RICHMOND — City voters said yesterday they want to allow the mayor to be elected by popular vote rather than be appointed by the City Council.
With nearly all precincts reporting, an advisory referendum calling for the change was approved overwhelmingly, according to unofficial totals.
Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first black elected governor, was a key supporter of the measure in his hometown. Mr. Wilder said having a strong mayor was necessary to have more accountability and fix what he called “the cesspool of corruption and inefficiency.”
Thomas Bliley, a former mayor and congressman, joined Mr. Wilder in pushing for the change.
Mr. Wilder took referendum opponents to task for introducing race into the debate.
“We were pictured as racists. We were pictured as Uncle Toms,” Mr. Wilder said. “Although Halloween is over, it’s time to take the mask off. The mask of pretending to be leaders.”
Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who also supported the referendum, said it was a clear mandate by the voters.
“This has been a long time coming,” Mr. Kaine said. “It’s been an unusual path to get here.”
The referendum was opposed by many of the city’s black leaders. Councilman Walter T. Kenney Sr., a former mayor, said direct election of the mayor could result in a well-financed white candidate becoming chief executive of a city that is nearly 60 percent black and has had a majority-black council since 1977.
According to the International City-Council Management Association in Washington, nearly half of all U.S. cities, including San Diego, Dallas and Phoenix, have the council-manager form that Richmond uses.
State Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, Richmond Democrat and a former law-school roommate of Mr. Wilder’s, had warned of a “race war” if the measure passed.
“I don’t think African-Americans are going to submit to some type of servitude by the corporate business community,” Mr. Marsh said last night.
“If the goal is to oppress the African-American, it will be resisted.”
Mayor Rudolph C. McCollum Jr., who opposed the measure, said the vote was just one step in a long process.
“This is just second base,” he said. “This isn’t even halfway through.”
Now the proposal will go to the state legislature for its approval. The Justice Department then would have to approve the charter change under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Virginia is subject to the act, in part, because of its history of creating at-large popular elections to dilute the black vote.