park in the east to the border of Chesterfield County in the west and from the James River in the north to Chesterfield in the south.
She shares her Forest Hill Avenue office with her aide and frequent companion, David Hathcock. They form an unlikely pair. He is short, a bit stocky and definitely rumpled. A former smoker who now runs, Graziano is 5-foot-10 and rail-thin. He says his political leanings are to the left of a liberal Democrat. She describes herself as a Republican.
Together, they organized local support for a farmers' market. Then in 2008 Graziano used her discretionary fund to launch what is now the South of the James Market, according to Karen Atkinson, who manages the operation. Since then, it has become highly successful, arguably the most popular outdoor market in the city.
Graziano and Hathcock worked with the Parks and Recreation Department to restore the silt- and vegetation-clogged lake in Forest Hill Park. After four years of negotiating, they also managed to get a conservation easement for the James River Park System approved. In 2009, state and city officials agreed to forever preserve 288 acres of the park in its natural state. "It's not often in politics that you get to do something that can't be changed," Hathcock says.
So when Graziano goes to the farmers' market in Forest Hill Park, which she does most every Saturday, she's in her element, surrounded by people who like her, who feel well-served by her, who are a bit fawning. As she walks past stalls, people vie for her attention. A neighbor complains about the dogs that people bring to the market. A city official congratulates her on the market's success. The vendors take their problems to her. Here, she's like a secular mother superior.
One vendor, who didn't bring his jarred tomatoes to the market because state officials told him he must prepare them in a certified commercial kitchen, explains his troubles to Graziano. A Cambodian woman, who makes a living selling her homemade cuisine at the market, is in the same fix. So Graziano is hustling, asking people to share kitchen space with the woman, when a childhood friend of her son's bounds up behind her.
"I haven't seen you in 30 years," he exclaims. "Except in the newspaper." He's middle-aged now, accompanied by his wife, and Graziano is a grandmother several times over. But decades ago, she used to drive him and her son to swim-team practice.
Graziano grins at him. "You once told me that you'd never seen someone drive, smoke a cigarette and feed a baby a bottle at the same time.."
He grins back. "I was in awe of you."