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Times Have Changed

Eight years later, the mood at the State Capitol favors a citywide mayor.

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“The fireworks really begin in January,” says John V. Moeser, professor of government and public affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, referring to the 2004 legislative session. “I just can’t imagine the General Assembly turning it down flat if the voters say yes, we want a change.”

This won’t be the first time for the General Assembly to take up a mayoral referendum. In 1996, months after Richmonders passed the first referendum to elect the mayor, the state legislature, then run by Democrats, buried the proposal in committee. Led by Richmond Democrats Del. Henry Marsh and Sen. Benjamin J. Lambert, opponents argued that the referendum was unclear and that voters didn’t know what they were voting for. They contended that a popularly elected mayor would dilute black voting power and may not pass the scrutiny of the Justice Department.

At the time, the proposal had some powerful opponents — namely former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and some high-ranking Democrats at the State Capitol. Despite a strong push by Republicans, led by then-Gov. George Allen, the proposal died.

But times have changed. Republicans now control both houses, and pending voter approval Nov. 4, most think state lawmakers can’t ignore a second referendum, especially considering the clout of two key backers: Wilder, who has since switched sides, and former U.S. Rep. Thomas Bliley Jr., the influential Republican.

“Major changes have happened since the last time,” says Larry Sabato, professor of political science at the University of Virginia. “Democrats were in control, which means that African-American senators and delegates, especially people like Henry Marsh and so on, had a tremendous impact on the sinking of that charter change before. But they are no longer in charge.” He continues, “So that means it will be up to the Republicans, and Republicans are highly likely to pass this because Tom Bliley is pushing it and they like Doug Wilder. And I don’t see Gov. Warner vetoing it.”

Political observers agree that momentum has shifted. The question is not so much if it passes at the state level, but what the final proposal will look like when it finally emerges from the General Assembly. Unlike most states, changes in local government and local tax structure must be approved by the state legislature.

In the latest referendum, the mayor would take office after winning the popular vote of five of the nine city districts, instead of a straight popular vote, which was what Richmonders voted for in 1995. But some lawmakers say such a system is flawed: It means a candidate who wins a majority vote could lose the election, as when President Bush was elected despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore in 2000.

“I believe it’s fair to say the current plan has a number of defects,” says Del. Franklin P. Hall, D-Richmond, who sits on the House Counties, Cities and Towns Committee, where the mayoral bill will be assigned. “While I’m not sure how it will come out,” he says, “there will be modifications, provisions in the proposal that will be implemented before it becomes law. … Remember, in Virginia, referendum is advisory only.”

How the General Assembly treats the referendum will depend on how much voter support it garners. If it passes with anything close to the 2-to-1 margin of the 1995 referendum, state lawmakers may be forced to remain more hands-off.

“There is going to be some energy this time, I think, not to go against and undermine the public impression,” says Robert D. Holsworth, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I think it’s problematic to say the public didn’t know what they were thinking about. The argument for the status quo in Richmond is not very strong right now.”

And there is the unknown: How will opponents attempt to squash the push for change? The best chance for turning it back perhaps lies in court, and with the U.S. Justice Department, which is the last step in changing the city charter.

Virginia is one of a few states that require such a change to comply with the federal Voter Rights Act, which was enacted during the civil-rights movement. The Justice Department will study the mayoral change to see whether it dilutes the voting rights of blacks. This is one of the key reasons for proposing that the mayor be elected by five of the nine districts, says Moeser. This would force candidates to cater to the largely black sections of the city that are historically apathetic at the polls.

Scrapping the district plan for a straight popular vote, as some state lawmakers would like, has less chance of surviving the Justice Department’s scrutiny, Moeser says.

“If there is a material, substantive change, I would not view that as being a good thing,” Moeser says. “There have been a lot of people who support this because it’s a majority district plan.” Regardless of what the final version looks like, however, almost everyone is bracing for change. It’s only a matter of time.

“This popular election for the city of Richmond has been baking in the oven for a long time,” Sabato says. “It is not done yet. But it is approaching done.” S

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