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Offering Plate

A day before the inauguration, the business community opens its checkbook for Mayor Dwight C. Jones. Let the nuptials begin.



Perhaps the best courtships do start in church. Especially after a bad breakup. Ten days into 2009, newly elected Mayor Dwight C. Jones gave up the pulpit and took the pews for Saturday's inaugural activities. Yes, some concerns have been raised about the willingness of Jones, longtime pastor of First Baptist Church of South Richmond, to separate church and state, but first things first.

He has some relationships to repair.

With Jones listening from the pews of First Baptist, a college buddy from Virginia Union University, W. Franklyn Richardson, spoke of justice, diversity and hope, the final of which he referred to as the “legitimate place where government and religion meet.”

Franklyn told a story about a frustrated baseball player who couldn't knock the ball out of the park and whose coach sagely told him: “It is not enough to connect, you must follow through.”

Jones appears to be taking that message to heart. The follow-through started in earnest the day before, at a $500-per-plate luncheon at the swank Jefferson Hotel, which served as a final fundraiser for the Dwight Jones for Mayor campaign.

For many of Richmond's corporate leaders, Jones was a distant third choice for the office he holds. But after four years of bloodletting at the hands of outgoing Mayor Doug Wilder, there's a desperate need to connect quickly with a candidate they didn't support. The lunch represented a tentative step.

Attended by much of Jones's political support base and his transition team — as well as by Gov. Tim Kaine — the Jefferson Hotel event provided an opportunity for these early doubters to ask for repentance — or at least a seat at the table.

During the race, Jones's campaign found the majority of its financial support from employee organizations and out-of-town Democrats. Lonely among these donors were early corporate supporters such as Altria Group and Dominion Power — the latter led by money from now-retired Eva Teig Hardy, who presided over parts of Saturday's inaugural.

But even Dominion's chief, Tom Farrell, hardly saw much use for Jones before Nov. 4. He contributed $15,000 to Robert Grey, the downtown lawyer and mayoral candidate, and none to Jones.

Now, Farrell and the rest of the city's big money interests must decide their role in a city led by Jones. So far it's been a waiting game because the mayor continues to fill key posts. These staffers will be the people who eventually will have the ear of their boss — and presumably tremendous influence over the information reaching the mayor.

“They feel they want to move things forward and have a good relationship with Dwight,” says a local political observer close to the Jones administration, who's had conversations with some of the city's prominent business leaders. “I get a sense that they're very anxious to get beyond Wilder. A lot of them were very frustrated with the roadblocks that Wilder put up.”

But after throwing their weight behind the losers in November — and with a long history of tension with Jones's mentor, state Sen. Henry Marsh, “They're just trying to figure out how to do it,” says the observer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In the meantime, Jones's official transition team has provided that bridge. With Jones at the helm for just a few days, it may be too early for business leaders to know how best to build relationships within the administration.

“They don't know necessarily who the players are yet,” says Terone Green, a Jones supporter and former president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters.

 Green says the question of who to approach in Jones's camp is further complicated by Jones' desire to maintain some of the populism and independence that marked his campaign.

“Jones doesn't want to be beholden to anybody” Green says. “He doesn't want to be beholden to the business community. Dwight does not have any agenda [in dealing with business leaders or others]. He's going to go in objectively and see who brings the best game forward.”

In other words, the people who best discover how to present their message to Jones.

The city's real-estate development community may have reason to breathe easy, even as their corporate counterparts strategize on how best to ingratiate themselves to the new leadership. This is despite former City Council President Bill Pantele largely being the development community's pick to succeed Wilder. 

Jones is himself a de facto developer. His church operates Imani Intergenerational Community Development Corp., which has redevelopment plans for numerous properties along Hull Street in Manchester.

“I am very optimistic,” says Robin Miller, a developer whose pioneering work in Manchester has led the redevelopment wave there. Miller, who says he'd not met Jones before the election, was asked to serve on the mayor's development committee. “I'm encouraged by the folks that he has appointed on his staff — particularly, Rachel Flynn is still going to be community development director.”

Also comforting to Miller is that Jones gave “a favorable response” to the development committee's suggestion that the city maintain its real estate tax abatement program. That program, sometimes criticized for deleting millions of dollars from the city's tax rolls, is favored by developers such as Miller, who rely on the program to make rehab projects of old buildings profitable.

For his part, Jones spent the better part of the past month extending olive branches to just about every group in the city that might have run afoul of Wilder during the past four years.

He referenced the Crupi Report during his Saturday inaugural address. The commissioned review of recent city progress and failures, spearheaded and underwritten by corporate leaders, was released in the fall of 2007. Jones acknowledged the mixed reactions to the controversial report, but highlighted one of its themes: that Richmond will grow by default or design — and that design is preferable.

Sadly, default has been the rule for much of the past few decades, says David Hicks, Jones's recently appointed senior policy adviser.

“I think everybody has always known that the missed opportunities for Richmond — why we aren't more like Atlanta or Charlotte, N.C. — probably lies in the lack of ability to coordinate the grassroots and the corporate community to the common good,” Hicks says. “It's a 40-year-old test; it endeavors this administration to pass it.”

As former School Board chairman, Jones has repeated his desire to push improving education as his top priority. But rather than attacking Richmond Public Schools, as Wilder did from the start of his term, Jones has given a public nod to acting-School Superintendent Yvonne Brandon, who also attended the Jefferson luncheon.

“We're singing ‘Kumbaya,’” Jones said during his Saturday inaugural address. “I don't know how long it will last but we're going to enjoy it while it does.” S

Staff writer Amy Biegelsen contributed to this story.

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