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A Letter to Our Next Mayor

The city to which you have committed your allegiance is full of promise and opportunity, but whether the promise is realized and the opportunities are unlocked will depend largely on you.

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You are the new leader of a city with a history as rich as that of the nation itself. The city which you have been elected to serve embraces the magnificent James River, which actually birthed the nation, as well as enormous intellectual capital, artistic genius and people of all faiths, races and nationalities whose hearts are as big as the sky.

You will be the chief spokesman for a city whose downtown is returning once again to a central place in the metropolis. While no longer the retail capital of region, it is becoming something new in Richmond's long history, given its concentration of health sciences and biotechnology.

You are the elected leader of a city whose population is no longer on the decline, but growing for the first time since 1950. The city is attracting younger professionals in their 20s, 30s and early 40s, as well as older people who are downsizing now that their children have grown and left the nest. The city's population is growing and wealth is returning. Good things are happening downtown and in the neighborhoods experiencing rebirths.

The city to which you have committed your allegiance is full of promise and opportunity, but whether the promise is realized and the opportunities are unlocked will depend largely on you. While no one person is the sole determinant of a successful city, as mayor you are the single most visible figure to whom people look for leadership. Similarly, the million people comprising metropolitan Richmond will pay great attention to what you do, particularly on matters involving the region as a whole.

You are expected to be a cheerleader, to market the city, but we hope you won't confine your work to that. Already, there are many groups whose leaders do a superb job of extolling the virtues of Richmond.

Being an effective mayor calls for taking residents to new places and breaking down the barriers that prevent us from reaching our potential. We need to care as much for the most vulnerable as we do for the most powerful. There are other places in Virginia and the nation where local leaders have taken their residents to some ugly places, places where laws focus more on excluding people than welcoming them. But are those responsible for such laws really leaders, or are they people who have been elected to simply pander to people's fears and worst instincts?

While Richmond is blessed with multiple assets, many of which are the envy of other cities, the city also faces daunting challenges. As our mayor, I hope you will be the kind of leader who addresses the most serious and complex challenges, ones that are seemingly the most intractable. Don't simply go for the little problems or nuisances that are easy to solve and give you a quick rush of accomplishment. Go for broke.

How about Richmond's public schools? What makes them so challenging is the context in which they operate. More than 30 percent of Richmond's children younger than 18 are poor. Most often they live in single-parent households that are literally under siege. Almost 60 percent of single mothers with children younger than 3 live in poverty. Poverty is crippling regardless of the circumstances, but concentrated poverty is devastating both for the people experiencing it as well as the city itself.

The disaster of poverty, including the violence that springs from a sense of hopelessness and the belief among too many of our children that they will not live beyond their youth, literally bleeds into our schools and into our neighborhoods. This context in which our schools function will never be addressed by piling on more state-mandated standardized exams.

We need a leader to speak the truth to those in power over Virginia's cities. We need a mayor who deploys all the resources at his disposal to focus on the broken children, broken homes and broken neighborhoods that affect our schools.

Jobs available to those with little education are most plentiful miles beyond the city, but a fifth of all households in the city don't own a single automobile (households, mind you, not individuals). When added to the number of households with only one car (keep in mind that many households are very large), the percentage of those lacking transportation to jobs soars to 60 percent. We need a leader who will keep pressing the need to connect the jobless with the jobs.

The single biggest challenge you will face immediately upon your inauguration is the calamitous decline of our economy. Already, as you know, the governor has called for deeper and deeper cuts in Virginia's budget. Once those cuts are made, and once we learn how far our municipal revenues have fallen, City Hall will face fiscal pressures unlike those in many years.

It is in moments like this that we will discover what kind of leader you are. Actions speak louder than words, but never underestimate the power of words. Your speeches can rally the community or divide it. Your words can bring hope or breed suspicion.

Many other challenges will face you over the next four years: the dismantling of Gilpin Court and other public housing communities, adopting the new Downtown Master Plan and the demands to upgrade an aging infrastructure, to name just a few.

Remember, however, that another group of people who will be watching you carefully and seeking your leadership: those living and working beyond the city in the Chesterfield, Henrico and Hanover counties. What kind of mayor will you be when it comes to our regional neighbors?

Let me suggest one possibility. Given the still uneasy relationships between the city and its suburbs, particularly when it comes to the tough issues of public transit, land use, social services and affordable housing, consider a different approach. Usually, Richmond officials stress what the counties need to do to in cooperation with the city. Don't you think the response might be different if Richmond sat down with its suburban counterparts and asked, "What do we have in the city, whether particular kinds of expertise, experience, etc., that would be helpful to you?"

I want to conclude with a plea. None of these challenges can be tackled unless you unite the city, mend the fractures that have torn apart City Hall over the past four years, and make common cause with the City Council, the School Board, the business community, neighborhoods and residents everywhere. Bind up the wounds and heal the divisions among us. Sublimate your desire for personal attention and aggrandizement. It is only when we recognize the gifts of every sector of Richmond and bring them together in solidarity that we can begin this journey to new and exciting new places. S

John Moeser is professor emeritus of urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University and senior fellow at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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