(Photo by: Todd Wright)
“Richmond is at a crossroads: What we do today could mean it will become one of the finest cities in the East Coast, or we could make the same mistakes others have made.”
That 1979 utterance came from Henry W. “Chuck” Richardson, who served 18 years on the Richmond City Council until legal troubles stemming from drug addiction forced him from public life. As we’ve established in this little series on Richmond’s governance, it’s a point made time and again. And again.
In 1993, Texas-based planning consultant James Crupi titled his dismal assessment of Richmond, “City At A Crossroads.” Crupi pinned Richmond’s central problem on the cross-purposes of the black political class and the white business community. (Fifteen years later, Crupi again surveyed the city in his “Putting The Future Together” opus, and, again, reiterated that Richmond, despite its riches of culture and history, suffered from a debilitating identity crisis.)
In 1995, two years after Crupi’s first report, voters approved, by a 2-to-1 margin, a citywide referendum calling for direct election of the mayor. For more than a half-century, nine city council members had selected a mayor from among themselves and a hired city manager whom they could fire by a majority vote. The mayor cut ribbons and announced policies, but little else.
Despite popular demand, the change to an elected-mayor form of government didn’t pass muster in the General Assembly, which has the power to limit what local governments can and can’t do. The legislature didn’t think Richmond was far enough beyond its racial divisions to elect a mayor. Mayor Tim Kaine made another effort along the same lines in the fall of 2000. This time, City Council squashed it.
In 2002, former Gov. Douglas L. Wilder and U.S. Rep. Thomas J. Bliley, a former Richmond mayor, created a non-governmental committee to study changing the city charter to a strong-mayor form of government.
A petition drive led by attorney and Wilder advisor Paul Goldman gained enough signatures to put the question on the ballot. On Nov. 4, 2003, the proposal passed — 22,122 in favor, 5,518 against. Each of the city’s nine districts voted in the majority. The General Assembly approved the change in 2004, pending a decision by the U.S. Department of Justice on whether it would cause any violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. On June 21, 2004, that hurdle was cleared. Richmond returned to an elected-mayor form of government for the first time in 56 years.
Voters since have chosen to seat two mayors with backgrounds in regional and state government: Wilder, and Dwight C. Jones, a state legislator and a former school board chairman. Wilder said he wouldn’t run — and then he did. Jones was a critic of the mayor-at-large switch — until he ran.
Wilder’s four years were marred by a tempestuous relationship with council and the school board. He also axed a $165 million performing arts center plan that included a new downtown symphony hall.
Jones, pastor of the First Baptist Church of South Richmond, has attempted to take on the city’s entrenched poverty, and to build his legacy on expensive economic development/capital improvement projects: a proposed baseball stadium in Shockoe, a football training camp off Broad Street, a new city jail and four new school buildings. He threw his weight behind a proposed independent children’s hospital and an international bike race.Not all has gone his way, and his term is winding down in a storm of criticism over city finances, project transparency, and blurred lines between church business and city business, to name a few recent controversies.
Gonzaga University political scientist Blaine Garvin once observed, “The chief lesson that we have learned is that the strong-mayor works or doesn’t work, depending on who the strong mayor is.”
A system change cannot make those running for mayor any less venal or more gracious than those who are appointed to the job. Nelson Wikstrom, an emeritus Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist writes in “More Than Mayor Or Manager. “ “There is no guarantee … that by changing the form of city government that the community would be the beneficiary of a strong and unified political and managerial leadership … Personality and personal styles matter.”
So does context. In Richmond’s case, that includes the elaborate Mother-May-I Dillon Rule game that the city is bound by law to play with the General Assembly, which curbs City Hall’s legislative powers. This city is also hindered by its inability to annex. And, as for the land it does have, nearly a quarter of the assessed value of its real estate is exempt from taxation because it’s filled with state-owned property, nonprofits and churches.
The mayor can set both tone and policy. Possessing a big heart and a desire to do good must be coupled to a reasonable knowledge of managing a large bureaucracy, and, in Richmond’s case, one that is hidebound in tradition, broken by neglect, and fraught with nepotism. Finding someone willing and able to wade into such a thicket is a tough and thankless task. Exceptional leaders are just that. Richmond needs an inspiring, committed individual whose pragmatism doesn’t preclude a daring vision.
If, say, a sabre-wielding reformer on the order of Teddy Roosevelt showed up, would we vote for him? The electorate is responsible, too.
Richmond’s present predicament can be summarized in the malapropism of the late baseball great Yogi Berra, who observed, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might not get there.”