In Richmond we would rather be nice than honest. We wrong-headedly believe that politeness and passion are mutually exclusive qualities.
Sure, we have had our share of outspoken mavericks, but many of them have been branded as total wingnuts or as entertaining sideshows. When I was writing frequently about the problems at the Richmond Animal Shelter, Jeanne Bridgforth, the president of Save Our Shelters, was one of the city's most provocative quotemeisters. Armed with some pretty compelling evidence and documentation of wrongdoing at the shelter, she got in the face of City Hall at Council meetings, in press conferences, press releases and numerous interviews. But I can tell you for a fact that City Hall considered her and her well-manicured cohorts a bunch of nuts. It was a matter of style. The louder Bridgforth got, the more City Hall stuck their fingers in their ears. Clearly, these women should have been lunching on the Avenues and not hurling words like "mendacious" at city officials. How dare they?
Then there was Jerry Oliver, who caught a bunch of flak for saying in an interview I did with him that "an arrest is a failure." The former police chief was always saying stuff like that and whether or not you agreed with him you had to admit the man had a vision, an objective, and of course, passion. Oliver's tongue got him into trouble more than once in this town (remember when he likened his critics to "barking dogs"?) and I truly believe it was only a fortuitous drop in the crime rate nationwide and the success of Project Exile that let Oliver leave his job here on his terms.
Most recently, Henrico Supervisor Pat O'Bannon accused fellow supervisor Richard Glover of having ties to a local developer who had matters pending before the board. Rather than delve into the accusation, the rest of the board swiftly chastised O'Bannon for her "inappropriate" behavior. When would it be appropriate for one public official to confront another on this issue? Well, this is Richmond. The answer is "In private, dear."
We prefer our city leaders to be, well, nice. Look at Tim Kaine. Did he ever say anything once that rankled anyone? The most controversial thing I remember Kaine doing was putting up that traffic diverter. And then there's Mr. Congeniality himself, City Manager Calvin Jamison. I remember when he was hired there was a lot of talk about his strength in "consensus-building," which is just code for "will take the blandest and easiest path so as not to piss off anyone."
In 1998 I wrote a cover story for Style titled "Who's the Boss?" examining the idea of a leadership vacuum in Richmond. John Moeser, a professor of urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University, had this to say about the nature of Richmond politics: "Richmond has a way of beating up on people who want to see change. When somebody really initiates something out of the ordinary, that person is confronted with all the forces of why things shouldn't change. We're caught up in the Virginia Way that to be completely honest in public is viewed as impolite."
State senator and former Richmond Mayor Henry Marsh III added: "We're polite. There's a Richmond character imposed on everything's that's going on. We're not as direct and open as other places, and that's too bad."
How ironic that nearly 230 years ago another Richmonder (a Hanover County boy to be exact) stood up at one of this country's most difficult moments and said with perfect and equal amounts of passion and politeness: "But different men often see the same subject in different lights. And therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony."
Lucky for us Patrick Henry wasn't paralyzed by politeness like so many of Richmond's leaders today. After all, where would we be if he'd stood up in St. John's Church and muttered, "Can't we all just get along?" S
Janet Giampietro is a writer who lives in Richmond. She is a former staff writer and managing editor at Style.