As folks tell it in bars, kitchens and online chat rooms around town, Richmond is run from smoke-filled rooms — places where the city's political deals get done long before voters go to the polls.
Consider the city's 7th District controversy. The City Council seat vacated by newly minted state Delegate Delores McQuinn is at the center of growing debate about who should replace her, and how.
For weeks, the Church Hill People's News, an online neighborhood blog, has been rife with rumors that veteran state Sen. Henry Marsh, with the implied cooperation of longtime allies McQuinn and Mayor Dwight C. Jones, is colluding to fill the vacant council seat with his hand-picked candidate, Cynthia Newbille.
Ten years ago, such political intrigue might have gone unnoticed — or at least largely unchallenged. Machine politics were a fact of life here, born of necessity. White control of city politics was broken only by the dogged work of pioneering black leaders such as Marsh who were able to build coalitions to counter the city's powerful establishment.
But over the last decade, a wave of young professionals has moved back into the city, altering the complexion of the city electorate in places such as Church Hill, the city's fastest growing residential district. And this younger, community-oriented residential set is running headlong into the machine politics that has long guarded the interests of the black community.
“The social geography of this metro area is changing. ... racially and socially,” says John Moeser, an urban studies professor at the University of Richmond and a frequent commentator on city politics. “The big difference between now and the old days [of white political dominance] is the white majorities in local government were majorities that were absolutely hostile to minority representation.”
Those days may be fading, Moeser says. Divides are less about race and more about socio-economic differences.
“When you see changes happening in the 7th District. ... there's a stronger and stronger white voice in what heretofore had been solidly African-American districts,” he says. “What you have now is likely to be continuation [of] a white majority on council.” City Council has only two black members, but that loss of black representation doesn't necessarily mean a loss of power, according to some vocal Church Hill residents. More and more, they say, both black and white residents of the city want the same things.
Though Newbille's critics say she is a push by the old guard to replenish an increasingly shrinking power base, even her most vitriolic detractors acknowledge that she's qualified. Objections focus on her recent move to the district to meet residency requirements, but few dispute her advocacy for the city's East End.
She's acting director of the nonprofit East District Family Resource Center.
Newbille's personal qualifications aside, “it goes back to when blacks were not in power — and when somebody got into power, we were hesitant to challenge those people,” says Eric Anderson, a veteran of numerous citywide political campaigns and a longtime supporter of former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder. “Now that you've got African- Americans who have run the city and who have run the City Council and School Board, I think it has become our undoing.”
Anderson's opinion finds an echo among some white politicians making inroads in once-majority black districts.
“The most qualified person should be appointed regardless of race,” says Keith West, a former School Board member who confirmed long-swirling whispers last Thursday that he would seek McQuinn's seat. He says the biggest obstacle to his appointment is the message he's been given — that council wants to appoint someone black to the seat.
“If we're going to move this city forward, we're going to have to do it based on people's capabilities and see beyond race,” he says. “City Council is not going to be able to do that, and that's a big problem.”
West says the district's residents don't share council's concern over showing deference to race.
“[Residents] want better schools, they want better government,” he says. “We're moving beyond race and starting to look at what a person stands for.”
Which is why Anderson says he opposes Newbille.
“Larger than the Marsh machine is this coronation-type mentality — that people can be hand-picked,” Anderson says.
Most recently, Anderson threw his 7th District support behind the now- withdrawn candidacy of John Murden. His blog, Church Hill People's News, has been central to the public debate — and rumors — about Newbille's candidacy and Marsh's involvement.
Anderson is black and Murden is white, and that perceived difference is part of what drew Anderson to a Murden candidacy.
“It was a factor — for me it was about advancing the reforms that we fought for five years ago,” Anderson says. “People should be able to choose — to end the smoke-filled room.”
Opinions like Anderson's play to progress, but some people believe there's also something to be said for maintaining the racial balance among elected representatives. “Does one need to be black to represent a district that has lot of black citizens?” Moeser asks. “The answer is no. But it does not in any way skirt the sensitivity — an understandable sensitivity — that one does need to be African-American to really fully appreciate [the community].”
Moeser sees progress in bridging racial divides, but he worries about what might be lost if voters get too caught up in looking only to on-paper qualifications when selecting a representative.
“The beauty of the country is we're a nation of nations,” he says. “The challenge is to come to the point of really honoring the differences, and realizing these communities are really important to our strength.”
But that leads to a larger question: how to ensure that differences are honored without potentially subverting the selection process.
“It's certainly thought there might be some machine politics behind [Newbille], says Terry Binford, who also planned to work on Murden's campaign. “But everyone has the right to get into the race — and I think the machine can be easily defeated if you put up the right person.”
Binford is also black, a veteran of past campaigns for the likes of Robert Grey, who recently ran for mayor, as well as Wilder and Benjamin Lambert. He sees an end to the city's black machine politics. “I think it's dying a slow death,” he says, “and to be honest, we're trying to help it along — to stamp it out a little bit — to put everybody on a level playing field.” S