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Enslaved

Doug Wilder did what good politicians instinctively do: Whenever possible, don't wait to be put on the defensive.

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Is Doug Wilder's U.S. National Slavery Museum moving to Richmond — or is it already here? The latest in the never-ending soap opera, aka the Wilder Slavery Museum, now includes revelations about tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid property taxes, weeds spreading on the unfinished site and growing questions in state government concerning certain aspects of the project's fundraising, including all the state money given the project over the years.

For some reason, when I heard the news, the song “Simply Irresistible” by Robert Palmer kept popping into my head. She's so fine, there's no tellin' where the money went. But as sad as it is for me to see an old friend get such bad advice, there's a larger lesson for the people of Richmond, given what is happening among Mayor Dwight Jones, City Council and the School Board.

Admittedly, these elected officials and their top aides are viewing Wilder's travails as proof of their being in the right when Wilder caused his own downfall by that craziness of trying to throw the school administration out of City Hall in September 2007, in the dead of night by a police raid of sorts. “Turnabout is fair play,” the political adage goes, and so surely Wilder realizes he's given that Richmond crew a year's supply of new jokes at his expense. 

For some reason, Wilder, who owed so much to Richmond, followed a scorched-earth policy at the end. One of the first people to burn down Richmond, not figuratively but literally, was Benedict Arnold, who sailed up the James River looking for Gov. Thomas Jefferson, nearly capturing the author of the Declaration of Independence.  

Precisely why Wilder continues to listen to people who profit from their efforts to tarnish, if not ruin, his reputation has baffled me during the last few years. They caused him to leave Richmond, having torched what four years before had been an image few political spinners ever get to actually weave. Now comes the growing probability of a similar forced retreat from Fredericksburg. True, in his latest letter to state officials, Wilder says the project's financial difficulties have been caused by the recession. But those encouraging him to make such statements surely know it puts him a deeper future hole. Suddenly his unprovoked attacks on President Barack Obama, former Gov. Tim Kaine and the White House staff are easier to understand, at least from the point of timing. Wilder, knowing the museum's unpaid property taxes soon would become public, leading to potentially negative publicity, did what good politicians instinctively do: Whenever possible, don't wait to be put on the defensive. Get out front with another story — the bigger the better. 

But is there a larger lesson here, one that those offering the “we told you so” at City Hall, City Council and the school administration might do well to heed. As Abraham, Lincoln famously advised, “You may fool all of the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time; but you can't fool all of the people all the time.”

The political establishment in Richmond isn't facing reality any more than those involved with the National Slavery Museum. Despite the recession, the Jones administration has taken money that should have gone for education, fixing potholes and creating jobs, using it instead to create the most wasteful and bloated level of high-paid bureaucracy in the state's history. Last year, the Jones administration said high-speed rail was the key to the city's future. As my late mother, who I miss terribly, would say, “You should live so long!” 

This year, the only new proposal from City Hall is an ice-skating rink downtown. City Council and the School Board, when it comes to a vision, are skating on even thinner ice.

Ironically, or perhaps not so in Richmond, those who are hurt the most by this are the very Richmonders who trace their history back to the Americans that the National Slavery Museum intends to honor. 

Fortunately, for City Hall and City Council — but not for you, average taxpayers — our elected leaders have something Wilder lacked: They have the power of simply raising taxes and fees to pay for all their reckless and misdirected spending. Where there is no realistic vision, “shit happens,” as the saying goes.

Wilder promised his project would be a first-tier museum. Now Mayor Jones promises he has a secret plan to make Richmond into a first-tier city.  

There's a certain synergy here. We can build our future riding imaginary high-speed trains to visit nonexistent slavery museums, but eventually reality sets in. Richmond's political leaders need to stop daydreaming or the city will remain on the train to nowhere.

Paul Goldman is a longtime Democratic strategist who has worked on the gubernatorial campaigns of Doug Wilder, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

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