Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's announcement that he won't run for re-election hasn't even begun to scab over, but Bill Pantele just can't resist picking the wound.
The City Council president and so-close-but-not-yet-announced mayoral candidate decides to hold his Friday afternoon press briefing at Bill's Barbecue, just across the street from The Diamond on North Boulevard.
Ever coy and grinning from ear to ear, Pantele, one of Wilder's favorite targets, plays hard to get. "My head is spinning," he says, seemingly bewildered, while wind whips his comb-over into a muss.
How will Wilder's exit affect the November election?
"The issues would shift somewhat," he says.
How about Pantele's decision to run?
"Honestly, it doesn't have any impact at all."
The platitudes were rolling in when fellow City Council member Ellen Robertson, another Wilder target, pulls into the parking lot, rolling down her window and stretching her neck to holler at Pantele. She's all smiles.
"You can't find any better place to do this?" she says, wheeling around the drive-through bend. It's the moment Pantele's been waiting for, his well-timed Freudian slip.
"Think about it," he tells Robertson: "Bill's Barbecue and I'll take a chop with slaw."
They exchange knowing chuckles. It's a fitting end to a week that saw Richmond's leadership structure of the last three years take an unofficial bow following the exit of Richmond Schools Superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman and Police Chief Rodney Monroe -- and now, Wilder.
The business community lined up to congratulate Wilder late last week, and niceties began pouring in. Seemingly every business leader and former political foe seemed grateful for Wilder's three-year demolition tour.
Robertson and Pantele were gritting their teeth, survivalists of sorts.
"We're at a bend in the road," Robertson says, a little anxious about how the next six months will play out. "We're going to have a new chief of police and superintendent of schools and, God only knows, new members of City Council."
Delegate Dwight C. Jones, who announced his mayoral candidacy last month, is widely seen as the front-runner in a race that so far officially includes former Wilder aide Paul Goldman and Donnie "Dirtwoman" Corker, not to mention the business community's seemingly handpicked but unannounced candidate, attorney Robert Grey.
But perhaps no one deserves a shot more than Pantele, who's withstood multiple Wilder attacks (remember the city computer porn charges?) and taken to the trenches repeatedly in the last three years about everything from the failed School Board eviction to the mayor's attempt to hire and fire council staffers.
"Whether intended or not, I think the relationship between the School Board and City Council is the best it's ever been," Pantele says. "Whether intended or not, probably not, there is a real thirst … to want to see people working together and getting things done."
An emboldened council likely isn't high on Wilder's list of accomplishments. In his weekly newsletter, Wilder says in his first term he did everything he set out to do, mainly to chart a new course.
"Citizens wanted things to change," Wilder writes. "They were tired of the ingrained habits that slowed down the City's progress. They wanted one single person who would work toward improvements on a citywide basis and put an end to Council's turf activities."
Indeed, the people ushered Wilder into office four years ago with nearly 80 percent of the vote, although how much of that vote was actually frustrated with the city's progress — or simply a response to Wilder's stature and celebrity — is difficult to ascertain.
The true test comes in November. Still, for some, Wilder's whirlwind during the last three and half years represents opportunity lost.
"I just think what could have been achieved, both in the city and in the region, if instead of confronting City Council he worked with City Council," posits University of Richmond professor John Moeser, one of the architects of the new city charter. "If instead of challenging the School Board, he'd worked with the School Board; if instead of alienating a large chunk of the business community, if he'd drawn in those leaders.
"He had such enormous political capital," Moeser continues. "He could have put not only the city of Richmond, but cities in general in Virginia, on the political agenda."
What Wilder squandered in terms of potential is also open to debate. While the business community supported Wilder's campaign in 2004 and genuinely fawned over the mayor early on, Wilder wasted no time attacking the city's power structure upon taking office.
His first target was the business community's pet project, the performing arts center, which led to Wilder publicly dressing down Jim Ukrop and criticizing the project's architects for misusing public funds. It caused an immediate rift that didn't end until, ironically, Wilder appointed a committee of business leaders to right the ship and scale down the arts center.
In hindsight, Wilder's first term appears to have re-energized the business community to get more involved, even if no one seemed to predict Wilder's announcement last week. Sources say Wilder announced his endorsement of Grey in his meeting with city department heads Friday morning.
Publicly, business leaders were full of praise. The Richmond Times-Dispatch ran a story May 16 full of congratulatory statements from business heavy-hitters such as Thomas Farrell, chairman and chief executive of Dominion Resources, who also called for a continuation of Wilder's agenda. Privately, though, many were more than happy that Wilder's reign appears to be over.
"Now we do have a good chance of, hopefully, opening the lines of communication" between City Council, the School Board and the mayor's office, says Beverley "Booty" Armstrong, co-owner of CCA Industries. "The fact that we'll have a new mayor lets us start witha clean slate."
There's much work to be done. Wilder's lame-duck status raises questions about his top executives, including Chief Administrative Officer Sheila Hill-Christian and embattled finance chief Harry Black, who earned a reputation as a prickly No. 2, whom City Hall staffers nicknamed "Baby Wilder."
"Talk about Harry Black — I would have thought he would have been gone this last December," Moeser says. "He's done great damage. … [Black] was so deeply involved with some of these major points of tension between the council and the mayor. He was clearly involved in this wreck of an attempt to oust the School Board [from City Hall Sept. 21]. City Council was often questioning the figures they got" from Black's city finance department. "I would have thought certainly with the coming of Sheila Hill-Christian that Black would have been gone."
Other decisions Wilder has made for members of his inner circle have been equally questionable. In 2006, Wilder parted with one of his most trusted advisers, Paul Goldman, who was widely credited throughout their political partnership as being the brakes to Wilder's gas pedal.
So much turmoil has beset City Hall since Wilder took over — most of the department heads under former City Manager Calvin Jamison are long gone — that some worry the city will become even more unstable as it eases out of Wilder's first term.
Losing Police Chief Rodney Monroe, who oversaw a drastic reduction in violent crime, particularly homicides, was no doubt the nail in Wilder's coffin, former Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks says.
"That was it," Hicks says, dismissing all other Wilder activities in the past three years — good or bad — as being eclipsed by the singular success of Monroe. "Clearly it is a concern whether or not the mayor felt like committing to the task of starting from scratch on such a cornerstone issue as public safety. The bottom line is he just lost his Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.
"It's inexcusable that someone with the background of the mayor hasn't assembled a team so that Chief Monroe wasn't the norm rather than the exception," Hicks says. "If the mayor had done what everybody thought he was going to do, then this would have been one [player] of an all-star team. … There is no one else in the mayor's team that is so great that you could say only the mayor could have recruited that person."
Then there's Hill-Christian.
"Even Sheila, who is the next best thing [to Monroe], worked for two other administrations in the city," Herring says, questioning her once-touted hiring shortly after the botched School Board eviction. At the time, she was seen as a potential savior.
Now, rather than savior, one city insider wonders if she's not turned out to be as much a victim of Wilder's heavy hand as City Council or the School Board.
"I don't know how she could come out of this looking good," says the insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Either she should have spoken out or [made] personnel changes. Absent the two, one is left with the impression that she sanctions what has happened. If that is the case, her reputation has been marred."
Goldman, too, speculates that Wilder has gotten exactly what was coming to him by surrounding himself with yes men: "I told him this would happen."
Bad advice abounded, Moeser says.
Wilder "has surrounded himself with sycophants who have not served him well," Moeser says. "Either they don't see the mistakes or else they have counseled him such that the result was a big mistake."
It makes it easier, he says, to understand Monroe's eagerness to depart when the opportunity arose. "It must have not been easy for Monroe all of the time," Moeser says of serving under Wilder. He points to the School Board eviction, where Monroe was asked to lay down cover fire while Black moved the furniture.
And then there was taking the heat for Wilder's car allowance — he'd been receiving $8,400 a year for wear and tear on his personal vehicle despite being escorted daily by a police security detail in a city-owned Mercury Grand Marquis. Each time the money came up, Wilder told critics it was Monroe who insisted he have the $1 million bodyguard detail.
"What do you suppose Rodney Monroe was thinking down deep in his soul?" Moeser asks.
From now until December, the debate will continue in earnest as to Wilder's legacy. It may be difficult to argue the positives right now, but one thing is clear: The mayor came to office with a wrecking ball.
Larry J. Sabato, professor of political science at the University of Virginia, says that regardless of how Richmonders remember Wilder's last four years as mayor, his legacy is firmly intact.
"I know this is hard for the people in the holy city to understand, but they are a small part of the universe," Sabato says. "This drives his rivals and critics nuts. He will be in the history books forever [as the country's first elected black governor]. They will all be forgotten."
No one should be surprised that Wilder, 77, decided not to run, says Sabato, who offers a warning: "He will enjoy it to the last day. Don't think the news is over.
"It isn't." S
Staff writer Amy Biegelsen contributed to this report.