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Alternative Plan Proposed to Elect Mayor

Thomas Shields and a community panel have come up with a counter-proposal to a plan from the Wilder-Bliley Commission.

"For once, let's try to unify," says Thomas Shields, an advocate of the amendment and a professor at the University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies. Shields says the amendment is written to ensure that no Richmonder is disenfranchised.

The rules are two: first, the successful mayoral candidate must receive a majority of the votes cast citywide. Secondly, the candidate must win the most votes in each of five or more of the nine council districts. If no candidate wins at least five districts, a run-off would be held between the two receiving the greatest number of votes.

Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and former Mayor and Congressman Thomas J. Bliley have proposed the election of a citywide elected mayor and two at-large members in an eight-person council.

Proponents of the Unity Amendment, however, contend that trends in voter turnout mean the Wilder-Bliley plan will be imbalanced.

After hearing about the two-part proposal, John Moeser, a professor of urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University, examined turnout in the 1998 and 2000 city elections. He found that although a majority of Richmond's population is black, white turnout was double that of black turnout. However, he says, in five of nine districts blacks made up the majority of voters.

This suggests that the substitution of two at-large council seats and an at-large mayor would disadvantage black voters, he says, because a candidate could secure the mayoral or council seat with the support of only two or three districts. The Unity Amendment would require candidates to work for votes in every district.

Therefore — "and this is key," Moeser says — the suggested method of mayoral election would force the development of biracial political coalitions, which is "something we've been lacking for a long time in this city."

It may help overcome the city's long history of voting inequity, he says. White voters controlled City Council for much of the century, and in 1970 the city annexed part of Chesterfield County diluting the black vote. That system was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1977. "Blacks understand that history, and are fearful," Moeser says.

Advocates of the amendment are beginning to present the idea to community groups now. If they find enough public support and move the amendment quickly through city, state and federal government, Moeser says, Richmond could have a popularly elected mayor as soon as 2004.

— Melissa Scott Sinclair

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