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The New Spotlight

Will Richmond's new mayor become a voice for the region?

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"I think it will probably cause the counties to perhaps provide greater visibility for their chairmen with regard to their role and their positions," says state Sen. John C. Watkins, R-Chesterfield. "Some may have issues with the fact that the mayor of Richmond will be seen as a regional leader."

Wilder likely will challenge the counties, Watkins says, and compete more effectively with them for relocating companies and economic-development initiatives. Wilder may give the city an upper hand on issues such as public transportation — the planned western extension of Powhite Parkway, for starters — and better representation during budget talks at the General Assembly.

The former governor's influence in state politics is undeniable. For example, one might reasonably argue that both presumed gubernatorial candidates, Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine and Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, need Wilder more than he needs them (witness Kaine at the podium after the election last week, looking like Wilder's understudy). Is there a comparable figure, someone like Wilder, hiding in the bowels of Chesterfield's and Henrico's political structures?

"It's just logical to assume there will be less spotlight to go around," says Greg Wingfield, president of the Greater Richmond Partnership Inc., the area's regional economic-development arm. "Because of who is elected, Gov. Wilder, I think there will be a disproportionate amount of attention on him at least for the first four years."

The disparity eventually may force the counties to push for popularly elected chairpersons, Wingfield says. "My gut feeling is that if it is so popular in the city, people may say they'd like to do the same in the county," he says.

Some experts, however, see things differently.

Typically, a shift to an elected city mayor system has little direct impact on the surrounding jurisdictions, says Robert J. O'Neill, executive director of the International City/County Management Association in Washington, D.C.

Because there doesn't seem to be significant political turnover in the counties, O'Neill says, the mayor's impact is probably overstated. "In the case of Richmond, you have Chesterfield and Henrico that are substantial communities in their own right," he says. "My guess is that it's not going to change the dynamic terribly much."

John V. Moeser, professor of urban studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, says the influence of the suburbs will keep the counties on par with Richmond, Wilder or no Wilder.

"The counties still have enormous leverage over the city," Moeser says. "They've got the land, they've got the jobs, they've got the population. They are in the catbird seat. The city, quite frankly, doesn't have much leverage."

If anything, Wilder must be "artful in negotiation" when it comes to dealing with the counties, Moeser says. In Wilder's first press conference following the election last Wednesday, he did just that — firing his first overtures to the counties for regional cooperation on issues such as crime and education.

What Wilder has that the former mayors did not, says Moeser, is the ability to hoist such issues to the top of the regional agenda. "Someone like Wilder who has this enormous presence can help generate substantive conversations on the big issues," Moeser says. "I think he can, perhaps, bring the counties to the table."

Indeed, the top elected officials in Chesterfield and Henrico express optimism that Wilder will breathe new life into regional issues. Kelly E. Miller, chairman of the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors, says he's already impressed.

"I think a regional task force on crime is a great idea," Miller says of Wilder's suggestion last week. "We've got a new face down there. … I think he's a man who means what he says and says what he means. I look forward to that, in particular on the crime issue."

Patricia "Pat" O'Bannon, chairwoman of the Henrico County Board of Supervisors, expects Henrico to take up some old issues with the city. The city, she complains, has failed to help fund the rebuilding of Henricus Historical Park as promised. And it also still inappropriately collects business taxes from business owners who have a Richmond zip code but are located in the county, she says.

"Many times [in the past] the city did not participate in regional issues," says O'Bannon, adding that the city's form of government made things difficult. In the past few years, she says, the city has had a weak city manager in Calvin Jamison.

She contends that the city's waning system — the new charter goes into effect in January — would have worked better if former Richmond mayor, Lt. Gov. Kaine, had not pushed so hard to hire Jamison six years ago.

And that may be what prompted the overhaul of city government. "It was one of those unintended consequences," she says. "It's a whole new process."

Jamison could not be reached for comment by press time. S



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