Opportunity lost: the mayoral years of L. Douglas Wilder

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Print this page John V. Moeser

Since Richmond’s founding, there have been rare moments when it was poised for greatness, but it failed to seize the opportunity. One of those moments came after the Civil War. Richmond could have led the South in building biracial relationships based on human dignity and trust.  Instead, it instituted a system of apartheid.  Another lost opportunity followed the 1954 Brown decision of the U.S.

Supreme Court. Instead of integrating its schools, Richmond defied the court for more than six years.

Another lost opportunity occurred four years ago when L. Douglas Wilder, the first African-American elected governor in U.S. history, decided to run for mayor in his hometown. Wilder garnered 80 percent of the vote, winning in all nine City Council districts (the new charter required the winning candidate to carry at least five districts).  Richmonders believed that Wilder could transform the city, ushering in an era of regional cooperation and positioning the concerns of cities as a top item on Virginia’s agenda.

The start of Wilder’s administration fueled great expectations. He assembled several task groups of community leaders to identify cost savings and develop policy proposals. He appointed a new police chief who would win accolades for the city’s plummeting violent crime rate.  A new spirit permeated the city. 

But Wilder suddenly began to trumpet the primacy of the mayor’s office.  His first target was a group of business leaders overseeing development of a downtown concert hall.  Wilder berated them for failing to raise enough money and make more progress with the project. The group included former allies from Wilder’s mayoral campaign, but Wilder proclaimed that he was beholden to no one.
Wilder then turned his ire on City Council, calling it overreaching and ineffective.  Initially, council members tried to comply with his demands. But as the attacks continued, they began to close ranks and fight back. Wilder proceeded to fire council staff and force them to reapply for their jobs. The council counterattacked, filing suit against the mayor.  The court sided with the council.

Wilder also began to target the School Board, criticizing the superintendent and board members as hapless, wasteful and unaccountable. The mayor even tried to evict the school administration from the upper floors of City Hall but was stopped by an emergency court order.

While Wilder fought with other city officials, nothing happened to improve Richmond’s relationship with its suburban counties. If anything, the relationship got worse. Wilder’s budgets did not include dues to the Greater Richmond Partnership, an organization that recruits new businesses to the region.

Wilder’s reputation, however, possibly suffered its severest blow when the Richmond Braves, the city’s minor-league baseball team, announced it was moving to Gwinnett County, Ga., where a new stadium was being built. The move stunned local fans, but the club clearly was frustrated by lack of progress on a new or renovated stadium.  Instead of making the city more attractive for professional sports, the mayor now was blamed for losing a team that had played in Richmond for more than 40 years.

By last fall, Wilder’s popularity had dropped to the point that, had he run for re-election, he stood the strong possibility of being evicted from City Hall. Rather than risk such a possibility, Wilder chose not to run.

In the 2008 election, he was succeeded by Dwight Jones, a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates. In his campaign, Jones promised to restore trust, build consensus and develop partnerships with City Council and the School Board.  Shortly after his inauguration, Jones met with the City Council and told them that leadership would be shared.  He also met with the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors.

During the past four years, Richmond’s leadership missed an opportunity for transformation at a time when the city’s residents were ready for change. Hundreds of them, for example, participated in a process that culminated in perhaps the boldest downtown master plan ever developed in Richmond. 

Wilder will remain an iconic figure because of his place in history. In fact, it was his history-making life story that led Richmonders to believe that he could unite the city and lead it to a new age. That didn’t happen — but it still can.  If the new mayor learned the lessons of the last four years, he can proceed to build trust, foster cooperation and provide a vision that is bold, inclusive and progressive.

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