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The Contender

Chuck Richardson cant vote or run for city council. But why should that stop him from becoming mayor?


It's been five years since Richardson got out of jail after serving one year of a 10-year prison sentence for a felony heroin conviction in 1995. (Nine years of his sentence were suspended.) The conviction ejected him from the 5th District City Council seat he'd held for 18 years.

Now he wants it back.

And one 95-degree day last week, amid the trumpeting of announcements that the city has hired a new police chief and school superintendent and that Councilwoman Reva Trammell's case against radio host Allen Price had been dismissed, Richardson regales Broad Street with his plan to reclaim his place in Richmond politics.

"Is it so unforeseeable that I could be mayor of Richmond in the future?" he asks, flashing a copious smile. "I don't think so."

But before Richardson can be eligible for public office he has to regain his right to vote. Because he is a felon, Richardson can't petition to become a registered voter for another 13 years. He could, however, appeal to the governor for "relief from disability," which if granted would reinstate his voting rights.

Richardson is optimistic — for some inexplicable reasons — that his request will be granted much sooner than 2015. Meanwhile on this day, from Byrd Park to Broad Street, Richardson comes close to showing why Richmond has, in some strange way, never stopped embracing him.

It's shortly after 11 a.m. and Richardson's gray Lincoln ambles onto South Davis Street and passes alongside Fountain Lake at Byrd Park. He is scheduled to be downtown, but his new job as vice president for marketing and development at Coburn & Associates, an architectural and engineering firm, has made him late.

Too late, it turns out, to catch the crowd he'd hoped to mingle with after Gov. Mark Warner's appearance at the Consolidated Bank and Trust building on North First Street. Warner has just given a speech pushing for an increase in Virginia's minority-business contracts, a subject Richardson vociferously supports. Being present could have provided Richardson some contact with delegates and local officials, he reasons aloud, but there are always other opportunities for this.

For now he has some errands to run. Dressed in a gray pinstriped suit and sporting a shimmering gold tie and handkerchief, Richardson alights from his car to pick up a pack of Newport Lights from the West End Supermarket on Idlewood Avenue. This is still his district, he proclaims. And he points out his contributions to it. In 1988, he says, he convinced City Council to spend $700,000 to restore the crumbling fountain at Byrd Park. He points to the restoration of many homes and apartment buildings nearby and takes much credit for their success. He initiated the drive to rebuild Randolph, he says: "These were all slums before I came to Council."

Richardson has a route of checkpoints that keep him connected to the neighborhood. He jiggles open the door to Bennie's, a local barbershop adjacent to the market, and says hello to those tucked inside. "You never get too big or important for barbershops," he says. "That's where you get all your weekly neighborhood scoop."

At the stoplight at Meadow and Cary a car pulls up next to Richardson's and a horn honks. "How you doing, Chuck?" a man calls out, leaning across the seat to identify himself through the passenger-side window. Richardson rolls down his window and, as is his custom, greets the man as if he were a brother or some close friend. Invariably this happens at intersections. People know Richardson's car. And if they don't they quickly spy his signature black slicked-back hair and his mustache and go out of their way to be noticed by him. At times eager pedestrians nearly get hit in the process.

It is difficult to pinpoint when and how Richardson won the allegiance, and seemingly the hearts, of many former constituents. He was elected to City Council when he was just 28. He wanted the job, he says, because for the first time since he had returned to Richmond from Vietnam he had hope. He also had anger.

He recalls those days while wincing and smoking Newports. It is as if the smell of menthol, Freon and musk inside the car somehow makes memories of war — and surviving it — more pungent.

Richardson was drafted into the Marines when he was 20 and spent two years in a machine-gun platoon in Vietnam. "I was told by everyone that the life expectancy of a machine-gunner in a firefight is nine seconds," he recalls. He made it longer, though not without injury. "I was shot in 1969 in Quang Nam, a little province in the woods," he says.

That's when he started using drugs to kill the pain and numb his fears. "I was a square kid," he says. "I never thought of smoking marijuana or using heroin." But in time he did, he confesses. He didn't worry about the drugs because he thought he would die in Vietnam. "The only thing they didn't tell me about was, 'What if you lived?'"

Richardson insists he's been drug-free for seven years. Still, the thought of using tempts him every day like a little voice, he says, that calls out, You can get away with it, you can get away with it. It's a risk he says he won't take again.

Richardson acknowledges that his addiction and some of the deals he struck to support it cost him much public humiliation and the only career he's ever cared about. Yet he doesn't intend for his future to be diminished.

It is why he's on a crusade to get his revoked legal privileges back — like the right to vote and to hold public office. Under Virginia law Richardson can't appeal for some of them until 2015. Richardson has hired his longtime friend, defense attorney Michael Morchower, to fight the constraint.

Richardson also has founded the National Organization of Rehabilitated Offenders, a nonprofit organization that advocates the return of felons' rights once they've completed their probation. He hopes to start the group in other states, too.

"There's just no fairness to the more than 600 individual rights that a felon can not take advantage of," he says, such as voting, owning a gun, and working as a security officer or lawyer. "There's something fundamentally American about paying your dues and anteing up. It's what I thought I was fighting for in Vietnam."

Richardson stops at Morchower's office on Franklin Street to drop off paperwork required for a petition to get his right to vote reinstated. He says it's the first step in his plan to win back his political career. (Morchower, it turns out, is not in his office today; he's in court representing Trammell.)

Morchower's office is full of pictures of people like the Kennedys, and its walls are decorated with much Morchower press. Richardson finds himself in some decades-old photos taken with Morchower from earlier, happier times. "He's Magic Mike," he chuckles halfway to himself as he walks out the door.

It's well after noon when Richardson pulls into the parking lot of the Consolidated Bank and Trust. It is nearly empty. Apart from two WTVR-TV News Channel 6 vans that appear deserted there is no sign of any post-governor-speech fanfare. So Richardson decides to find a spot on Broad Street instead. As his Lincoln sidles up to the curb near Second Street, the faces of some of those gathered in nearby clusters waiting for a bus or just hanging around begin to beam. Richardson is keen to the attention. He explains that he hasn't made this route in a while.

A decade ago, much of the spotty section of Broad Street used to fall within Richardson's 5th District. People here haven't forgotten him. Many must be the same. And if Richardson's time in a kind of exile means anything to them, it appears that it's only made him more needing, if not deserving, of their support. Each one seems to lavish him with an abundance of it. In minutes he's striding the sidewalk like it's a receiving line. Richardson can't take five steps without someone stopping him to shake his hand.

Many ask about his plans. "Are you running for Council?" an older man asks expectantly.

"Naw, I can't. I haven't got my rights back," Richardson tells him.

"I sure hope you do. You know I believe in you and I love you," the man offers.

Richardson thanks him and presses on. He's beckoned into more barbershops. Even people parked in their cars to keep cool leave the air conditioning to get out to offer a handshake or hug.

It is this company and not his Council position that Richardson says he missed most when he was in jail. He seems sincere. "Everything has an impact of either humbling you or glorifying you," he says. In the year he spent in jail he was moved seven times to and from places like Deep Meadow, Arlington and Richmond. "It is humbling in the dark and so hot. The heat is hard to bear but the loneliness is devastating," he recalls. "It's a psychological state close to death."

Therapy, Richardson says, has helped him deal with everything from Vietnam to his drug addiction to his job on City Council. And he's learned to recognize the connection among the three. "I was so angry. I did things in Vietnam that I regret and one of my psychiatrists said, 'When you were on City Council it was like you were in Vietnam. You used your mouth like it was your machine gun,'" Richardson says.

He has mellowed, he claims. "The fights worth getting heated over have to do with the justness of issues, whether it's housing, police brutality or a roadway through your neighborhood. They are the issues that determine on a day-to-day basis if we're going to have peace in our neighborhoods," he says. When pressed for specifics, he mentions ailing city schools and what he calls questionable practices by police. "Are they fair to the people or are they simply out of control?"

But mostly, Richardson trumpets the city that, outside his district, has shunned him. He clenches his fist now to show excitement, he says, instead of fury. "If I were mayor I'd be singing this city's praises from Miami to Maine, from San Diego to Charlotte," he says.

By now Richardson, like everyone on Broad Street on this 90-plus-degree day, has worked up a visible, profuse sweat. He stops periodically to brush his hair back with his hands and when he does he slings his suit coat from one shoulder to the next. Even though he is without jacket and tie, and his white dress shirt is clinging to his chest, people flock to him.

"You're back on the street — are you running, Chuck?" a middle-aged man wearing dark glasses and gold rings stops to ask.

"I'm kicking off my campaign," Richardson says laughingly. "Maybe. We'll see. I'm praying."

"You really looked out for your district. If we had a few more people on Council like you we'd be better off," the man tells Richardson.

"I'm going to call and get a campaign contribution from you," Richardson says, smiling.

Moments later, a tiny older woman in a neat pink dress halts the group of friends she's walking with when she sees Richardson. Her name is Lottie Moore, she blurts out. "I can't forget you because I voted for you too many times," she says in a voice that's nearly a whisper. "Are you running again?"

Again, Richardson explains: "That's a slight obstacle, you know, because I don't have my rights." At this Lottie Moore nods her head up and down, as if there's not much else to say, taps Richardson's forearm and waves goodbye.

And for the first time today Richardson reveals a slipping posture and expression that is fleetingly modest. "I have the greatest sense of gratitude that they welcome me in spite of my shortcomings and human frailties," he says of those who have huddled around him here. "I know who I am."

Then, abruptly, he stops. He suggests that a Style photographer take a picture of him walking into the distance with his back to the camera, as if his successes and failures have become emblematic of Broad Street itself.

"This is the long road back," he announces. "This is my personal struggle for the next year and a half. I've got to decide … whether I'll run for office." He's rambling excitedly, as if it were only that simple. And if Richardson hasn't already fully committed himself to the odds, the people on Broad Street seem to affirm what he dares to think is true.

"If Richmond might be in the enabling position to have Chuck Richardson as mayor, it may be shocking to some but hopefully an inspiration to others," he says. "I should have the right to stumble and fall, get up and brush my pants off and run again." S

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