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Behind Enemy Lines

As Wilder and City Council duke it out, Richmond ponders its future.


"There will be no clapping," a stern-faced G. Manoli Loupassi, councilman and vice mayor, barked at the few dozen people cheering in chambers.

With much of Richmond grimacing as the mayor and council fight over whose budget is legal and threaten to settle the matter in court, the city's future is decidedly cloudy. Many who foresaw only greatness on the horizon a few months ago are now in a state of bewilderment: Is the recent squabbling a healthy sign of checks and balances under a new political system or a prelude to dysfunction?

The scene is vivid: Wilder, a master of confrontational, hardball politics, versus a green City Council attempting to hold its own. A city paralyzed without a certified budget. Angry memos and bitter infighting.

"The real discussion of what's right for the city is being lost in the process; it's being lost in the battle of the personalities," says Associate Professor Daniel J. Palazzolo, chair of the political science department at the University of Richmond.

"There is nothing wrong with conflict over substance, honest to goodness differences over how to spend money," Palazzolo says. "What we're getting is the squabbles and the populous rhetoric."

Others say it's simply Wilder testing the waters. The former governor is feeling out his cohorts to see who will bend and who won't in the heat of battle.

"He's a very smart, very intelligent young man," says State Sen. Benjamin J. Lambert III, D-Richmond, who has known, fought and admired Wilder throughout his career. "Sometimes he does things to create impossible situations in order to get things done. Wilder is Wilder. The older he gets, the wilder he gets."

As for the initial hardball, Lambert says he isn't shocked by the intensity of Wilder's attacks, especially toward City Council. "Everyone who knew Wilder knew there was going to be a testing period," he says.

Richmond's Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks prefers a street-fighting analogy. "Let's say the mayor is the big kid in school," Hicks says. "Council has discovered that as long as all nine of us stick together, we can stick up to the big kid. Now, all nine of those kids still have to walk home alone at night. Doug is a citywide elected official. He can be waiting around the block. …

"Who can the big kid beat up?"

Still, some weren't prepared for this. Among them: Loupassi, whom many had considered Wilder's biggest ally on City Council. Loupassi has at times appeared exacerbated, angry and confused by Wilder's tactics. One minute he's being blasted in a press conference, the next he's getting a hug at a campaign dinner.

During the last week in May, after City Council approved a fund-raising extension for the performing arts center May 23, Loupassi says he attempted to reach out to Wilder. Four days later, Loupassi says, he had a brief meeting with the mayor, who was cordial and assured him he was doing a good job. A few hours later, the mayor fired off a memo chastising Loupassi and the rest of council for acting irresponsibly and not following the city charter.

"I don't think that's fair," Loupassi says. "When I have dealt with him, it's always been man to man, and I've always been respectful of him."

The vice mayor says he can't understand why the mayor's office doesn't simply certify the council's budget, considering that everyone would get what they wanted within the confines of the budget. (At press time, council and the mayor's office were still at a stalemate.) There is about a $4.5 million surplus, he says, and that money would cover both the needs of Wilder and the council.

"Look, we are going to give you everything you want," Loupassi says, alluding to funding for Wilder's administration. "What's the beef with that?"

As of June 10, the mayor's office was attempting to turn the tables, criticizing council for hiring an outside lawyer to prepare for possible legal action against the mayor. With the mayor out of town — he was attending a conference in Chicago — Chief Administrative Officer William E. Harrell issued a statement criticizing council for "choosing to speak through outside legal counsel and with threat of a lawsuit."

Members of City Council were expected to begin pursuing legal action if Harrell didn't certify its version of the budget early this week.

It's enough to make longtime political observer Larry J. Sabato, director of University of Virginia's Center for Politics, giddy.

"It was predictable. And it's fun," Sabato says. "Look, this was inevitable for two reasons. First, you have a new system of government. There is always a fight about power anytime a new system is implemented. And second, why would anyone be surprised who knows Doug Wilder's career? To some degree, it's the politics of confrontation."

This week, a clearer picture should emerge as to the city's immediate future. But the bigger picture still remains fuzzy. Is Richmond prepared for another three-and-a-half years of Wilder politics? And ultimately, will it be good for the city?

Councilwoman Kathy Graziano says the power struggle has been blown out of proportion. "I think if the council and the mayor are at odds constantly, that will not be a good thing for the city," Graziano says. "But remember that council and Wilder have been in agreement on an awful lot of things to this point."

If anything, Lambert says, Richmond got to see that City Council isn't afraid to stand up to Wilder when it needs to — a welcome sign.

"I think council has gained a lot of respect in the city, at least, for sticking together," Lambert says. "Council realized that they have a job to do."

Palazzolo, however, wonders if the bickering will benefit the city or stunt progress. After all, he says, some members of the business community are already chafed, and private investment in the city could become marginalized.

"The question is, can this kind of approach be sustained over a number of years?" Palazzolo says. "It's not good for the city." S

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