- The Washington Times - Monday, June 21, 2004

RICHMOND — The Justice Department yesterday approved Richmond’s plan for the citywide election of a strong mayor starting this fall, rejecting claims that the change would dilute the political might of the city’s largely black electorate.

The ruling clears the way for a Nov. 2 election that would pit the incumbent, Rudolph McCollum, against the nation’s first elected black governor, L. Douglas Wilder.

Mr. Wilder, a Democrat, and Republican former U.S. Rep. Thomas J. Bliley last year jointly championed a referendum in which city voters embraced the new at-large mayor proposal by a 4 to 1 ratio.

The campaign provoked sometimes bitter exchanges between Mr. Wilder and those who favor the existing system in which City Council appoints one of its members to the largely ceremonial post.

Opponents of the referendum said it would sap political power from black voters. One of the most outspoken foes, state Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, Richmond Democrat, said during the heat of the campaign that Mr. Wilder’s plan would provoke a “race war.”

The General Assembly approved the change earlier this year pending a Justice Department review to ensure that the action complies with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which bars former Confederate states from enacting laws that diminish black voting clout.

Rep. Robert C. Scott, a Democrat and the only black member of Virginia’s delegation to Congress, asked the Justice Department on June 2 to reject the plan on grounds that it violates the federal law enacted at the height of the civil rights movement.

A spokesman at Mr. Scott’s office on Capitol Hill said Mr. Scott would not be available for comment.

Mr. Wilder was traveling yesterday and was not available immediately for comment, said Paul Goldman, an adviser and spokesman for the former governor. Mr. Wilder has argued that a strong mayor is necessary to take on chronic problems of rampant gang and gun violence within the state capital.

“This allows Richmond to get a new kind of citywide leadership. We drafted something that was good for Richmond and satisfied all the concerns of the Justice Department,” Mr. Goldman said.

The Justice Department’s decision puts Richmond out front among the state’s largest cities in shifting to a form of government headed by a powerful chief executive, Mr. Goldman said.

“This could give a tremendous voice to the first cities of Virginia, not just Richmond,” Mr. Goldman said.

Opponents still could delay this fall’s election by challenging it in federal court, but yesterday’s decision means they would have to do it without the aid of the Justice Department.

Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, whose office argued for the charter change, said the decision gives Richmonders “a clear voice in choosing the leader of their city.”

“For a long time, Richmond’s mayor has been chosen by the members of the City Council and was never empowered with the abilities of a strong mayor,” said Mr. Kilgore, a Republican.

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