Harry E. Black, 44, has been in Richmond for just 18 months, and he’s already gained his share of nicknames — “the mayor’s pit bull” and “Baby Wilder” among them. Hired as the city’s chief financial officer in 2005, he now is the acting chief administrative officer. He runs the day-to-day operations of the city and reports directly to Mayor L. Douglas Wilder.
Black quickly has gained a reputation for being blunt — too blunt, some say — and for loyally serving the mayor.
“Stubbornness is the dark side of determination,” says Richmond School Board member Carol Wolf in describing her impressions of Black.
City Council President William J. Pantele says this reputation for “demeanor issues” — “You know, he has a temper,” he explains — has proven to be a sticking point as Council considers whether to confirm Black as the city’s full-fledged CAO. For the time being, Black holds the job only in an interim capacity; until he is approved by a majority vote of Council, he is unable to execute certain official duties of the position.
The soonest that Black could be confirmed, says Pantele, would be May 14.
Black concedes that his directness sometimes bothers people, but he says he’s simply trying to enact the mayor’s agenda. “I’m a manager,” he says. “I’m an administrator. My objective every day is to make sure that we do things in the right way.”
He characterizes Council members’ criticism of his performance as “personal attacks” and “petty.” He says he helped the administration orchestrate a financial deal in April that will save the city $20 million in debt service. He also takes credit for cutting city spending by curbing employees’ use of gas cards and reducing the city’s vehicle fleet. “I’ve cleaned that up. … That’s what we’ve done on my watch,” he says.
Black became the city’s acting top manager in March when his predecessor, William Harrell, was hired as city manager in his hometown of Chesapeake. Those familiar with City Hall and the mayor’s office say Harrell was nudged out of Richmond by an impatient Wilder. The mayor swiftly appointed Black to the role.
The CAO is the main conduit through which Wilder has managed to control city government in the face of other elected bodies — City Council and School Board. The position’s control over procurement, finances, personnel practices and general administration allows Wilder to enforce most of the ideas he can’t implement through sheer force of personality.
Black has proved useful. When Wilder wanted to force the city School Board to accept an outside audit of its finances, he instructed Black to withhold half of its non-payroll funds. Black complied; soon afterward, the School Board sued (and eventually lost). When Wilder wanted to hire out-of-town auditors to do the inspection of the real estate assessor’s office and the school’s books, Black, as the city’s chief procurement officer, was the one who signed both “emergency” orders to pay more than $200,000 for each job. (Black says the outside firm will be paid most of the $269,000 for its work on the assessor’s audit and about half of the $224,000 for the schools audit contract.)
Considering the authority of the CAO position, Black may seem like an unusual pick. His career has spanned several specialties. After gaining his bachelor’s in public administration from Virginia State University and a master’s in the same field from the University of Virginia, he worked in various public-sector administrative jobs in New York City and Washington, D.C., before coming to Richmond in late 2005. His rÃ©sumÃ© lists 11 positions since 1985.
Black’s tenure in the administration of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry was cut short — simple politics, he says. After a time as budget director for the D.C. City Council, Black worked from 2000 to 2005 as a consultant; among his clients was the Washington, D.C., government. In 2005, his company landed $214,000 worth of consulting jobs from the city’s procurement department. The award of those contracts was criticized in a Washington Post article about lax oversight of this department, where Black once worked at the deputy chief procurement officer. In all, the Post reported, Black and his company, McKissack & McKissack, received $550,000 in no- or low-compete city contracts between 2003 and 2005. Black scoffs at any implication that he received favorable treatment from his former staff: “They didn’t like me because they actually had to work when they worked for me. They ... did not want to do me any favors.”
Black was born in Jersey City, N.J., the son of a corrections officer and a nurse’s aide. Soon afterward, his parents moved to Baltimore, where they lived in the poor, primarily African-American neighborhood of Lower Park Heights.
In high school, Black walked his mother to work at 6:30 a.m., went to school and did his homework before the morning bell. After school, Black changed into his running clothes — he was on the school’s cross-country team — and ran to his job cooking at a Rustler’s Steak House, five miles away. When he finished work around 9 p.m., he’d change back out of his uniform and run home again. That regimen, he says proudly, made him undefeated in cross-country his senior year; he placed 15th in his graduating class.
As acting CAO, Black now effectively controls the city’s almost $1 billion in budgets, property, and finances. Some question his experience — he has no degree in business administration or finance and has never managed a city before. But Black points to his radical overhaul of the city’s procurement policies as a sign of his passion for efficiency and his willingness to implement new ideas. “People say they want change, and they believe they want change,” he says. “But they’re not prepared to do what’s necessary to achieve change.”
Whether Black ultimately gets approval as CAO is a dilemma not only for the nominee but also for Council, Pantele says.
“We understand fully that this is a big decision, that the CAO decision has to be dead-on right,” he says, “and if we vote against the person who’s been nominated, there will be hell to pay, and Wilder will be very upset that his nominee might not be, or would not be, confirmed — and we wouldn’t have a CAO.”