- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 14, 2003

RICHMOND — Supporters of a plan for voters to elect Richmond’s mayor are seeking accountability in local government, not hatching a racist plot, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder said.

Mr. Wilder, the nation’s first elected black governor, said he had no choice but to come to the defense of “12,000 racists and Uncle Toms” who have been so labeled by some opposed to Richmond shifting to an at-large elected mayor from one chosen by the City Council.

“I come here tonight not as a politician, but as a lawyer, a defense lawyer, to defend certain people,” Mr. Wilder said Monday night at a gathering of the Richmond Crusade for Voters, a black civic group opposed to the measure.

Supporters of an elected mayor secured 12,000 signatures from registered voters, nearly double the number needed to get the question on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Council member Walter T. Kenney Sr. said he will ask the nine-member council to back a resolution opposing the at-large election at its Oct. 27 meeting. Mr. Kenney said he has four votes and is working on two more.

Since 1977, blacks have been the majority on the council, he said. Mr. Kenney predicted white people would mount a mayoral campaign with a single candidate and win with an all-white vote. He also said he fears a heavily financed white candidate could win easily over a single black candidate.

“Richmond has a history of not giving blacks a fair shake in economics and political participation,” Mr. Kenney said.

Richmond Mayor Rudy McCollum has said switching to an at-large mayor would fail to address some of the city’s biggest challenges. State Sen. Henry L. Marsh has said the change would cause “tremendous polarization.”

On Monday, Mr. Wilder chided opponents who had introduced race into the issue. He recalled the tale of “the boy who cried wolf,” suggesting that opponents reserve their ire for truly horrific problems.

“Racism is in America. It has been,” Mr. Wilder said. “This is not racism.”

The City Council has been rocked by recent scandals. Former council member Sa’ad El-Amin resigned his seat July 1 before pleading guilty to a felony conspiracy charge as part of a federal tax-evasion case. A federal grand jury has indicted council member Gwendolyn C. Hedgepeth on charges of accepting a bribe, conspiracy to commit extortion and lying to federal investigators.

Mr. Wilder, who led the drive to get the measure on the ballot, said a stronger mayor could take on issues of education, health care, crime and poverty. The mayor would need to be elected by a majority of voters in five districts to win, an arrangement Mr. Wilder said should ease concern over diluting the black vote. The city is 52 percent black and has six black council members

If the measure fails, Mr. Wilder said, that would be the end of the issue.

“It would tell me that the people didn’t want it,” he said. “I’d be extremely surprised.”

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