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Rejecting Reality

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Which is what the voters had in mind Nov. 4 as they grabbed their scalpels and headed for the nearest ballot box. A 60 percent victory for the mayor-at-large proposal was expected. A 70 percent victory would have indicated a well-run campaign. But when 80 percent of voters agree on anything, democracy is one short step away from a torch-bearing mob on the lookout for a high limb and a short rope.

Now, before Sen. Henry Marsh leaps to his feet to denounce the above reference as racist, it should be noted that the electoral mob that crashed Tuesday’s election was a true rainbow coalition. There are nine City Council districts, five with solidly black-majority electorates. The at-large petition handily won them all. There are 72 precincts in the city, many of them overwhelmingly black. The petition swept all but seven of those as well.

It is probably safe to say that every racial, ethnic, religious and special-interest group from the NRA to the NAACP cast a majority vote against Richmond’s current government. Mayor McCollum, Sen. Marsh, Rev. Hedgepeth, look around: There’s nobody on your team.

Then again, who would be?

Sen. Marsh offended every rational black Richmonder with his claims that they aren’t ready for citywide democracy because they couldn’t understand the ballot (too dumb) and wouldn’t bother to vote in a citywide election, anyway (too lazy). You could practically hear the collective double take among black voters: “Hey, is that guy talking about us?”

Having been humiliated at the ballot box, Sen. Marsh is now attacking democracy itself as undemocratic. Mayoral elections are unconstitutional, he claims, because not everyone has the money to run. If you’re about to point out that the same thing can be said about running for state senate, don’t bother. Race wars, unconstitutional democracy, even accusing Doug Wilder of being anti-black — Sen. Marsh may be saying it, but nobody thinks he believes it.

It’s merely the most extreme example of the leadership style voters rejected on Tuesday: “Say anything, no matter how foolish or offensive, as long as you hang onto power.”

Thus we have Mayor McCollum calling a mayor elected by the people a “Dictator.” This argument isn’t just senseless, it’s also shameless. This from a man who needed a whopping five votes from his fellow council members to become mayor himself? Who got about 2,200 votes from his district, while the referendum got more than 22,000?

Then there’s the Rev. Gwen Hedgepeth, who fears that direct democracy will lead to scandal in city government. “We have not had mass corruption in the city of Richmond,” Rev. Gwen said as she pleaded with the voters to keep the status quo. Of course, her pleas might have had more power if she hadn’t just pleaded “not guilty” to a federal bribery charge.

This is the shamelessness Richmonders can no longer bear. When a woman who’s in danger of going to the federal pen starts defending the current system for keeping her honest, one wonders if there is any limit to the idiocy.

Tuesday’s career-crushing landslide was the final, defiant cry of a citizenry that will suffer council’s insufferable stupidity no longer. What makes our City Council unbearable is the unique confluence of incompetence and corruption.

If you find this description unfair, if you believe that some members of council break from this stereotype, answer this question: How many council members have called on the Rev. Hedgepeth to step down until her bribery charges are resolved? How many have called on council to pass a resolution in support of the victorious mayor-at-large proposal?

Critics of the mayor-at-large system are right to point out that merely electing the mayor won’t guarantee better government. But there’s one fundamental good that will result, one that Richmond desperately needs. There will be someone we can bitch to.

If the citizens of Richmond awoke tomorrow and announced in one voice it’s time to get a new police chief, which elected official could act on their demand? No one.

If they decided unanimously that the one thing we don’t need at the multimillion-dollar 6th Street Marketplace taxpayer disaster is yet another tax-absorbing boondoggle, who would they go to? No one.

Richmond today is run by an unelected city manager who hires an unelected police chief and answers to nine City Council members, none of whom can fire him. There isn’t a single elected official who can speak for Richmond. There’s no one person who can respond to Richmond’s concerns.

Could it happen? Sure. Will it? We’ll see. Marsh, McCollum & Co. will continue to make ridiculous charges and irrational arguments and offensive racial appeals in a desperate attempt to stop 80 percent of Richmond from getting what it wants.

These people, though elected by the people, don’t care. The good news is, for the moment at least, we do. S

Michael Graham is host of “The Michael Graham Experience,” from 3-7 p.m. on WRVA-AM 1140 in Richmond.

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


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