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The Race to Nowhere

While no one's watching, the city's most important election in decades fades into obscurity.



While the race to succeed Mayor L. Douglas Wilder enters its second sleepy month of campaigning, it may be that next to the five candidates vying to replace him, the mayor is running the craftiest campaign of all.

On a recent hot Friday afternoon, thick with all the humidity that portends the arrival of an Atlantic hurricane, City Council President and mayoral candidate Bill Pantele attempts to dry things out with a staged news conference.

He's picked a desolate stretch of East Franklin Street where graffiti tags outnumber street signs, and talks about the need for better street-level crime enforcement after a recent rash of shootings in Shockoe Bottom.

Then the carefully orchestrated event is suddenly transformed into a surreal spectacle by the arrival of Wilder's burgundy Crown Victoria.

“I was on my way to my place and saw all these cameras,” a grinning Wilder says, explaining his intrusion from behind sporty mirrored sunglasses, launching into a derisive tirade against Pantele that he insists is not about mayoral campaigns, but Wilder's own campaign to defend the honor of city employees. “I'm campaigning for my people,” he says. “You don't trash city services.”
Since when?

Never is Wilder so much in his element as when he's on the campaign trail. On the day of Pantele's news conference, Sept. 5, that trail wends from City Hall, down one of the city's most neglected and least used stretches of road, straight to the boat Wilder keeps at his Charles City County weekend home.

He says he simply decided to stop and check out the fuss en route to that home and the boat. But does getting the boat in the water really require a security detail, a suit-clad press secretary and the acting police chief in uniform?

“Damn!” says a flustered, but quick-to-recover Pantele, marveling at the campaign moves of a man who'd declared in July that he'd not run for re-election. Pantele tries to recapture the cameras that pan away midway through his speech to track the shenanigans of the soon-to-be retired mayor.

Wilder still insists on being the bride at every wedding — and in the case of his decision against running for re-election, the corpse at every funeral.

“I'm glad that he came,” Pantele says, though he rightly laments that the ghost of Wilder seems intent on haunting this race. “There's too much discussion about the last two years — the discussion ought to be on where we're going from here.”

But where to go from here hasn't had much airtime yet.

To many observers of this race — the city's second recent mayoral election, and arguably the most important since the city charter change in 2005 — it's easy to handicap when the slate of candidates has proven itself lame coming out of the gates.

Paul Goldman consistently offers policy fixes to the problems identified generally by other candidates (at nearly breakneck pace through a torrent of e-mails), but has almost no money. The three candidates with money — Robert J. Grey Jr., Dwight C. Jones and Pantele — have voiced few detailed fixes to complement their frequent laments about the need for change. And Lawrence E. Williams Sr. is severely underfunded.

No one issue seems to have captured the public's attention and the candidates have failed to frame the differences among them. It seems a universal assessment, even among the candidates' ardent supporters, that no candidate has touched off the sort of public groundswell of interest that Wilder rode into office, which explains why the cameras are so ready to pan to Wilder when he arrives to brighten the campaign's gloom.

“I think people are disenchanted — they're not satisfied with the progress we're making,” says Antione Green, president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters, whose organization has already held a half-dozen mayoral, City Council and School Board candidate forums in its effort to drum up public interest in this year's local elections.

“I think for the large part, people are just happy the mayor isn't running again,” says Goldman, Wilder's former confidant who is making his own issues-filled run for the seat. Apathy toward the slate lined up to replace Wilder may exist, Goldman suggests, because they “they can't vote against him.”

For whom they'll vote is anyone's guess. Or is it?

“True enough there has not been enough public discussion of the mayoral race,” says John V. Moeser, senior fellow at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at University of Richmond and longtime observer of local politics.

Previously, Moeser worried that the election will fail — as is required by law — to reveal a single winner able to take a plurality of the vote in five of the nine council districts, resulting in a runoff. But his tune is changing as the race turns into more of a crawl to the finish line: “It is certainly within the bounds of reason that one person could take five districts in the first round.”

That view is new, he says, but “I kind of feel like [Richmond Delegate] Dwight Jones is the next mayor. If you break it down district by district, I think Jones just has a better chance of getting the five districts.”

“Bill [Pantele] is just not going to do that well in East Richmond, in particular the African-American areas of North Side and South Richmond,” he says. “The 3rd and the 5th [districts] may well decide who is mayor.”

Those districts both represent areas with such divergent racial or economic realities that they are potential battlegrounds for votes.

So say the experts, but the folks in the trenches are not so certain — even some who've hunkered down in a particular candidate's trench.

“I'm telling [campaign donors] to write three checks,” says one seasoned political district organizer and campaign adviser who's working for one of the mayoral candidates, meaning he's telling those seeking the favor of Richmond's next mayor to bet the spread and not on a single horse. “There's dissention in all three camps. Nobody's organized.”

That goes especially for Grey, most election observers say. Grey was supposed to be Wilder's anointed heir, the chosen one of the Richmond business community and — by virtue of his black heritage — the bridge between the powers that be and the powerless. Instead, Grey's recent whistle-stop campaign tours on GRTC buses — his unofficial campaign car — seem stuck on the wrong side of the proverbial bridge he hopes to cross.

Grey recently suffered boos from a crowd at an NAACP forum at his mere mention of Wilder. At the end, he lamented that he'd been treated as a “pincushion” by the audience and other candidates, who criticized his business ties and lack of connection with the common voter.

“I've heard if he doesn't do well this next [campaign finance] reporting period that he may begin to fade,” says one city leader who asked to remain anonymous because he's yet to decide who to endorse. He hasn't ruled out Grey, but the money question — and whether Grey can afford to mount a serious race — “is going to determine a whole lot in terms of people's perception of him.” (See related story, page 7)

If that happens, the race turns into a two-way game between Jones and Pantele, which most likely would lead to a slim victory for Jones, Moeser says. He laments that campaign scenario simply because of the dearth of meat-and-potatoes solutions from either campaign. Jones or Pantele would likely do a fine job, Moeser suggests, because the former likely would bring his ties in the General Assembly to bear in assisting the city and the latter likely would do much to repair the business and community relationships damaged by Wilder.

“But it's unfortunate that Paul Goldman is not more of a major contender, simply because of the ideas,” he says. “Dad gum, that man is smart. Some of his ideas may be off the wall, but many of them are excellent.”

Those smarts may well be why Goldman, rumored for weeks to be dropping out, hasn't yet pulled up. He may still see a five-way race, which is the only real shot he has at a serious bid for the mayor's seat.

Moeser counts Grey out. Others don't.

“I don't think they realize how much Grey can buy in terms of name recognition, overnight,” says one local pundit with ties to one of the candidates who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “He can buy an image.”

With a historic presidential election, the race could simply hinge on who has the best image in the end — the ability to capture the vast majority of voters who don't pay attention to newspaper campaign ads or boring — and limited — television debate coverage. These are people who will notice a bit TV spot in prime time.

“You're going to have the biggest turnout in history,” the pundit says, considering the national election. Pantele and Jones both count on those national voters to inflate their numbers. Their strategies rely on Grey's campaign being stillborn. But if Grey comes through with big TV spots, they may be overwhelmed by a wave of coattail voters not associating Grey with any national candidate, but simply seeing his face during their evening news broadcast.

Until that day comes, Grey's best campaign advertisement — and his biggest liability — remains the man who, for better or worse, anointed him, and the man numerous sources say is micromanaging his campaign.

“Clearly, Wilder has taken it on himself to spar — certainly with Bill [Pantele],” says Craig Bieber, Pantele's campaign manager, perhaps unable to see past Wilder's press conference ambush last week. “He sees Bill as being ahead” in the race.

Perhaps. Or it could be that Wilder knows he's still the kingmaker.

Bieber, for his part, understands the significance: “I think Wilder would be apoplectic if Bill Pantele was elected mayor and this is Wilder's investment in his legacy — to see Robert Grey elected.” S

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