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Gov. Dwight Jones?

Why Richmond's mayor missed a prime opportunity to run for Virginia's highest office.

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SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

When I was co-writing changes to the city charter to allow for the election of a mayor at large in the early 2000s, the following seemed self-evident to me: Any popular mayor, able to be pictured by campaign consultants as balancing budgets, keeping crime low, holding the line on taxes and trying to fix some lingering social problems would have a leg up on every other candidate for governor.

There are four general regions in Virginia for voting-analysis purposes: Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, Central Virginia and Western Virginia.

Northern Virginia has more Democrats than any other region, and Western Virginia provides the smallest number of votes in statewide races. So for analysis purposes, the Democratic candidate should have a slight edge after combining these votes. This leaves Central Virginia and Hampton Roads from Accomack to Williamsburg to decide the winner. Tidewater is always tricky turf. But given the demographics, a good Democratic candidate should have an edge.

Central Virginia is thus do-or-die for the Republican gubernatorial candidate. In the last century, the region's politics favored the candidate seen as the more conservative. Today, the political terrain is much more difficult.

Once this political math is digested, the gubernatorial power of Richmond's mayor is easily understood. Yet in all the years since the passage of the elected-mayor law in 2004, only three people have told me they understood my thinking: L Douglas Wilder, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine and lawyer Robert Grey. Wilder and Kaine both are former governors and Richmond mayors — Wilder was the first mayor elected under the new city charter in 2005 — and Grey ran for mayor in 2008. They understood the direct stepping-stone potential of the elected mayor.

Kaine, appointed as mayor in 1998 under the old system — in which the City Council selects the mayor from among its nine members — parlayed his mayoral appointment to the City Council into a narrow victory for lieutenant governor first in the 2001 Democratic primary, and then in the general election.

But he realized an elected mayor could go straight from City Hall to the governor's mansion across the street. So did Wilder, who first parlayed a Richmond-area seat in the state Senate to lieutenant governor, and then the governorship — ultimately returning as Richmond mayor.

The appointed mayor had the title but not the job. Under the old City Council and manager form of government, the city manager ran Richmond. He called the news conferences and ran the show. Thus Kaine didn't have the platform or the perception of gravitas needed to go straight to the governor's mansion without a stop in between. The same for Wilder: The public doesn't consider a state senator as sufficient training to be the commonwealth's chief executive officer.

But, you say: The lieutenant governor's job is all hat and no cowboy. It's largely a ceremonial position that has little power save for breaking ties in the state Senate. This is true. But what the office lacks in responsibility it gains in giving the occupant a statewide image and voter base. In the modern era, the incumbent lieutenant governor has been nominated every time for governor except when losing a challenge to the sitting attorney general of the same party. See Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's power play last year over Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling.

Given that Mayor Dwight Jones has been an ambitious politician — moving up from Richmond School Board to the House of Delegates to now mayor — his failure to compete for governor in this year's race surprised me. Based on my voter analysis, even as popular a Democrat as Terry McAuliffe would have started as the underdog to Jones in a two-way primary.

Mayor Jones would have won big among Democratic primary voters in Central Virginia and Hampton Roads. He would have lost in Western Virginia, but the total vote in that region of the state is considerably smaller. This would have made it difficult for McAuliffe to get enough votes in Northern Virginia, where Jones could count on considerable voter appeal, to offset the losses in Central Virginia.

In a general election against Republican Cuccinelli, my analysis rates Jones the favorite. A good strategy person could spin an image of seasoned, fiscally responsible chief executive. The mayor's social views, on issues such as gay marriage or gun control, would be ameliorated politically because of Cuccinelli's positions on the right side of the social ledger. While Jones would be vulnerable on the education issue — city schools are among the worst in the state — he could have softened that problem with certain clever moves.

Against Cuccinelli, Jones gets beat badly in Western Virginia, does well in Northern Virginia and is competitive in Tidewater. So the whole ball of political wax comes down to Central Virginia, where the Republican candidate likely would need a decent edge to pull out a victory, which would be difficult.

Jones is going to win some normally Republican voters in the suburbs given his media presence as mayor. He also should be able to get an extra 10,000 votes out of Richmond.

Bottom line: If Jones runs a smart strategy, he's the mathematical favorite when the general election starts.

The mayor of Richmond ranks behind governor as the second toughest executive's job in the state. It is therefore potentially the best possible platform to run for the top spot for either a Democrat or a Republican given the importance of the Central Virginia media market.

All that's required is for political aspirants to realize the power of becoming Richmond's mayor. We have another three years to find out if anyone gets it. S

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Paul Goldman is a longtime Democratic strategist and was senior policy adviser to former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder.

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

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