Symbols are fluid things.
Two decades ago, Richmonders envisioned the 6th Street Marketplace as a bridge over a racial divide and a precursor to downtown's retail revitalization. The bridge is gone; its meaning has changed. Two decades ago, The Diamond opened with all the fanfare of a grand slam. Today there is hand-wringing that the Braves might leave.
Two decades ago, political analyst Larry Sabato told the Virginian-Pilot's Margaret Edds that there was little to no chance L. Douglas Wilder would be elected to the state's second-highest office. Wilder proved him wrong and became Virginia's first black lieutenant governor. Just before his inauguration in 1986, he was named Style Weekly's first Richmonder of the Year and discussed the meaning of his election with us:
"I think it symbolizes that someone not to the manor born and not from the chosen could be elected notwithstanding," Wilder said. "It transcends race. It's more a question of someone who was not supposed to be elected because he didn't have the trappings of 'anointment appointment.'"
Wilder broke ground again in 1989 with his election to the Executive Mansion, becoming Virginia's first elected black governor. For the second time, Style chose him as Richmonder of the Year. "There have been many times in my life when I was not proud to be a Virginian," the Rev. Ben Campbell told Style after Wilder's election. "This time I am. This one time. He's made a remarkable trip through a narrow gate."
What a wider gate it was in 2004, when Wilder campaigned to become Richmond's first elected mayor since the 1940s. Precinct by precinct, it was a landslide. His Jan. 2 swearing-in seemed predestined from the moment he announced his candidacy. Was this an "anointment appointment"? Wilder had become a symbol for many: He would clear the gunk out of City Hall's gears, stand up to business as usual, and turn Richmond in a new direction.
As sure as his victory was, he was a shock to the system. Wilder was, arguably, Richmond's most dichotomous figure in 2005. He dominated debates about power, leadership and collaboration. His methods were questioned. So was his ego. City Council was flummoxed at times angry, at times deferential.
Many voters regretted their decision. For others, he was doing just what he was elected to do: He reached in and around the nooks and crannies of the establishment, interfering.
For better or worse? That depends on your interpretation and how you view Richmond. Two decades from now, even two years, perhaps Wilder's term as mayor will symbolize something else entirely.
For his first year in office, for confounding critics and fans, for the year he returned to the spotlight, for his most significant impact on life in Richmond, Wilder is Style Weekly's 2005 Richmonder of the Year.
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