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Bridge Repair

Mayor-elect Dwight Jones' transition team signals a new direction — reconnecting with the statehouse and the business community.

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Last November, Delegate Dwight C. Jones briefly held court in a tony conference room atop the SunTrust building downtown, where Richmond's state and local officials had gathered for their annual legislative conference. Moments before the catered dinner, Jones dished up a serving of bracing reality.

He told them how out-of-town legislators who pick their way past Broad Street's construction and vacant buildings down to the State Capitol across from Richmond's City Hall don't just look askance at their capital city, they despise it.

After years in the General Assembly, battling in the territory of often-overlapping urban and racial issues, Jones ran a hard-fought race to become Richmond's next mayor by vowing to change that image. He won.

Four years since the city's new city charter brought hope and promise — and Mayor L. Douglas Wilder — Jones has his work cut out for him.

His first official act last week, naming a transition team, has positioned a cross-section of longstanding local and state government leaders to help lay the foundation for a new administration, while building a powerful conduit to the state government.

The proper balance between state and local power was widely discussed during the downtown master planning process. Because of the Dillon rule, Richmond must ask permission from the state for matters large and small — everything from switching to an elected-mayor form of government to tweaking certain panhandling ordinances.

That city-state relationship has largely been neglected during the past four years. Under Wilder, the city rarely sought to strengthen its ties with the state. Jones, in his first act as mayor-elect, signaled his intention to rebuild that bridge.

“The immense power that the state has over local government is something that is lost on the vast population,” says John Moeser, a fellow at the University of Richmond's Bonner Center for Civic Engagement and framer of the shift from appointed to elected mayor. “Basically the state can do whatever it wishes over local government and they have decided to be almost paternalistic — ‘we, the state, know better.’”

Facing down the budget will be Jones' first major task, Moeser says. A line to the state may help come January when legislators carve up what remains of the state budget, and City Council — with only one new member — sits with Jones to try to reconcile separate spending plans that were due to be passed in May.

In attempting to build a more harmonized administration, Jones has fielded a very traditional transition team, says Rhett Walker, a longtime political operative in Richmond and a member of Wilder's transition team.

Under the corporate leadership of Jim Cherry, then-chief executive of Wachovia's regional operations, and lobbyist Eva Teig Hardy, Wilder fielded a community representative from each of the city's nine districts.

“I think for the most part it should be a reassuring group to the business community and those who want stability in government,” Walker says of Jones' picks. “I think Bill Leighty is perhaps the most significant person that they should be reassured by. I think he's going to bring something to the table in terms of addressing significant budget issues in a time of economic downturn.”

Leighty, former chief of staff for Gov. Mark Warner and Gov. Tim Kaine, turned bureaucratic management into an extreme sport by going on loan to New Orleans and running an emergency command center there after the hurricane. Now in the private sector, he teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and has taken on consulting work for governments in transition, recently completing an assignment for the United Nations.

It's unclear where the business community stands relative to the new City Hall. Judging by campaign donations, corporate lawyer Robert Grey, who came in third in the mayoral race, drew cash from the industry leaders he'd supported in an open letter last year calling for an appointed School Board. City Council President Bill Pantele largely received financial support from real estate developers.

Richard Cullen, a Republican attorney and chairman at McGuireWoods, says the business community will be comfortable with Jones too.

A strong supporter of Wilder, Cullen says he's gained confidence that Jones will do a solid job as mayor after hearing his closed-door presentation to business leaders Sept. 29.

“I came away very impressed with his self-confidence, his understanding of what the city needed,” Cullen says. “I felt like at that meeting, while I was for Robert Grey, I came away feeling like [Jones] knew what it would take.”

The presence of honorary co-chair C.T. Hill on Jones' transition team, a Wilder confidante and chief executive of the Mid-Atlantic division of SunTrust Bank, could also signal continuity to the business community.

Leighty and Hill will be working on the transition with Sheila Hill-Christian, who stepped down as Wilder's chief administrative officer Aug. 1. Hill-Christian all but disappeared from the public eye after her abrupt departure, and her re-emergence has raised some eyebrows. Many people view her as a possible savior who could steady a tumultuous City Hall in the wake of the failed School Board eviction, but her silence on why she rushed out has left lingering questions.

The return of Hill-Christian and the vision of Jones welcoming old-school insiders at his victory party — former City Manager Calvin Jamison and former Mayor Rudy McCollum, among them, and past Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority board chairmen Ken Johnson and Brian Jackson — echoes the pre-Wilder city power structure.

Jones firmly denies that any decisions have been made regarding staffing, arguing that aptitude will be the determining factor and that the chief administrative officer will be selected from a slate of national candidates.

“I don't know why people won't believe me, but we have a clean page,” Jones says. “Nobody's been promised one thing.”

Whatever Hill-Christian's name may dredge up, her insider status and reputation as a consummate administrator soothes in other corners of the city, says Thad Williamson, a professor at the University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies.

“One of the knocks against [Jones] is that he didn't have the inside knowledge of city government that Pantele did,” he says. In that area, Hill-Christian should help Jones navigate City Hall, he says: “It'll be good to have someone from inside city government, to know where the bodies are buried, so to speak.”

As impressed as Williamson is by Jones' first play, he cautions that the evidence will be in the actual governing.

“The temptation for most mayors would be to do something flashy with a big downtown project, maybe baseball or something,” he says. “The voters who support him are looking at him to try and tackle those long-term issues” — mundane, unsexy budget-balancing and improving city services, education and economic development.

An early measure of just how far the tone will change under Jones might be taken in two weeks at this year's leadership summit, when Richmond's state and city representation will convene in that same SunTrust conference room. S

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