Before Wilder there was West.
Roy West, that is. He was Richmond's second black mayor elected in 1982, back when City Council members selected the mayor from within their ranks.
West garnered support from white council factions and ousted former Richmond Mayor Henry Marsh, who now represents the city in the state Senate. West promised to bridge Richmond's black political power with the economically powerful white business community, overseeing the development of the Richmond Marriott and the 6th Street Marketplace.
A former school principal, West now serves as academic dean of Richmond Virginia Seminary and recently served on the board of the Richmond Metropolitan Authority.
He's no shrinking violet. West has a long institutional memory and some tough words for Mayor L. Douglas Wilder.
Style: You were Richmond's mayor from 1982 to 1986 and cut the ribbon at the opening of the 6th Street Marketplace. This summer, the city kicked the last few tenants out of the food court. Do you think the project was a mistake?
West: Twenty-twenty hindsight. You would say that probably was a mistake, but at the time, we were talking about trying to revitalize downtown. But it went beyond economics. It went with the blending of the south side of Broad Street with the north side of Broad Street, and that was to try to bring the races together. It was symbolic, and I think it was more that than anything else. I think in both cases we failed.
Do you think the way the mayor has handled the School Board is typical of his management style?
I would say that the mayor's attitude towards public education is similar to his attitude towards everything else. It's egotistically driven. If he can't control it, he will destroy it. And that's what's happening in public education in Richmond today. I say again, if Wilder had been a white mayor who attacked public education the way he has attacked it, folks would be in the Supreme Court fighting and attesting to what was going on. The silence is deafening in that perspective. It's a disturbing development on the part of blacks in this city.
People would argue, though, that high dropout rates and low SOL scores were around before the mayor.
Well, I'll use the SOL as an example. Ninety-seven percent of Richmond schools are accredited. You've got Fairfield Court School in the middle of a project where 98 percent of those kids are on free or reduced-priced lunches. That school is now accredited. Fairfax County came in to see what they were doing about urban education because they were failing up there. I don't know what other negative things they want to say about Richmond schools, but to have that many schools accredited, that is really an accomplishment that needs to be extolled. ... It takes more money to educate those who are from the urban setting.
When they come to schools they bring baggage with them. Baggage in lack of parental support, baggage in lack of a moral base. I was in a Wal-Mart store one night and I saw this man with a Fudgsicle. And he was trying to get this little boy to bite it. The Fudgsicle was too big for his mouth and this man said to this little boy, who was about 3 or 4 years old, "Bite it n---er, bite it n---er." When that little boy goes to school he takes that lack of racial pride, and [his] teacher's got to build it, and thus you need smaller classrooms and that takes money.
What do you think of the change in government [the new city charter], separate from the officeholder?
I supported the change in government. Because when I was the mayor, I always felt that there was a dearth in the mandate that I had. I was elected by the council and not the people. So I supported the at-large election of the mayor and I think there's a misnomer out there. It's not the election of the "strong mayor," it's the election of the elected mayor.
But there's an irony in that. Wilder proposed decertifying the elected School Board. I said to myself, he got into office based on the electoral process and he tried to destroy that in another entity. And I just thought that was a contradiction beyond description.
We've talked about unity and reconciliation, but you've had some very high-profile differences with the mayor and state Sen. Henry Marsh. How do you reconcile that?
I succeeded Henry as the mayor. He's a politician, and I think he's a darn good one. I don't think Henry's lost his roots, and for that reason, the differences I had with him are not disturbing to me.
But the differences I have with Wilder are disturbing because he has forgotten his roots. He represents to me the worst of the beneficiaries of the civil rights movement because he's dashed the hopes and dreams of people who look to elected black leaders to correct the system. But he's so caught up in the system, looking at himself, that he doesn't see anything else around him.
I can fathom Henry, but Wilder is unfathomable. He's only in this process for what he gets out of it for his image. People don't talk about this, but Doug Wilder is a failure. He ran for president, and in the December 1991 debate that he was in he looked lost. So why is it Richmonders have to contend with a loser?
What should a "rooted" black politician be supporting?
You've got to recognize the fact that racism is still a factor to be contended with. And if I sound like a one-note respondent on the part of public education, I think it's because it needs to be at the forefront for any public official. I also feel that and this is where I agree with Bill Cosby that an elected official needs to address the kind of internal issues that we have. Teenage pregnancy, violence all those things have a remote relationship to racism, but I think over and above that, it's really a need for black politicians to deal with those things, and I don't think Wilder has the commitment to do that. I think Henry [Marsh] does.
What do you think about outgoing State Sen. Benjamin Lambert?
He's a good man. I supported him. I'm not casting aspersions on [Donald] McEachin [who beat out Lambert in the Democratic primary], but I just felt that Benny had the goodness of heart, if not the strongness of backbone, to continue to serve. I'm sorry he lost, but I don't think he was aggressive enough in his campaign. And I think McEachin does represent a new generation of leaders, and we need to get behind him, hoping he will not be another Doug Wilder.
Where would you like to see the city go from here?
It has the underpinnings to emerge, but until we get the leaders on both sides of the racial issue really sincerely interested in the best interest of the city, I may not see that in my lifetime. I don't have much confidence in the dynamics of the city doing what's right, despite the gains some blacks have made. What about those people who've lost hope? What about those who've lost their jobs? Educational opportunities? I want to put the onus on the black leaders now. I don't want to make white folks the boogeyman here.
I think blacks have an internal obligation to make things better, and that is to begin right now to say to Doug Wilder you are wrong. And send him a message that he can no longer run roughshod over the city. Because we are able to stand in that doorway and make sure it doesn't happen. And speaking of standing in that doorway, Massive Resistance closed the schools in 1959 in Prince Edward County. White racists. In 2007 we have a black leader who's closing the doors to public education and that is the mayor. I see no difference between those guys in Prince Edward County with the sheets and the mayor who's in the suites with his suit on, closing the doors of opportunity to black kids.
Who do you think Richmond's next mayor should be?
Richmond cannot stand another term of Wilder, who is best described by the letter "L. He s not a leader but a loser. Being detail-adverse, he left state government in shambles. His ill-fated presidential bid was pathetic with embarrassing shallowness. As a loser who has torn the city asunder, we need a healer. ... To fill this much-needed leadership vacuum and return Richmond to its vaunted vibrancy, Viola Baskerville [Gov. Tim Kaine's secretary of administration] or David Hicks [former Richmond commonwealth's attorney] would be a perfect fit. Both possess an impressive and ethical leadership persona and have garnered a great deal of respect in the community. S