- The Washington Times - Friday, October 31, 2003

RICHMOND — A decade after he served as the nation’s first black elected governor, L. Douglas Wilder is back in politics in the community where his rise began.

Mr. Wilder is pushing a referendum on Tuesday’s ballot to have Richmond’s mayor chosen in a citywide election rather than be appointed by the City Council.

The proposal has taken on racial overtones, creating an uproar among some black leaders in the former capital of the Confederacy. Critics, including Virginia’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, say the change could violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act that helped blacks get political representation.

They fear it would allow a heavily financed white candidate to become the chief executive of a city that is nearly 60 percent black and has had a majority-black council since 1977.

Supporters argue that the change would revive a city troubled by rising crime and economic woes and clean up what Mr. Wilder called a “cesspool of corruption and inefficiency.” Two council members were indicted this year on federal charges. One resigned after pleading guilty in a tax-evasion case and another is awaiting trial on bribery charges.

Mr. Wilder, the grandson of slaves who served as Virginia’s governor from 1990 to 1994, says he is standing for what he thinks is right despite the criticism that a black man is behind what has been attacked as a racist proposal.

“I hope it will be the legacy of the people in Richmond who decided not to play the race card,” he said. “You can’t hide behind race forever.”

Mr. Wilder, who grew up in Richmond’s Church Hill section, said he got tired of the city suffering from a lack of accountability and decided it was time to get involved.

“For too long I have remained on the sidelines,” he said. “This city has given me everything I’ve ever had.”

If nothing else, the lively, almost daily, debate has demonstrated that Mr. Wilder’s influence continues to be felt in his native city, even though he has moved to a nearby, rural county on the James River.

The debate began in August when referendum supporters secured more than 12,000 signatures of registered voters to get the measure on the ballot, nearly twice the number needed.

Since then, daily news conferences and speculation that a “race war” could break out have made it to the pages and newscasts of local media. Speaking before the antireferendum Richmond Crusade of Voters, a black civic organization, Mr. Wilder came to the defense of the “12,000 racists and Uncle Toms” who want the change. The supporters include city leaders such as Crusade president Melvin Law, former Circuit Judge James Sheffield, who is black, and Thomas J. Bliley, a former congressman and mayor from one of the city’s prominent white families.

Kathy Thompson, assistant professor of political science at the University of Richmond, said racist claims taint the real issue — the city’s need for a strong leader, not a figurehead.

“Think about how Atlanta, with Maynard Jackson, succeeded,” Miss Thompson said. “What his leadership did for a predominantly black city and the surrounding counties, they became prosperous.”

But other cities, such as San Diego, Dallas, Phoenix, and nearly half of all U.S. cities have operated well under the council-manager form Richmond uses, said Michele Frisby, spokeswoman for the International City/County Management Association in Washington.

Most city managers have advanced degrees and years of experience, while elected officials only need to have the “political wherewithal,” Miss Frisby said.

At a news conference at City Hall, six black elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott, scoffed at the proposal, saying it will not likely survive federal scrutiny even if it passes.

Virginia is one of seven states that must have any voting changes approved by the U.S. Justice Department because of their history of racial discrimination.

“There are holes big enough in this plan to drive a truck through it,” Mr. Scott said.

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