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As Wilder Pick, Robert Grey Brings Baggage

Despite the apparent anointment by Mayor L. Douglas Wilder as his successor, Robert Grey Jr.'s potential candidacy for mayor is already the talk of the town.

Much of the early conversation seems to focus on Grey's ability to raise an abundant war chest.

On hearing of Grey's potential entry as a Wilder surrogate, City Councilman Chris Hilbert says that "wouldn't be completely shocking."

Indeed, only a candidate like Grey, a business and community insider who has almost no legwork to do to consolidate supporters with deep pockets, could hope to mount a serious challenge this late in the game.

"I think any candidate that runs for this job is going to have to have money," Hilbert says. "You're going to have to have serious resources -- I'm talking about at least $500,000 to run a serious campaign."

Though clearly the financing would be there, enthusiasm for Grey's potential candidacy doesn't necessarily extend beyond those with heavy pocketbooks.

"I think [Grey] the former Crusade President from 1989 to 1991 would really have to work hard to receive his former organization's support," say Antione Green, current president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters. "In my district, the 5th, I can assure you he would have an uphill challenge. … for him to convince people he will be an inclusive mayor considering he was a signer on that letter from the Gang of 26."

That letter -- sent shortly before Wilder's botched eviction of the School Board from City Hall last fall -- was the business community's official stamp of disapproval for the current elected school board arrangement in the city. In it, they proposed doing away with School Board elections and reverting to a board appointed by the mayor and City Council.

If Grey were elected, he'd be in the catbird seat in terms of following through on the business community's vision of lessening public input in the process, says Grey's potential competitor for the mayor's seat, Paul Goldman.

Grey told Style last August that the elected School Board method simply was not working.

"When you think about the way in which we govern our school system, it is not as if we have never appointed school board members," he said. "Now [that] we have done the elected school board members, I think we have concluded that we can accomplish more -- marshal resources in a more effective way -- where accountability is more closely tied to the people who control the money."

Goldman says Grey, who never wavered publicly in his support for returning to appointed school boards, only needs signatures from 10 percent of registered voters to add a referendum to the ballot. State law allows voters to sidestep the usual process of petitioning the General Assembly for a reversion to appointed boards.

Once the question of appointed versus elected is on the ballot, says Goldman, an old hand at fighting uphill battles to pass referendums, it would be a comparatively easy trick to do away with the current method of selecting the School Board.

"His solution to our education problem was the most confrontational you could have: abolishing the people's right to vote," says Goldman.

Rumors of Grey's potential run are not new at City Hall. Whispers began floating around downtown around the time of last September's botched School Board eviction.

Wilder's office confirmed that the mayor met with Robert Grey Jr., a past president of the American Bar Association and former lobbyist for alcohol beverage industry interests, on Friday afternoon. Grey, who has not announced he is a candidate for mayor, was among 26 area business leaders -- many key Wilder supporters -- who signed their names to an open letter to the community calling for the elected Richmond School Board's ouster.

As Wilder's approval ratings have plummeted, according to various candidate polls, Grey's name was a whisper on lips as a suitable replacement who might win business community backing.

Paul Goldman was downtown at the voter registrar filing paperwork related to his own mayoral run when a chauffeured car carrying Grey pulled up in front of City Hall at right about noon on Friday. The lawyer-cum-civic booster-club-cheerleader darted across the lobby when Goldman intersected with him.

"I said, 'Hey Bob, see you on the campaign trail,'" says Goldman, who adds that Grey's visit so close on the heels of Wilder's announcement was no coincidence. "The unflappable Mr. Grey sort of stuttered a little bit and said thanks."

Radio news station WRVA also reported Friday -- without attribution -- that Wilder's support for the mayor's seat would go to Grey.

On Saturday, the day after Style Weekly first reported Grey's potential entry into the race, Grey sent an e-mail. He said he's still considering throwing his hat in the ring.

"I have always been among those who would have supported Mayor Wilder if he wanted to run for a second term," he wrote. "Since the Mayor has announced his decision not to seek a second term, I have received phone calls and e-mails from friends and citizens encouraging me to consider running."

Interestingly, according to one City Hall source, Wilder named Grey as a possible successor in the staff meeting on Friday morning - almost in the same sentence in which he announced his own intention to bow out of the November race. It was just hours later that Grey was meeting with the mayor.

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