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Controlled Chaos: Wilder's Strategy Befuddles Foes


The room can barely contain their outrage. It's a small, dull space with concrete walls painted light gray and a plastic thermostat that rattles. A dingy white fan oscillates in the corner while two elementary-school-aged children slouch in a chair.

Councilwoman Ellen Robertson leads a discussion about the outrageous Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, the one who is promising to cut services to her district and two others, including that of the Rev. Delores McQuinn, whose outrage is audible, if not muffled, via speakerphone.

By now it should be no shocker: Wilder doesn't stab you in the back when you're not looking; he inserts the knife squarely into your chest and then convinces everyone it's your fault for egging him on.

In the City Council administrative suites on the third floor of City Hall, it becomes painfully clear that the victims in this latest bout of outrage are overmatched. If their response is any indication of how the politics will be played in the run-up to the November mayoral election -- assuming Wilder decides to run again — they have their work cut out.

First, the setup: There's a reason Wilder so giddily lambasted Robertson, who'd referred to Chief Administrative Officer Sheila Hill-Christian as "criminal" in Style Weekly March 5, threatening to pull his proverbial pistol and shoot someone at a press conference the next day. The first shots were fired Friday, March 28, in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, in which Wilder said that certain districts might not get certain critical public services, such as trash pickup, because of their mouthy district representatives.

"Who gives him the right to talk to people that way?" says an angry Eric Hunter, chairman of Highland Park Merchants at Six Points, a civic association. "I am just embarrassed that we even got Doug as mayor, that's all I'm saying."

To the dozen or so people in this room, the outrage permeates just about everything. They can't understand how the mayor can get away with threatening to cut services in the districts represented by his political targets.

Oh, it's a big mistake, insists Jeanne Boisineau, president of the Green Park Civic Association in Highland Park. "He's badly miscalculated," she says, sitting at the conference table, typing into a laptop. He thinks "because he's Doug Wilder, he can get away with whatever he wants?"

Not thinks, does. Wilder is a master in the art of confrontational politics. He gets everyone riled up and running in different directions, and then makes them look foolish when they can't play zone defense.

Note the public advisory for the Friday press conference Robertson called. It was issued at 2:51 p.m. The press conference started at 3. The cameras showed up late and barely had room to operate. No one seemed to catch the most interesting observation about Wilder's politics. It had nothing to do with his threat of pulling public services; it was about the impact his shenanigans were having on schools.

School Board member Chandra Smith told the group all the foolishness was hurting teacher recruitment. "We have a black mark," she says, which makes top-notch teachers steer clear of Richmond. "We have this behavior … that we are not able to move forward into the future. This room should be filled with School Board members."

Alas, if only there was room.

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