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Progress vs. Power

The need to reform Richmond's political system is too great to be shanghaied by yesterday's problems.


Here's how: Their most significant foe is state Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, a liberal Democrat who represents Richmond in the General Assembly. That matters because Richmond needs the General Assembly's permission in order to change the way it governs itself.

It's no secret that Marsh is already credited with killing a similar call for reform. We're told that Virginia tradition allows for state senators to guide their peers in election matters that pertain to their own district; party affiliations are even set aside. Thus, at Marsh's behest, the General Assembly told the city of Richmond what it could do with its 1995 referendum results calling for such a change.

This year, Marsh and Sen. Benjamin J. Lambert III, D-Richmond, have both voiced concern that Wilder and Bliley's proposed change would still constitute a step backward.

They seem to suggest it's all just an elaborate trick to steal hard-won power back from the black community. Marsh is basically contending that any vote in a citywide election for mayor will run according to established local voting patterns, showing that more whites are voting, these days, than blacks. He worries that a well-financed white candidate could win a citywide mayoral race, even though Richmond has more registered black voters than white.

The way it is now, small turnout or not, Richmond's districts have been deliberately designed to deliver at least five black winners in each election for nine seats. That contrivance has loomed over the process of hiring city managers since Marsh's days as mayor. Now that guarantee of extending black power in city politics seems to be worth more to the former mayor than whether Richmond's convoluted system is working effectively.

Though some people who have long admired his courage and devotion to progress see Marsh's current clinging to an unproductive status quo as an unseemly way to cap off his long career in politics, he appears unconcerned.

Strangely, Marsh is now against reform.

Actually, Richmond's political system has changed several times since its first mayor, William Foushee, served two years (1782-83). He was elected by a vote of his fellow council members. From 1782 until 1851, City Council chose the mayors for the city, either from their own ranks or from the general citizenry. In 1851, the direct election of mayors, by popular vote, was instituted. It stayed that way, with an exception for the Reconstruction Era, until 1948.

1948 was the year that gave us the sweeping city-charter changes that ushered in the strong manager/weak mayor system we have now. Apparently the thought then was that professional managers could do a better job of running a modern metropolis. In that time the nine members of council were all elected by a citywide vote.

Then, as a result of federal orders in 1977, Richmond entered its era of nine districts, each electing its own representative to council. The change stemmed from the city's clear-cut violations of the Voting Rights Act when it annexed part of Chesterfield County in 1970.

While this remedy seemed progressive at the time, the district system has turned out to clash with the city-manager system in a frustrating way. Ward heelers have been given far too much sway. Consequently, it's been nearly impossible to form a consensus on anything. For this reason Richmond has spun its wheels in a hash of yesterday's warmed-over ideas for more than two decades. While fairness may have been the goal in 1977, what we've gotten since has been a fractious era more given to circus than solution.

That brings us back to facing the facts — today's facts. The voters in every precinct in Richmond deserve to be able to pick between a candidate with Plan A for their city's future and a candidate with Plan B. Forget about what color either of those candidates will be. The point is that a citywide race for a strong mayor will reconnect the will of the people with City Hall.

For any would-be candidate to be a serious contender, he or she will have to be able to run a campaign that resonates on both sides of Broad Street's mythical divide in city politics. Once the race boils down to a runoff between the two top vote-getters, as it would if no one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the votes cast in the first pass, the contest would be all anybody in town will be talking about. The media would love it because it would be a dramatic story and traditional voting patterns, with their predictably low turnouts, might just become old hat. Most importantly, the eventual winner would have something no one running Richmond's government since 1948 has had — the clear endorsement of the majority of the voters.

Why can't Marsh and Lambert just roll up their sleeves and get out the vote? Is it that the Crusade for Voters, the 46-year-old organization that put Marsh and Lambert in power, is no longer a force and they don't want that to be revealed?

In spite of how it might seem to a viewer after watching City Council meetings on television, personalities are not really what's most wrong at City Hall. No. Cobbled together by conflicting moves made in 1948 and 1977, it's plainly the system that's twisted.

This is a problem that is limiting our city's potential all over town. For good reason, citizens of all backgrounds in Richmond have lost faith in their local government.

That's why Doug Wilder has changed his stand on this issue (since 1995) and joined with Tom Bliley to call for reform. Both men know that a dose of unfettered democracy is what this city needs. S

F.T. Rea is a freelance writer who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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