- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 13, 2005

RICHMOND — L. Douglas Wilder has become a galvanizing force in his first two months as the city’s mayor, inspiring residents to improve the city and implementing sweeping changes in city government.

After being sworn in as the city’s first popularly elected mayor last month, the Democrat who once was governor of Virginia says he can’t walk down the street without residents stopping and telling him how to make Richmond a better place to live and work.

“I think it’s a matter of people recognizing they can approach me, they can speak to me, they can talk to me,” Mr. Wilder, 74, said in a recent interview in his office at City Hall.

“This is the first time in Richmond’s history that everybody, all people, black, white, young, old, Republicans, Democrats, feel that they can collectively be involved in their government without being depicted as being this person, that person or that group or this other group.”

He says residents give him ideas about improving the city at public forums and in the lobby of City Hall. City employees send him e-mails, offering suggestions about cost-saving measures and ways to eliminate overtime.

“They wish to be part of the solution,” said Mr. Wilder, clad in a suit and a pink tie. “The spirit of people wanting to cooperate is here.”

One resident told the new mayor it would be a good idea to put up photographs of fugitives in city buses. “That’s what we, in fact, did,” he said. “It’s that type of thing I’ve found to be very helpful.”

Some call the man who became the nation’s first black governor in 1990 “the King of Richmond.” Most, he said, call him “Mayor Doug.”

Mr. Wilder says he has inherited a city government that is “absolutely broken,” but he looks at this as a time of healing for Richmond.

“It takes time,” said Mr. Wilder, pointing across the street at the state Capitol. “When I was across the street, I didn’t have to retrofit the government. The government was there.”

Over the past several years, Mr. Wilder was instrumental in changing the city’s electoral process for mayor, in making the office less ceremonial and more authoritative, and in generating support for the changes.

In 2003, Richmond voters approved by a 4-to-1 margin a referendum calling for the mayor’s popular election — a measure that Mr. Wilder had pushed for, with help from former Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., a Republican.

Today, the city’s mayor has more power and the council operates separately.

Since taking office, many of Mr. Wilder’s friends in the state legislature have helped him secure money for Richmond, including funds for a pilot program to decrease truancy rates. He envisions safe streets, schools that draw praise, and a revitalized waterfront filled with shops and restaurants.

He knows it won’t happen right away.

“People ask about my first 90 days, but that is a false measure,” he said. “My measure is, what is it I want to see four years from now and what is it I need to do to get there.”

After winning 78.6 percent of the vote last fall, Mr. Wilder said he received a congratulatory letter from Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, the former governor and mayor of Baltimore.

“He said, ‘You know the most enjoyable years that you will have will be as mayor because you will be in a position to help people,’ ” Mr. Wilder said. “I think what he was saying is that you can do it at the local level easier than you might be at the other level because of the distance between the people and the government.”

Mr. Wilder offers some advice for those seeking statewide office this year: Keep your focus on the people. Voters in Virginia will elect a new governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in November.

“Don’t get carried off in trying to see how many people you can hire to be on your team, because they don’t carry you anywhere. You have got to carry yourself,” he said. “They can’t sell you; they can’t make you. You’ve got to make yourself; you’ve got to sell yourself; you’ve got to be yourself.”

He also said candidates running for office should avoid trying to please everyone.

“Don’t have two messages,” he said. “Don’t have a conservative message and a liberal message. Don’t have a black message and a white message. Don’t have a religious message and a ‘hundred-flowers-bloom’ message. … You’ve got to be yourself and you’ve got to know yourself. If you don’t know yourself, you ought not to run. If it isn’t fun, don’t do it. You should love it. You should want to do it.”

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