Standing on the 6th Street Marketplace pedestrian walkway, City Manager Robert Bobb addresses a group in November 1989. (Photo courtesy Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine)
Last month, Flashback began a two-part chronicle of city managers with a look at those who served Richmond during the three decades after a 1947 city charter change created the position, which replaced a mayor elected at large. The managers were all white men until the historic move in 1977 to a black-majority City Council. The new council promptly fired City Manager William J. Leidinger, who later won election to City Council. His successors confronted a series of crises, such as population shifts resulting from school desegregation and the near extinction of downtown retail and manufacturing business. Violent crime soared, and a complicated equation of historic tax credits to revive deteriorating buildings paralleled the rise of entrepreneurial efforts in retail and micro-businesses, restaurants, art and culture. And citizens, long disappointed with City Hall, demanded change.
Manuel Deese, 1979-1985
After serving as acting city manager from October 1978 to January 1979, Deese, Leidinger’s former assistant, became the first African-American city manager. Deese walked into a racially charged situation, but his qualifications and professionalism put him in good stead. Born in Georgia but raised in Pittsburgh, Deese attended what is now Morgan State University in Baltimore and decided on a career in municipal administration. In 1960, he and three others were arrested in a civil rights sit-in at a restaurant where blacks were refused service. Their brief incarceration and impending trial caused a reversal of policy.
“I am a city person,” Deese told the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Shelley Rolfe in 1979. “A city person wants to get involved in community affairs.” He described himself as “a sensitive, fiscal conservative.” National recessions in the early 1980s caused budget headaches and in 1985, colossal city planning errors bloomed: the 6th Street Marketplace and the Marketplace at Main Street Station. Teachers didn’t appreciate his tight budgeting and how he once described some public school educators as dressing “like hobos.” Deese, however, brought to Richmond those big trash containers on wheels — the super can.
At age 44 and earning $90,000 a year, he chose to leave government. He became an executive vice president of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Virginia and moved into municipal government consultation. With Deese’s departure, another Leidinger assistant, A. Howe Todd, filled the position from September 1985 to August 1986.
Robert Bobb (1986-1997)
Bobb came out of New Orleans with a political science education background and experience in civic management. Favored by the business community, he was seen by some as overly friendly to corporate interests at the expense of city residents. Avon Drake, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, told the Richmond Free Press, “Mr. Bobb responds to the ruling class, which is middle- and upper-income and wealthy whites.”
Bobb inherited a cratered downtown and a city that appeared held hostage by drugs, violence and municipal incompetence. Council’s distraction by infighting and legal problems left him to expand the manager role. Plans implemented during his tenure included the Shockoe Floodwall and the Crestar Bank Operations Center in Old Manchester (SunTrust today).
In 1993, the Richmond First organization recommended altering the city charter to return to a mayor-at-large. In a 1995 citywide referendum, voters approved the change by a 2-to-1 margin. The Virginia General Assembly rejected the notion, reasoning that Richmond wasn’t far enough beyond its racial divisions to elect a mayor.
Bobb left to manage Oakland, California, and later served as an emergency financial administrator for Detroit’s public schools. He earned a reputation for slashing budgets and firing people. Bobb moved to Washington, D.C., and became a consultant. An administrator he had hired, Connie Bawcum, became the first woman to serve as city manager, albeit on an interim basis, from November 1997 to November 1998.
Richmond, however, can’t quit Bobb. During the administration of Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, Bobb entered into the 2008 edition of Keep the Diamond — or Don’t. He recommended demolishing everything from The Diamond to the Arthur Ashe Center and the city garages to create the Arthur Ashe Learning and Sports Megaplex. Mayor Dwight Jones in 2012 placed Bobb on the “School Accountability and Efficiency Task Force.” The Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce paid his $35,000 tab from a community initiatives foundation. Bobb advised slashing budgets and firing people.
Calvin Jamison (1998-2004)
An affable executive from the Ethyl Corp. (now NewMarket Corp.), Jamison began and ended his term in controversy.
A Martinsville native and Virginia Tech graduate, he was the fifth of six children, son of a Baptist minister and building contractor. “I used to say we were po’,” he told Style Weekly. “We couldn’t afford the ‘or.’ ”
After a yearlong national search, appointed Mayor Tim Kaine supported Jamison, but Council contrarian Sa’ad El-Amin, the NAACP and the Crusade for Voters opposed him, concerned that his inexperience made way for a strong mayor by default. Wilder, a former governor, fulminated in editorials in 2002 about the “desperate need for change.”
Wilder and Thomas J. Bliley, a former mayor and congressman, created a commission to overhaul the city charter. Jamison’s administrative role ended; he became vice president for administration at the University of Texas at Dallas. Wilder gained the office he had said he didn’t want, and Richmond’s new take on its old style of elected mayor began.
Now, after a dozen years of lackluster leadership by elected mayors Wilder and Jones, Richmonders go to the polls next month to see if the third time is a charm.