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Power of One

In the great divide between the city and Chesterfield, Renny Humphrey Walks a fine line.


Welcome to the new world of regionalism, where the shifting balance of power between Richmond and Chesterfield can rest in the hands of a few. Or one. Humphrey represents Matoaca, the largest district in the county and the farthest from the city. And she has become a symbol of the hard feelings and often rocky relationship between Richmond and Chesterfield.

Berry’s very job depends on regional cooperation. In order to issue the bonds, the governments of Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield must agree to back the debt. That would mean if the revenues generated by the renovated ballpark fail to meet the debt payments, they must pick up the tab. Otherwise the deal won’t fly. Henrico and Richmond are on board; all Berry has to do is get the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors to go along at this Sept. 17 Board of Supervisors meeting.

The vote was supposed to go 3-2 in favor of the project: Supervisors Ed Barber, Jack McHale and Chairman Art Warren were expected to vote yes; Humphrey and Kelly Miller were expected to vote no.

But there is a snag. In this afternoon board meeting, Barber has yet to show. He was supposed to be here by 4:30 p.m. But it’s after 6, and the board can’t wait any longer. The bonds are the last item on the agenda before the regular meeting. That’s in less than an hour. With a 2-2 vote — without Barber — Berry’s deal will effectively be squashed.

Things don’t look good. Humphrey speaks up. “There is no doubt in my mind this is a bad business deal,” she says.

Humphrey has a deep, throaty voice that easily shifts from playful to authoritative. She peppers her speech with “Hun” and country aphorisms she learned from her daddy. But she didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, either. Humphrey is acutely aware of her power and influence as an eight-year veteran of the board, and at times it seems to make her giddy. But with the Diamond proposal seemingly in the air, Humphrey stiffens.

In late July, when the proposal first appeared before the board, she played the lightening rod, turning a rather routine vote for renovation bonds into a month-long debate over regionalism. She suggested the area around the Diamond was unsafe and said a new ballpark should perhaps be built in Chesterfield. “Who goes to that part of town?” she asked sarcastically. There’s no way she would take her 1-year-old daughter to the neighborhood.

Her comments drew criticism from the reserved Richmond Times-Dispatch. Humphrey and her Chesterfield colleagues were accused of regional sabotage. Others pounced on her characterization of the area around the Diamond, which, situated in old industrial district, has little crime. Some suggested race was the real issue. After all, this was the same Chesterfield that for years has rejected extending the bus lines across the county line. All at once, Humphrey’s stumbling diatribe — they often come unscripted and rapid-fire — seemed to polarize the relationship between Richmond and Chesterfield County, as if it needed any additional polarizing.

Meanwhile, Humphrey solidified her role as the county’s most vocal supervisor, and, perhaps unwittingly, as the voice of Chesterfield. Buried amid the controversy and the unfiltered comments, she often asks the tough questions. And she doesn’t apologize for it.

“I certainly hope, if you’re asking the taxpayers of Chesterfield, through me, to morally support 20 years worth of debt, we get a 20-year contract for the team. That’s just common sense,” she told the metropolitan authority. Her message: Chesterfield can’t afford to keep shelling out money for regional projects that in reality benefit only the city. At the least, if it’s money for something as politically popular as the Richmond Braves, the deal has to make good business sense.

She wasn’t sure this one did. The bonds were for 20 years and the Braves only agreed to sign a 10-year contract. What happened if the Braves refuse to re-sign in 10 years, perhaps to apply political pressure for a new stadium? City Manager Calvin Jamison and a group of business owners still seek proposals for a new downtown ballpark, perhaps on the riverfront. How did the authority expect Humphrey, and the Chesterfield board, to help pay for $18.5 million in renovations when there was a chance the Braves could spurn the Diamond for a new downtown stadium? On top of it all, Richmond, not Chesterfield, gets most of the tax money generated at the Diamond.

Humphrey’s biggest sin was vocalizing exactly how she, and a lot of other Chesterfield residents, felt about the city. There is no shortage of hard feelings, most of which date back to 1970, when Richmond annexed 27 square miles of the county after a bitter battle that turned 47,000 county residents into Richmonders.

“[The city] took a lot of the economic development that Chesterfield had at that time,” says state Sen. John C. Watkins, one of Chesterfield’s highest-ranking Republicans. “Quite frankly, that left a bad taste in everybody’s mouths.”

Supporters say tagging Humphrey as a troublemaker isn’t fair. She’s doing what the voters elected her to do, which is carry the voice of the people, says Ike Carmichael, who recently retired after 23 years as Chesterfield’s commissioner of revenue. “I think that’s one of her good points, she doesn’t hold it back,” he says. “It might get her in trouble sometimes, but she tells you how she feels.”

The majority of county residents don’t want to be a regional partner with Richmond, Carmichael says, at least not to the extent that the city expects. “The city of Richmond has screwed up everything that they have tried to do,” he says.

Besides annexation, he says, hard feelings still linger over tolls and taxes. For example, Carmichael says the city receives millions in sales taxes that belong to the counties — about $5 million in Chesterfield and $10 million in Henrico — because many of the ZIP codes share a Richmond label. Sales taxes that belong to the county are incorrectly paid in the city. “I tried to work with them on the sales tax for years and years,” Carmichael says. “Will they sit down and talk with us about it? No.”

There is an ebb and flow to how the counties interact with the city, says John V. Moeser, a professor of government affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, and it’s almost always rooted in the personalities of board and council members. “People around here have long memories. They bear grudges,” he says. “I suspect the counties are always a little bit suspicious of the city.”

Thirty years ago, city officials sat in the driver’s seat, but power has shifted, Moeser says. Now the counties have the stronger tax base. “Instead of seeing the city as an imperialist power, they now see the city as desiring resources that are found in their own jurisdictions,” he says.

Humphrey agrees that many of her constituents carry hard feelings toward Richmond. “They will never forgive annexation,” she says. And then there’s the toll road. The Richmond Metropolitan Authority, which is controlled by Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico, is capable of issuing bonds largely because of the revenue it generates by the tolls on the Powhite Parkway. Many county residents feel like they are taxed disproportionately. It’s a constant reminder: Every day, county commuters to the city fight the traffic on the Powhite, paying 25, 50 and 75 cents each way to work.

Like a kid who accidentally drops a lit match, Humphrey shrugs off questions about regionalism with an aw-shucks shrug, her teeth shining through a sly grin, which starts at the corner of her mouth. Humphrey says she isn’t against regionalism, it’s just that many residents want to see their taxes spent in their own back yards: “Sometimes, we just don’t want to pay anymore.”

At the Sept. 17 supervisors’ meeting, the clock is ticking. Barber’s chair is still empty and the September sky is darkening outside. Hurricane Isabel is on its way. With Barber absent, it’s likely that two will vote for the Diamond proposal – Chairman Art Warren and Vice Chairman Jack McHale – and Kelly Miller will vote no. If Barber were here he would vote yes and there wouldn’t be an issue. Humphrey could vote no and save face, and it would still pass 3-2. But after weeks of being chastised by the press and some constituents, she doesn’t want to be remembered as the supervisor who killed the Diamond and lost the Braves, even though threat of losing the team is conjecture. It’s been bantered about as a possibility: If the renovations aren’t done, the authority says, the team’s Atlanta parent may decide to move. Supporting the bonds, however, requires Humphrey to compromise her beliefs, and voting in favor could weaken her politically with an election looming. (She’s running against Democrat Bill Hastings.)

Wearing a purple business suit with her hair pulled back, Humphrey speaks up. Her fellow board members say plenty of good things about Humphrey. She’s a straight shooter who cares deeply for her constituents, understands policy and is an astute politician. It’s just that she drives them a little nuts. At times, she forgets she is no longer chairman, and at times inadvertently takes over the meeting. And, at times, people fear what Humphrey might say or do on any given issue.

“I love her, but sometimes she drives me crazy,” says Barber, who represents the Midlothian District. “I’m never surprised by what she might say, but I always know that what comes out she believes sincerely.”

Watkins, the state senator, agrees. “Renny is going to say what’s on her mind,” he says. “There are attractions and detractions for people who are like that. You don’t have to worry about where she is – she tells you. … It can be a bad thing at times because it can offend someone on the other side. She may come off as kind of abrasive.”

George Beadles, a self-described gadfly who regularly attends supervisors’ meetings, says Humphrey usually doesn’t mean to upset people. “I don’t think Renny really tries to antagonize people, it’s just some people don’t like criticism,” he says. “She’s only tough when she thinks she’s not getting what she wants.”

Chesterfield’s chilly, dimly lighted public meeting room feels like a movie theater in those few minutes before the curtains part. The seats are cushy and comfortable, and the gentle, low-volume acoustics soften the audience. With the exception of Humphrey, the supervisors are bland looking, but in a comforting, conservative way. The circular spotlights above supervisors, who sit behind a raised platform, give off a reddish hue that give their faces a hint of color. A glowing, red, digital clock — hour, minutes and seconds – hangs above the podium. It has a lulling effect.

On the Diamond issue, Humphrey wakes things up. Everyone has spoken but her.

“Yes, mister chairman, it’s my turn,” Humphrey pipes up, taking command of the room. Her words ricochet throughout the room like an alarm. She places her left elbow on the table, raising her hand toward the ceiling. “So, ladies and gentlemen, I ask you to count heads,” she barks. “It looks like the fate of the Richmond Braves rests right here.”

Humphrey flips a coin into the air, and it lands in the middle of Matoaca High School’s new football field, or “stadium” as she calls it. On opening night, Aug. 29, it’s hot and humid. The coach of the football team, Pat Manuel, has invited Humphrey to perform the honorary coin toss. She was instrumental in securing the money for field and the new $40 million high school that sits off Woodpecker Road. This is what Humphrey can do. “She always seems to be looking out for the people of Chesterfield County, and the schools,” says Lloyd Lenhart, Matoaca’s representative on the School Board. “In this district, she is very important.”

Humphrey has also helped secure money for the simple things, such as new uniforms for the players and cheerleaders. “The cheerleaders had mix-and-match uniforms eight years ago,” Humphrey says. “It made me mad.” Over the loudspeaker, an announcer extends the Matoaca supervisor a long, heartfelt welcome. It seems deliberate, as if the school is endorsing Humphrey in the upcoming election, while Bill Hastings, her opponent, stands outside the front gate, handing out political flyers. “She’s truly a friend of the community,” the announcer says.

Humphrey is aglow with pride. Finally, her boys got the stadium they deserve, she says. The stadium sparkles. Street lights hover over unstained concrete. After the coin toss, Humphrey settles into the front row of the squeaky-clean aluminum bleachers. Several people stop to visit. All are happy about the stadium, and their faces light up when they see her.

This is what Humphrey loves — the constituent work. While she attained notoriety when she became the first chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors in 1998 — she’d rather be mixing it up with the people. “When you’re chairman, you have to be more regional,” she says. “I prefer boosters meetings, back-to-school night. I get more constituent work done at Ukrop’s on a Thursday night than at any business meeting.”

And at football games. Here, Humphrey is in her element. She knows many of the players by name. If she could, she’d pace the sidelines during the games herself, carrying a clipboard. Her demeanor shifts easily from doting mother to tough coach, rolling up her sleeves and scowling.

Her Matoaca Warriors are being whipped by the Massaponax Panthers. Occasionally, between handshakes with constituents and chatting with a reporter, Humphrey gets distracted by a variety of Panthers’ touchdowns. She jumps and curses a bit. Massaponax racks up 28 points in the second quarter alone, en route to thumping Matoaca, 48-12.

Humphrey hates to lose, but she knows football. Her father, Pete Bush, was a giant of a man who stood 6-foot-6. He played offensive and defensive tackle for the University of Richmond from 1955 to 1960, and graduated with a degree in business administration. He taught her the most important lesson in politics, and in life, she says: “When you get knocked down, you get up and go at it again.”

After her father’s death in 1991, Humphrey was determined to continue his politics. Her father, a well driller, failed at two runs for supervisor. Humphrey recalls going to political meetings with him, working on the campaign trail, hitting the neighborhoods and handing out flyers. She also recalls the abuse her father endured. “They called him a dumb farm boy,” she says. They didn’t know he was a college graduate who had hitchhiked from Matoaca to the West End every day.

“He always had that big smile on his face, and he had those dimples just like Renny has,” Carmichael says. “He wanted to be a politician so badly, but never made it.”

Chesterfield’s Commonwealth’s Attorney William “Billy” Davenport remembers Pete Bush as a straight-shooting law-and-order Republican. “He always said what was on his mind,” Davenport says. “I guess the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

Humphrey doesn’t recall many specifics about her father’s politics. But she does remember how he believed in preserving Matoaca’s rural character, pushed for lower real-estate taxes, and wanted to see more business coming into Chesterfield. He didn’t want the county overrun with development, and he vowed never to sell his 219 acres to developers. He even forbade his children from building homes on the land when they grew up, Humphrey says. “None of us did and we won’t,” she says.

The house where she grew up remains a centerpiece for the family. It was built in 1907. Humphrey’s mother, Carolyn Bush, still lives there. Humphrey and her husband, Gary, live just down the road. Humphrey’s brother Larry has continued farming, and her brother Peter became the “superdad,” she says. Humphrey took politics.

“My daddy raised me to think like a man,” she says. “I was the fat, smart one over in the corner. My dad knew I had brains, and that’s what he wanted me to do.”

Humphrey, who graduated from James Madison University with a bachelor’s degree in public health in 1984, went to work at the Medical College of Virginia in 1985. She took a job as a technician in Dr. Robert G. Lamb’s research lab. She worked for Lamb, a pharmacology and toxicology professor, for 18 years. “Her primary job was to isolate the liver cells of a live rat,” Lamb says. “She did a lot of experiments.” Humphrey and Lamb forged a close relationship, especially after her father died. He visited her mother’s house on occasion. Humphrey still drops by the lab periodically, though she quit working last year to care for her newborn baby. “After her father died, I think I was somewhat of a father figure to her,” Lamb says. “If I was her dad, I’d be very proud of her.”

Her mother says Humphrey — who picked up the nickname Renny because her brothers couldn’t pronounce her middle name, Rene — has advantages over her father. “I really think she was a better politician than he was,” says Carolyn Bush, a retired schoolteacher. “She is different. She listens, she cares.” But, she adds, “If her dad was living, I don’t think she would have gotten into politics.”

Suzanne Rene Bush Humphrey swooped into office in 1995 after securing support from the Republican Party. She earned the nomination after several years of volunteering in local and state campaigns. She worked phone banks, helped with mailers and worked the booth at the county fair. She worked for the late Whaley Colbert, the former Matoaca supervisor, as his campaign treasurer during his first run for office.

She was one of four candidates vying for the seat vacated by Colbert, who died in August 1995. In the sprawling, conservative Matoaca district, which is stretches across the southern end of Chesterfield, Humphrey ran a campaign that focused on fiscal responsibility and managed growth. She was the Republican candidate, and there was no incumbent. She won. By her first re-election bid in 1999, Humphrey had become an established politician with a knack for raising money. In 1999, she raised more money than any other candidate — more than $64,000.

In the process, however, she, like other board members, has come under fire from some residents who feel real-estate developers are taking over the board.

“I’d like to see her out of office,” says Bob Olsen, a Clover Hill resident who says Humphrey has gotten too close to developers. Olsen says Humphrey has put off several zoning cases until after the election to avoid controversy, and receives too much campaign money from the developers.

Humphrey denies she’s too close to such interests. “Do I vacation with these people, have dinner in their homes or get Christmas gifts? No,” she says. Humphrey claims she’s given much of her campaign money to the schools in her district to help pay for things like books. “That’s what he doesn’t show you,” she says of Olsen. “That money is being spent on the kids.”

Her father would be proud of her tonight. She lectures the RMA’s Berry on fiscal responsibilities during the September board meeting, but because her constituents have universally begged her not to “lose the Braves,” Humphrey abstains from voting. Even though she disagrees with the deal in general, this decision allows the renovation bonds to pass on a 2-1 vote, and she skirts killing the deal.

Afterward, the board breaks for a crab-cake dinner in a conference room in the administrative building. Most members are somewhat subdued, and Humphrey easily moves in and out of the conversation. She asks the fire chief when Hurricane Isabel will hit the next day. She jokes with Pete Stith, the deputy county administrator for community development, about his singing onstage during black history month at Virginia State University.

After supper, she scoots off for a smoke. Humphrey smokes maybe three or four Virginia Slims a day. She lights up in one of the administrative offices, and begins to worry about Ed Barber, who still hasn’t arrived for the meeting.

They never miss meetings, she says, so something serious must have happened. “I didn’t know Ed wasn’t going to be here,” she says. Then Barber walks in, smiling and apologizing. He had a family emergency he explains, and he wastes no time inquiring about the afternoon session. She tells him what happened, and how she chastised Berry, although not as strongly as Kelly Miller. She would have voted against the bonds if Barber were there. But she really did want to see the project pass, she gingerly explains. She took over in his absence, she says, almost apologetically. “You weren’t here so I decided to take some leadership,” she says. Barber nods and smiles. “Good,” he says.

There’s a jovial mood in the public meeting room as the evening session gets started. The heavy lifting is over, and the rest of the meeting should move along quickly, allowing them to adjourn early to prepare for Hurricane Isabel.

The hurricane hammers Humphrey. Her home off Beach Road is without power for more than a week. She gets it back Sunday, Sept. 28, which gives her enough time to shower and clean up for a community disaster-relief meeting with residents the next day. At the meeting — intended to calm residents who have questions for Virginia Power, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, she gives a heartfelt introduction to a packed conference room at the Holiday Inn Select off Midlothian Turnpike.

“Isabel came, but we’re going to kick her right back out,” she says passionately. She breaks into tears describing the damage, how she saw farm equipment in the middle of fields, trees down on houses. “I have never seen anything like this in my life,” she says. “We’re going to put Chesterfield County back together like she was.”

After her speech, she walks toward the back of the room, and insists to a handful of people who are standing to take seats toward the front of the room. They can have her seat if they want. She’s sincere, she’s concerned — she’s one of them. “I’ve only been clean in the last 10 hours,” she says, stirring chuckles from the crowd.

In the hall, she runs into a constituent who has a complaint about Virginia Power — Pat Murphy, a computer salesman from Brandermill. Why does the pump at Swift Creek Reservoir continually lose power? During every major storm, it goes out.

“I don’t have an answer for you, but I’ll get an answer,” Humphrey tells him. He loosens up. He, too, has tried to make a foray into politics, he tells her.

“I tried to join the Republican Party, but they didn’t want me,” he says, jokingly.

Laughing, Humphrey puts her arm around him and lays her head on his chest. “Pat, they ignore me, too.” S

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