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Cease Fire

Hugs abound in Mayor Wilder's peacemaking, but the real story isn't all warm and fuzzy.

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The finger-pointing needs to stop, Wilder said at last week's press conference introducing the newly appointed members of his performing arts committee. "What we recognize is an opportunity to move forward," he said. "What really is important is, 'Where do we go from here?'"

Last week's broad conciliations were striking, some observers say, particularly considering the mayor's recent skirmishes with the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation, which, until last week, appeared headed for court with the city.

A testy letter exchange between the mayor's office and the foundation's legal counsel, Everette G. "Buddy" Allen Jr., about the city's Nov. 7 inspection of the Carpenter Center smacked of a legal preview.

"My firm (through a FOIA request) had discovered documents which, in my view, reflected interference by the City Administration with [Building Commissioner Claude] Cooper's office in connection with the issuance of the Foundation's building permit," Allen wrote, perhaps as a not-so-subtle warning. "Being the suspicious type, I am concerned that this inspection was urged upon Mr. Cooper by the City Administration for reasons other than stated in Mr. Cooper's letters."

Just a month ago Wilder said he welcomed a legal challenge by the foundation, adding that it would be great to "depose" some witnesses and get to the bottom of it all. By last week that confrontational tone had changed dramatically.

As the arts-center battle abates, this new state of Wilder offers an interesting peek into the former governor's political machinations. Is it the last Richmond will see of the combative, take-no-prisoners Wilder? Is he softening up a bit?

The man himself chuckles at the thought.

"It's going to be the same old dog — you can't change him," Wilder said after last week's truce with the foundation.

Other forces may be at work. What looks like another Wilder victory — the foundation has agreed that the first priority should be reopening the Carpenter Center — could be defense. Some sources say the foundation had been gearing up for a full-fledged legal assault that could have been damaging to the mayor's administration, particularly following Senior Policy Adviser Paul Goldman's proposal to take the Carpenter Center by eminent domain (only City Council has the legal power to do so).

And don't underestimate the influence of billionaire William H. Goodwin Jr., who, sources say, played a key role in getting the mayor to call a truce. The powerful Richmond investor, who rarely asserts himself politically, initiated peace talks with Wilder during the past few weeks, the sources say.

For his part, Goodwin says he accepted Wilder's offer to serve on the performing arts committee because he thinks the city desperately needs to reopen the Carpenter Center. But he says he didn't initiate any conversations with the mayor. A longtime friend and avid supporter of Wilder, Goodwin says the mayor contacted him two weeks ago to serve on the committee. He simply wants to help bury the hatchet and move forward to do what's best for downtown.

"There is absolutely no reason to look backward on things you can't change," Goodwin says of the recent political fighting.

Looking back, however, some say Wilder's recent retreat shouldn't surprise anyone. Larry J. Sabato, the venerable political analyst and director of University of Virginia's Center for Politics, says the recent episode is typical Doug.

"If you study Wilder's career, you know that frequently he'll go to the brink and pull back from the precipice," Sabato says. "It fits into a pattern. He's a great trial lawyer, he always was. He knows how far to go, how to pull back."

Some City Council members, however, are beginning to wonder if Wilder has already gone too far. While the mayor spent months chastising the foundation, challenging the school board and calling press conferences, the city still has several critical positions at City Hall that remain unfilled.

And two weeks ago, catching some by surprise, Wilder's third major hire at City Hall, Bill Farrar, was demoted from press secretary to a communications position in public utilities.

"I don't think I'm stepping out on a huge limb here that this is something that people are talking about," says City Council President G. Manoli Loupassi. "I don't have any empirical data on this, but it seems to me the less stable your employment environment is, the less able you are to get people to come [work for you]. "

Wilder says morale at City Hall is "good from what I see." He adds that he senses strong support from the city employees with whom he interacts. But the $14.2 million budget shortfall, which Chief Administrative Officer William Harrell plans to recover through cost-savings from positions left vacant, job cuts and rising real estate tax revenue, among other things, has meant some tough decisions along the way.

Still, some worry that the mayor's bare-knuckles style has left the city devoid of any real plan of direction. City Council members, complaining vigorously of the lack of communication from the mayor's office, are pressing the General Assembly to clarify the new city charter and give more explicit powers to council.

Says one council member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by Wilder: "The city is in dire need of leadership and a clear vision of where we are headed, and not short-term sound bites. … The promise of an elected mayor was to take us to another level, not manage by litigation."

Last week's conciliations may or may not be Wilder's response to those concerns. He's cultivating talks with the Richmond Braves about the plans for a new ballpark in Shockoe Bottom, and he sounded upbeat about plans to turn the former Miller & Rhoads department store into an upscale hotel.

As for City Hall, Wilder has three years left to reshape it. At last week's press conference, Jim Ukrop asked the mayor to join him in his pledge to don a tutu on the stage of the Carpenter Center once it was completed.

The mayor had trouble hearing Ukrop at first, but once informed of the comment, he forced out a chortle. "I'll be there," he said, laughing. S

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