Al Bowers remembers falling to the floor, absorbing the blows — rapid-fire punches and knifing kicks to the ribs, legs and the back of the head.
In 1960, he was 12 years old, an incoming freshman at West End High School in the small tobacco town of Clarksville, deep in Southside Virginia. He had prepared for this. He watched the bullies give other freshmen their introductory hazing.
“The bully and his cohorts were attacking incoming freshmen, and they hadn't gotten around to me yet,” Bowers says — “until one day we got off the school bus.”
The bullies, mostly 10th graders, followed him into the school, forming a circle around the lanky, light-skinned Bowers in the hallway. It was his turn.
“I'd already predetermined what I was going to do. It was almost like God knew it and he made me aware of it,” Bowers recalls, his voice rising like a preacher's. “When they confronted me, I just slapped the leader as hard as I could slap him. I slapped him so hard it left a scar on his face, and they proceeded to whup my ass. Kick me, threw books on me, did everything they could do on me. I remember covering up to keep them from kicking me in my face.”
After a few minutes, the beating stopped. Bowers stood up. “‘I'm still standing and I'm still strong,'” he told the bullies. “They looked at me as almost to say, ‘That boy is crazy.' But one thing happened there — they never attacked me again.”
Wearing a beard that cradles his face like a shovel, Bowers delivers his allegory in a deep, sweeping baritone that dips and rises like a pipe organ. He wears Italian suits and cowboy boots, and generally occupies more space than you'd expect from a man who stands 6-foot-1. No matter the conversation, Bowers winds up offering biblical parables and stories of uprightness, which ricochet through his minimalist home in Randolph West, against hardwood floors and salmon-colored walls. There's a 60-inch television hanging on the wall in the living room, facing a white sectional couch with a black bearskin blanket draped over the left arm.
Like that day in the hallway in 1960, something about Bowers and bullies seems predestined. So when former Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder early in his term decided to make an example of Bowers' minority construction and contracting firm, Bowers Family Enterprises, he did what he'd always done. He stood up.
This wasn't just any bully. When history is written, Wilder likely will go down as the city's greatest practitioner of confrontational politics. He doesn't just beat his enemies, he bludgeons them. This fact hasn't been lost on Mayor Dwight C. Jones, who has gone out of his way to extend the olive branch to many of Wilder's old foes and victims at City Hall: It's a new day, Wilder's gone, the fight's over.
There is at least one man, however, still pacing the building. He isn't interested in burying the hatchet. And he's still waiting for the bully to come out.
The details are buried in the $205 million lawsuit Bowers filed against Wilder and the city in September 2007. In the suit, Bowers claims that Wilder and his administration worked aggressively behind the scenes to cut his business off from the city's rich procurement spigot. Wilder and at least two of his top administrators made phone calls to local developers and other municipalities, the lawsuit charges, warning them that hiring Bowers as a contractor would lead to “problems with the Mayor's office.”
Now three binders heavy and counting, the lawsuit centers on Bowers' role in the $110 million renovation of the old Miller & Rhoads department store on East Broad Street into a hotel and condos. After years of delays, the 250-room, 133-condo Miller & Rhoads opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in early February.
Whiting-Turner, the project's general contractor, hired Bowers' company in April 2006 to help it ensure that a percentage of the contracts went to minority businesses — standard operating procedure in the construction industry, and a requirement on city-funded jobs.
But Wilder had a problem with Bowers. He'd recently sued the city — and won — in a dispute over unpaid work on a street project. The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority had hired Premiere Homes, a construction company operated by Bowers' son, Al Bowers III, to develop the Randolph West subdivision south of the Downtown Expressway, near Virginia Commonwealth University. The dispute was over a few additional streetlights that Premiere had completed, but hadn't been paid for. Small change in the grand scheme of things. Bowers sued for the money and the city was forced to cough up a little more than $46,000.
Bad blood over that lawsuit — Wilder called it frivolous — spilled over into the much more lucrative Miller & Rhoads project, Bowers says, which also had ties to public money and the housing authority, which previously owned the building.
Bowers' relationship with the contractor, Whiting-Turner, had led to him winning a contract to serve as administrator and manager of minority contracts. “He and I have done this on four or five major projects,” Dan Niccolucci, manager of Whiting-Turner's Richmond office, told Style Weekly in July 2007. “He has a written agreement of understanding with me to serve as my administrator” of minority contracts.
Upon finding out that Bowers was involved in the project, Wilder decided to throw his weight around, according to the lawsuit. His office sent out press releases saying that City Hall, not Bowers, would administer the minority contracts on the project, confusing many of the minority contractors in town.
Wilder also called Sidney Barthelemy, a former black mayor of New Orleans, whom Wilder knew from his time as governor in the early 1990s. Barthelemy was a governmental adviser to HRI Properties in New Orleans, the Miller & Rhoads developer.
Wilder called Barthelemy at his office in New Orleans and told him that he didn't want Bowers on the job, the suit alleges, explaining that Bowers was “bad news” and wasn't a good contractor.
His tongue sharpened. Wilder wasn't just emphatic that Bowers be removed from the job site, the suit charges: “Wilder also contacted Sidney Barthelemy of HRI and stated that Wilder did not ‘want that fucking nigger on this project.'”
The New Orleans developer complied with Wilder's wishes, as did Whiting-Turner, and Bowers was removed from the hotel project. And the fight was on. Bowers flew into an outrage, and few stood by him publicly. King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the state NAACP, however, was similarly outraged and began making phone calls to New Orleans, demanding answers from Wilder and the city.
“There are going to be some serious repercussions,” Khalfani pledged. “We are going to fight this. It's coming man, believe me.”
It wasn't just the Miller & Rhoads project. The suit alleges that Wilder and his staff contacted other developers and municipalities and warned them not to hireBowers.
Former Chief Administrative Officer William Harrell and Rita Henderson, former director of the city's office of minority business development, are accused of contacting localities such as Caroline County, where Bowers was bidding on a $4 million to $7 million contract to retrofit several schools, and companies doing construction work in the city such as Horrigan Construction, W.M. Jordan and Philip Morris USA, which was building a new $300 million research facility on Leigh Street.
The lawsuit charges that Henderson and Harrell told them that hiring Bowers would be detrimental. “At Wilder's direction,” the suit alleges, Henderson and Harrell “advised them that they were not to work with [Bowers' companies] or they would have problems on future projects with the city of Richmond.”
Harrell has to date declined to comment on the lawsuit, but sources tell Style that he's indicated to Bowers a willingness to “tell the truth” and testify on his behalf.
Wilder, for his part, didn't return messages left with his office at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he teaches public policy. He also didn't respond to e-mail requests for comment by press time.
All told, Bowers says Wilder's “conspiracy” has cost him and his family businesses $140 million in contracting work, which would have resulted in net profits of $14 million to $20 million.
“From a business standpoint, this whole saga has caused us a tremendous amount of economic harm,” Bowers says.
Bowers, 61, has been in the construction business most of his life. After graduating from Virginia Union University with a mathematics degree in 1969, he landed a job as a computer analyst for Burlington Industries in Clarksville, where he worked for about four years. The company transferred him to Eden, N.C., where he got his first taste of the construction business. His father recommended he build his house instead of buying at the age of 23, so he did. After he and his wife moved in, he recalls getting compliments from visitors, and realized he could sell the house and pocket an $80,000 profit. Bowers had found a new career.
He retired from the construction business in 1988 and moved to Richmond to be closer to family. He took a job working for Linhart Co., which operated car dealerships in Richmond. By the mid-1990s, Bowers was planning to buy his own dealership when his brother, Carter, was murdered on Lakeside Avenue in January 1995. His plans changed.
Bowers got out of the car business and started working construction again with his wife and, eventually, three of his sons — he has six children — and by 2001 they had launched their new business, Bowers Family Enterprises. The business quickly took off. The company grew from $100,000 in gross revenues in 2001 to $6 million in 2005.
Business was booming. Including the Miller & Rhoads project, Bowers anticipated gross sales of $18 million in 2006, but instead suffered a major retraction, finishing the year with $3.2 million in sales.
In 2007, sales dropped to $2.7 million. While the final numbers haven't been tallied for 2008, Bowers expects it to drop another 30 percent.
That's not the worst of it. The company has had to fire most of its employees, dropping from 28 full-time workers in 2005 to its current payroll of eight. Based on the amount of work in the pipeline, Bowers says he really only needs two employees. He and his wife, Marva Jean, have been paying them out of their personal bank account because they “didn't have the heart not to take care of loyal employees.”
By most accounts, the seeds of the Bowers-Wilder rift started in 2003, when Wilder became the central figure in the movement to change the city charter to allow for the election of a mayor at large. Some of Richmond's most powerful black leaders, including state Sen. Henry Marsh, opposed the at-large mayor referendum for fear it would dilute the city's black political structure.
Bowers, as head of the powerful Central Virginia Business and Construction Association, which represented minority construction companies, helped raise money to fight the city charter change, siding with Marsh, a longtime rival of Wilder's.
Bowers also took a public stand to change the state's procurement process. In February 2005, then-Gov. Mark Warner concurred, issuing an executive order insisting that state agencies increase state contracts to minority businesses by 5 percent. Black leaders, including the state NAACP, raised the issue after a study found that minority-owned businesses were receiving just 0.44 percent of the state's procurement budget.
It was a victory, and Bowers hailed Warner for standing up for black-owned businesses more than the previous governors, including Wilder.
“Those who preceded Warner and Kaine did nothing. I knew that included the first so-called black governor,” Bowers recalls, pointing out that Wilder barely won the governor's race in 1989, claiming the title as the country's first elected black governor. “Wilder just made it by his chinny chin chin. And I don't think he did much to improve the status of my people.
“You need people on the ground, like me, who don't mind slapping the damn bully.”
Still, few people saw the battle coming. Bowers may have taken a position opposite Wilder, but so had plenty of other black leaders. So it came as a surprise to Ronald Jewell, owner of Jewell Industries, a facilities management company, when a group of 20 or more black business owners met with the mayor at City Hall in early 2005, shortly after Wilder took office. It was probably February or early March, Jewell says.
Many in the room had known Wilder for years, including Jewell, who also happened to be roommates with Bowers at Virginia Union. Wilder walked into the room smiling and cajoling, and told the contractors: “This is a great day, and this is a great meeting, as long as Al Bowers wasn't in the room,” Jewell recalls.
Merlin Hargrove, president and chief executive of United Unlimited Construction, was also at the meeting and recalls Wilder referencing Bowers. “It sort of surprised me. I didn't know what was going on,” Hargrove says. “I didn't really think about it. Later on, I found out what was wrong between them.”
Jewell says up until that day, Bowers and Wilder “liked each other.” There was a mutual respect, he says. Jewell says he introduced Bowers to Wilder in 1965, when he and Bowers were at Virginia Union. (They also attended Union with Dwight Jones, who Bowers says supported him for SGA president.)
Bowers had gotten into a car accident on Monument Avenue in the West End. A woman had made a U-turn in the street and broadsided Bowers' “motor air-cooled” Corvair with the engine in the trunk. Jewell knew a young hotshot lawyer named Doug Wilder, then in his early 30s, another Union graduate.
“Doug took the case on for gratis,” Jewell says.
Bowers also recalls the relationship fondly.
“He asked me about my grades. I told him I made four As and a B in my first semester,” Bowers says of Wilder. “And he says: ‘Study hard. Work hard and become a man; work lazy and become a slave.'”
Jewell was well aware of what was coming. After the meeting at City Hall in 2005 he decided to pack up his Richmond office — his company is based in Alexandria — and leave town.
“There was a big fight coming on,” Jewell says. “We had a division down here doing $700,000 a year. … I closed my business down on Hull Street. Work was drying up and games were being played. And I didn't have time to play politics in Richmond.”
Jewell knew Bowers better than most. The clash between Wilder and Bowers would eventually trickle into his own family. Ron Jewell's brother, Marty Jewell, is a Richmond City Council member who had become a Wilder ally, catching the ire of Bowers, who lives in Marty Jewell's 5th District. At one point two years ago, Bowers even contemplated running against Jewell for his council seat.
“Doug I've known almost all my life,” Ronald Jewell says. “We have an affinity that goes back generations. It's very difficult for me.”
He was simply too close to both Bowers and Wilder to choose sides. When Wilder declares an enemy, there's no turning back the barrage of punches on the way. As for Bowers, he wasn't going to be intimidated.
“You can't kill him but one time, because he fears no one,” Ronald Jewell says of Bowers. “He's very boastful and very persuasive, just don't get on the wrong side, because it will cost you. Doug knew that he couldn't get away with [bullying] Al. He knew that all along.”
Having dragged on for 16 months, the massive $205 million lawsuit has yet to be publicly addressed by City Hall since Mayor Jones took office. Quietly, sources say, Jones and the city attorney's office are working to negotiate some kind of resolution, but it's unclear what direction that might take.
Bowers says he's not interested in a settlement, that he wants his day in court. But he also says he spoke to City Council members last year in hopes of getting some support to seek “resolve the matter” — perhaps signaling a willingness to settle.
Bill Pantele, the recently departed former City Council president, says Bowers approached him in the fall of last year. “He was pressing to have City Council advance a settlement of a lawsuit, and I told him that this City Council does not really have that kind of control over lawsuits involving city administration.”
Bowers says he wasn't asking for a settlement, but simply wanted Wilder to “cease and desist.” He says he asked Pantele, “Can you get this fool of my back?” Pantele says Bowers was “definitely talking with me about getting assistance and support in resolving the lawsuit via settlement.”
As for the details, the Bowers lawsuit is light on specifics. The allegations are broad, and there are few specific dates and times attached to what was said, and when. For example, the suit quotes Wilder's racially inflammatory remark against Bowers to Barthelemy, but in a deposition, Style has learned, Barthelemy says he doesn't recall Wilder telling him that. He does acknowledge that Wilder told him he didn't want Bowers on the Miller & Rhoads project, but doesn't recall when or what time of day the conversation took place.
The suit alleges the comments, among others, were made by Wilder and his administrators sometime between March 2006 and August of 2007. Khalfani, with the state NAACP, says he spoke to Barthelemy in April 2007. “The city called us and told us this guy was bad news,” Khalfani says Barthelemy told him. “He said Wilder called himself and said you need to get that motherfucking nigger off the project.”
In the deposition, Barthelemy says he relayed his conversation with Wilder to Tom Leonhard, president and chief operating officer of HRI Properties. Because of the pending litigation, Leonhard says he can't discuss the specifics of the conversation.
Leonhard says the inflammatory remark didn't come up during his deposition with Bowers' lawyers in late January. “I wasn't there at the call,” Leonhard says. “I can't talk about it. I wish I could.”
A jury will have to decide just how strong the suit is against Wilder and the city — Bowers is suing Wilder individually, in his capacity as mayor and the city as a whole. Lawyers in the city attorney's office, which represents Wilder and the city in the case, didn't return phone calls by press time. Sources at City Hall, however, suggest it's likely the city will challenge whether Wilder was acting individually rather than in his capacity as mayor, and may try to work out a settlement before it reaches trial, scheduled for August.
Both HRI Properties and Mil-Rho Manager LLC, the developers of the Miller & Rhoads hotel, settled out of court with Bowers for a publicly undisclosed sum in the fall of last year. As part of the settlement, Barthelemy and Leonhard agreed to testify.
If there was any question about the seriousness of the charges, Khalfani says FBI agents with its Richmond office interviewed him last summer as part of a separate investigation into whether Wilder violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
Bowers says he understands the predicament the Jones administration finds itself in. In the current economy, the city has little room to negotiate a massive multimillion-dollar settlement. But he's standing pat.
“I want my day in court. I want justice to be done,” Bowers says. “If someone doesn't stand up against the bully, the bully will continue his devilish deeds. Just like what happened to me in the seventh grade. Somebody's got to slap the bully.” S