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The Unifiers

As the streets filled in jubilation for Obama, the mayoral race quietly ushers in a different kind of hope in Dwight Jones.



As the television pundits begin calling Virginia's race for Sen. Barack Obama, car horns and cheers echo through the streets of Richmond, a city still struggling with its own dark past as the capital of the Confederacy.

Streaming from a Virginia Commonwealth University dorm at the corner of Broad and Belvidere streets, an impromptu parade of students make their way down Broad Street cheering and shouting.

A few blocks east, revelers overflowing onto the street from the celebration inside Popkin's Tavern seem oblivious to a wreck that shut down all three westbound lanes, filling the street with police cars.

A clutch of pretty girls standing on the corner wave Obama campaign signs at still-flowing westbound traffic.

Nearby, a middle-aged black woman paces along the sidewalk. Overcome with emotion, she occasionally stumbles as she wipes her tear-streaked face. Her graying hair is matted in unkempt braids. Her clothes are tattered. She weeps openly.

Inside Popkin's, a hip-hop soundtrack provided a soundtrack for revelers, many also with tears of joy on their faces.

As networks broadcast Sen. John McCain's concession speech, the echoing cheers along Broad take on a renewed vigor.

On Franklin Street, in the shadow of the headquarters of the conservative Richmond Times-Dispatch -- the newspaper that helped give birth to the Massive Resistance campaign of the 1950s that sought to undo federal attempts to desegregate the state's public schools -- Richmond City Councilwoman Ellen Robertson stops in the middle of the street, overcome with emotion. She cries, and as a reporter approaches, she holds him in a long hug.

Robertson has just left the Paradise Lounge, where the Rev. Dwight Jones is still holding his breath as some city precinct votes remained uncertain. Hours later, his opponent, City Council President William Pantele gives a concession speech, handing the race to Jones.

Standing on the curb outside the Jones party, a stunned David Hicks, former Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney and an advisor to Jones's campaign, stands trying to process Obama's victory.

“I just can't believe it,” he says. “I have a buddy … who called to say he got me a reserved table at Toad's Place [scene of Richmond's official Obama victory party], but I'm not going. I need to just go home and process this. I need to just go home.”

Holding court just inside the door of the Paradise, August Moon, a locally famous former musician, gangster and fixture on the Richmond political scene echoes Hicks.

“I never thought I'd see this day in my lifetime,” says Moon “I'm very elated to see an African-American become the president of the United States. Just remember he's going to bring out the good and the worst of America.”

Jones's own victory speech comes even as the Paradise Lounge crowd is still jubilantly celebrating McCain's concession speech. It will still be hours before Pantele's midnight concession speech that officially hands Jones the victory despite still-uncertain poll results in some city precincts.

“Change is the call of the day,” Jones tells the crowd after claiming victory for a race he calls a “nail biter.” He promises that “four years from now, you're not going to know this city.”

While McCain and Obama were making their televised post-partisan promises, Richmond's race seemed almost deflating, hindered by its lack of partisanship.

Tom Shields, a professor at University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies and a Jones advisor, says the lack of party affiliation pushed voter decisions into other arenas.

“There wasn't a lot of degrees of separation because of the non-partisanship,” he says, “so what do people look at next? Some of the personality thing, and I think people were comfortable with Dwight coming in as a unifier.”

Or, perhaps they were comfortable with him as a Democrat, suggests Hicks. Jones' long history as a Democratic state legislator from an urban district harmonized with the broad outlines of Obama's political identity and may have swept him along to victory. But the jury is still out on what all of this means for next time around, says Hicks.

“We've never had a normal race yet,” Hicks says. “The moral of this race is hopefully by the time the 2012 race comes along we'll be able to get rid of the fantasy of a non-partisan race.”

Hicks had considered running for mayor himself, but offered his endorsement of Jones instead after a family considerations trumped his bid. Had he run, Hicks muses, he thinks Jones would have helped him out. They're not the same, of course, different strengths and weaknesses, but they worked together.

“Hopefully even that is the beginning of something different,” Hicks says.

PLUS: Delegate Dwight Jones Declares Victory

PLUS: Bill Pantele's Concession Speach



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