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Wilder's New Rival?

Al Bowers Jr. is testing the city's political waters.

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South of the Downtown Expressway between Lombardy and Allen streets, the Randolph West subdivision is bursting with new homes. Hardwood floors, brick facades, freshly planted trees and garages with automatic doors — it's a bucolic setting in a forgotten neighborhood that hasn't seen new housing in decades.

The centerpiece is a $500,000 three-story home with marble baths and multiple fireplaces owned by the project's patriarch, Al Bowers Jr.

Bowers, whose son owns the firm responsible for building the subdivision, plans to sell his home in Woodlake by the end of March and become a city resident.

He's also moving into the 5th District, represented by Marty Jewell on City Council. The significance is something Bowers likes to point out.

"We have a complete void of black leadership in the city of Richmond," Bowers says, his booming baritone steadily rising like a preacher's. "I can tell you one thing: We need a change in leadership. And I don't lead like a sheep, I lead like a lion."

Bowers likes to talk in parables, with biblical references. He's a bit of a Republican, fond of Ronald Reagan, and he speaks often about picking oneself up by the bootstraps — something he teaches his seven children (four sons and three daughters) and the many contractors he works with through his firm, Bowers Family Enterprises.

His move into the city seems, oddly, like a homecoming. His minority contracting business has supplied work for many of the city's highest-profile projects, including Westminster Canterbury, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts expansion, the Philip Morris USA headquarters at the former Reynolds Metals campus and the $350 million research and technology center downtown.

His construction firm has managed projects such as St. Francis Medical Center and has served as a joint-venture general contractor in the massive Capital One Financial Corp. campus at West Creek, not to mention his company's work on the stalled Miller & Rhoads hotel on Broad Street.

The Randolph subdivision is one of Bowers' biggest achievements, however, primarily because of its role in the community. It's a project his son, Al Bowers III, headed up via his own construction firm, Premiere Homes. The quality of the housing is better than that you'd typically find in the suburbs.

It's also at the center of a lawsuit. Premiere is suing the city of Richmond for $273,800 in streetlights and sidewalks Premiere put up in Randolph. Premiere charges that the city, through the Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority, has failed to pay for the improvements.

The city has countersued, claiming the costs of the streetlights were the responsibility of Premiere. The lawsuit, scheduled for trial at the end of this month, has set off a feud between Mayor L. Douglas Wilder — who is bent on fighting any and all "frivolous lawsuits" brought against the city — and Bowers, who refuses to back down.

The fight spilled over into the Miller & Rhoads project last year when City Hall declared that all minority contractors working on that project must go through the city's minority business development office, and not Bowers' firm, BFE Consulting.

Rita Henderson, on behalf of the city, fired off a statement saying that "Mr. Bowers does not represent the city's interests in this or any other matter involving our goals to encourage minority business growth."

Bowers says City Hall's vitriol only underscores the lack of achievement of Mayor Wilder's administration. Bowers' firm has helped minority contractors win hundreds of millions in contracts, he says, and the city's record doesn't even compare.

"They really don't have a track record of getting minorities opportunities," Bowers says, adding that he's even set up a construction craft academy for minorities with 66 people currently enrolled. "The bottom line is: Talk don't get the job done."

In December, King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the state NAACP, stepped into the fracas. Khalfani sent a letter to the mayor requesting information on how much the city was spending with minority contractors, among other things, and commenting that the mayor's interference in the Miller & Rhoads project would represent the same kind of "corruption" that the mayor campaigned against.

Meanwhile, Bowers, 59, is preparing to enter the political arena.

He's already chairman of the Virginia Statewide Coalition, a state commission that ensures minority contractors get their fair share of state government construction contracts. And he smiles coyly at the prospect of running for City Council, perhaps even mayor, sometime soon. He says he's exploring the possibility of running, but hasn't made a decision just yet.

"I think the people are yearning for someone to surface," Bowers says. "I think the people are pleading for somebody to stand up."

City Councilman Jewell says Bowers is a "quick study" who honed his political skills serving as president of the Central Virginia Business & Construction Association from 2001 to 2003, but says it's too early to gauge his political skills.

"He sees himself somehow as a rival to the mayor, in stature and ability," Jewell says. "I'm going to leave that for others to say." As for Bowers' charge there's a void in black leadership on City Council, Jewell, who is black, tries hard not to bite: "So he's going to come from Chesterfield [County] and fill the void? That's interesting, and very noble of him."

For Al Bowers III and his brothers, the thought of their father running for office brings knowing smiles to their faces. They've been hearing it their entire lives. Bowers III says his dad taught him and his brothers to stand up and fight when the going gets rough, instilling toughness at an early age. He recalls playing a pickup football game with his father when he smacked into a lamppost and chipped his tooth. Instinctively, he didn't cry or lose his composure.

"He told me to shake it off," says Bowers III. "And the thing about it was, I held on to that ball." S

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