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Wilder Comes Home

Since his election 35 years ago to the General Assembly, Wilder's been a pragmatic populist who grasped that if one doesn't gain the trust of the establishment, governing successfully becomes unlikely.

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First, Wilder spearheaded the hugely successful campaign to change his hometown's city charter to heave overboard the failed weak mayor/strong city manager concept, putting in place a strong-mayor system. Then he decided to run for the new office and won the election in a breeze.

Now, as Richmond faces a new year that will usher in a new era of local politics, there's a sense of hope being felt all over town.

No doubt, Wilder's landslide win meant many things to different people. However, one aspect that stood out was that he won handily in every part of town. That feat alone proved for all to see that even in this era of fractious political discourse, people with different backgrounds and agendas can still find common ground.

So far, so good. Wilder will be sworn in Jan. 3. What's next?

To understand better how a Mayor Wilder may operate, other than to gleefully fire a few high-visibility officials, it's useful to remember how this 73-year-old man has built his career in politics.

Since his election 35 years ago as a senator representing Richmond to the General Assembly, he's been a pragmatic populist who grasped that if one doesn't gain the trust of the establishment, governing successfully becomes unlikely. Sure, a politician can win an election on personality, or riding a hot issue, but to get anything done the cooperation of the most important business leaders in the community is usually essential.

In short, Wilder's charm and practicality have served him well. Unlike many of the Southern black politicians who emerged in the late 1960s, he wasn't much of a civil-rights or anti-war firebrand. Instead, Wilder proved to be a deft deal-maker who seemed comfortable with the axiom that a rising tide will lift all boats. In 1989 his ship came in; he was elected governor.

Still, to the occasional consternation of fellow Democrats, he has operated at times as an Independent, even a gadfly. In the spring of this year Wilder crossed the aisle — and then some — to join U.S. Sen. George Allen to call for a statewide referendum on Gov. Mark Warner's tax plan. The package eventually passed with the help of Republicans of a more moderate strain than Allen. Furthermore, Wilder's suggestion that he regretted having endorsed Warner in 2001 understandably upset the Warner administration and its supporters. Insiders say there's been little communication between Wilder and Warner since their awkward split over taxes.

Kaine, too, has felt the sting of a Wilder public rebuke. Yet at the Omni there was no sign of it. As Kaine and Warner are both in an ideal position to help Wilder with his requests of this General Assembly, and Wilder could certainly help Kaine with his gubernatorial campaign, don't be surprised to see fences mended. All three have their practical reasons to be good to one another in 2005.

As mayor, Wilder should bring a much-needed dose of reality to the far-flung plans for downtown performing arts centers, pushy proposals for a new baseball park, and so forth. Since he is familiar with Richmond's somewhat checkered history of supporting nightlife venues and sports teams, he's likely to ask the boosters of such projects to jump through a good number of hoops before he decides to commit any public money.

Beyond that, Richmonders surely want Wilder to shut down redundant departments and throw out the goldbricks. And they want all the competence, openness and fairness from their government they can get. Yet, if there's one thing citizens may want from the changes that are coming, above all else, it would be a sincere change in attitude. This city's departments need to 86 the stale can't-do spirit that has loomed over all schemes, both good and bad, in this town for way too long.

The first sign of a positive change in this area might be for one to notice a sudden upgrade on civility and helpful energy from city employees in their everyday dealings with the public.

Wouldn't that be a breath of fresh air?

For some time, Wilder's name has been mentioned in discussions of which Virginians should next be honored on Monument Avenue. Yet, without any connection to a particular cause, or a signature accomplishment that bears his name, his lengthy résumé may lack some of the weight of a Justice Lewis Powell or banking pioneer Maggie Walker.

However, if Doug Wilder has come home to make Richmonders better citizens, to transfer a measure of his natural confidence to them, to prove that a local government can face its problems and find solutions, then his statue on Monument Avenue will be richly deserved. S



F.T. Rea is a writer who lives in Richmond.

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


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