- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 6, 2004

Former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, seeking to become mayor of Richmond, assailed Rep. Robert C. Scott on Friday for opposing the city’s at-large mayoral election.

Mr. Scott, a Democrat from Newport News, told U.S. Justice Department officials Thursday that the plan will dilute black voting strength in Richmond.

“I believe it’s illegal under the Voting Rights Act,” Mr. Scott told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The Justice Department is reviewing the plan, passed by 80 percent of city residents, approved by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Mark Warner.

Mr. Scott, the state’s only black congressman, whose district includes parts of Richmond, said “my position is politically unpopular, because the majority voted the other way. The fact that it passed doesn’t trump the Voting Rights Act.”

Mr. Wilder noted that Mr. Scott lives in Newport News, a city that has at-large elections for mayor.

Mr. Scott apparently thinks the people of Richmond “are obviously too stupid, too dumb or too racist to elect their own mayor,” said Mr. Wilder, the nation’s first elected black governor and also a Democrat. Richmond has a majority black population, and blacks control the City Council.

“Race won’t be a barrier to anyone elected under this plan. Nobody,” Mr. Wilder said at a press conference. Mr. Wilder and former Rep. Thomas Bliley floated the at-large mayor idea last year, saying a strong elected leader is needed to attack the city’s high murder rate and low test scores in the public schools. The mayor now is appointed by City Council members, who are elected under a ward system.

Mr. Wilder said the city “can’t protect a failed status quo.”

“I think the people need somebody who wants … to recognize the problems we have and deal with them,” he said.

Mr. Wilder said violent crime has become so prevalent in the city that even children are worried about being shot.

“These things have become so commonplace, they’re almost accepted,” Mr. Wilder said. “This is not going to be tolerated.”

• Fighting gangs

An organization of law-enforcement officials warned last week that cutting funds for antigang initiatives could lead to increased violence across the nation.

The District-based group, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, cited research indicating that federal spending on antigang initiatives has been reduced by 44 percent since 2002, even as gang-related killings have increased.

“From 1999 to 2002, the number jumped from 692 to 1,100 — that’s more than 50 percent,” said Sanford Newman, president of the nonprofit group.

Many of the 2,500 members of the organization are police chiefs, sheriffs and district attorneys.

“If you live in America, gangs are coming to a neighborhood near you,” he said.

The organization produced a report, “Caught in the Crossfire: Arresting Gang Violence by Investing in Kids,” which outlines methods of reducing gang violence.

Options include intensive supervision of youths with histories of gang involvement and aggressive prosecution of subsequent violent acts, enhanced social services, and youth programs geared toward younger children.

“Serious violent criminals need to be locked up,” said Chief William Bratton of the Los Angeles Police Department, adding that long-range success will come only if the pipelines delivering children to gangs can be closed.

Acting Chief Suzanne G. Devlin of the Fairfax County Police Department cited a Department of Justice National Youth Gang Survey that showed more than 40 percent of suburban counties and 12 percent of rural areas have reported gang activity. Chief Devlin’s officers recently arrested a known gang member in connection with a machete attack on a teenager and are searching for other suspects.

Mr. Newman said the federal government spent $547 million last year on juvenile delinquency prevention grants. That compares with $307 million for the 12-month period ending Sept. 30. The Bush administration has proposed spending $180 million on such programs in the upcoming budget year.

“Every American has a stake in investing in the proven programs that have been shown to keep kids out of gangs,” he said.

• Cheers for VRE

Officials in Northern Virginia have labeled Virginia Railway Express (VRE) an overwhelming success after more than a decade of service.

But as they celebrated the commuter rail line surpassing the 25 million ridership mark Thursday, they warned that without more public money, the service might never meet its potential.

“VRE takes one full lane of traffic off Interstate 95 and Interstate 66 each day. Think how bad those highways would be without VRE,” said Gov. Mark Warner, who recently joined rail officials in calling for more capacity and service upgrades.

Mr. Warner, a Democrat, will seek $60 million for transportation projects throughout the state in an amendment to be offered to the General Assembly on June 16. Gridlock is an increasing problem in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

“It is at least a down payment. We’re going to have to come back next year and revisit specifically how we fund transit and rail,” Mr. Warner said.

The governor added that projects such as Metrorail service to Washington Dulles International Airport and expansion of VRE will occur only with a combination of local, state and federal funds.

In 12 years, VRE usage has climbed from about 6,200 daily passenger trips to a service level consistently surpassing its current capacity of 16,000 riders.

“We have standees on most of the peak period trains,” said Dale Zehner, VRE’s chief executive officer.

VRE is the nation’s 10th-largest commuter rail system, with 32 trains each day. The rail line serves Manassas, Fredericksburg, Alexandria and the District on 81 miles of track owned by Norfolk-Southern, CSX and Amtrak.

• This column is based in part on wire service reports.

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