Delegate Dwight C. Jones made a startling statement last week.
Not so much his official bid for Richmond mayor. Reporters and political operatives had been prodding him about the timing of the kickoff for months, and between the press release and the three dozen sign-shaking supporters standing behind him on the steps of Binford Middle School, it was a predictable, controlled, picturesque campaign rollout framed by flowering dogwoods.
Seems like just about everyone already knew Jones was running for mayor. But why, exactly, would the 60-year-old legislator risk his political career in a potential duel with Mayor L. Douglas Wilder? At Binford, he offered a hint.
Jones grew up in Philadelphia and moved to Richmond in 1965 to attend Virginia Union University. When he got here, he told the crowd, he was "functionally illiterate." The Philly schools had failed him and many of his classmates, which is why he wants to be mayor. It's time to stop the bickering and fix the schools, he says.
Now he makes a living as a pastor at First Baptist Church of South Richmond, a large, historic African-American congregation on the city's South Side. His job rests on the literary analysis of an ancient text. There is no doubt that he can read now.
There's also little doubt that Jones is a credible candidate. Before he was elected to the General Assembly in 1994, Jones chaired the city's School Board. He also chaired the downtown booster group Richmond Renaissance and remains active in the group's new incarntaion, Venture Richmond.
In many ways, Jones has the least to lose with his candidacy. If it doesn't work out, he goes back to his big church, and as long as he doesn't lose dramatically enough to look vulnerable for the 2009 General Assembly election -- he's run unopposed in every re-election bid since 1994 — he lands a ninth term.
Ultimately, the big question arises: Can Jones win? The first bit of horse-race analysis inevitably begins with comparing him to the other mayoral candidates, says John Moeser, a visiting fellow at the University of Richmond's Bonner Center for Civic Engagement. So far the announced include former City Council member Jackie Jackson and former Wilder strategist Paul Goldman.
After losing her 8th District council seat to Reva Trammell in 2006, Jackson moved to Henrico and ran for the House of Delegates but lost to Joe Morrissey. She's since moved back to Richmond in the 2nd District. "That back-and-forth doesn't sell well with voters," says Moeser, who helped craft the changes to the city's charter that shifted Richmond from an appointed to an elected mayor.
"Goldman did remarkably well in the last election when he was running for City Council" in the well-heeled 1st District, Moeser says, but he questions Goldman's ability to pull votes in other districts. He says Jones could face the same challenge.
In his announcement, Jones refrained from taking any swipes at the mayor directly, instead saying he appreciated "Doug Wilder and Paul Goldman and their team [coming] together to give us the new form of government," a double-duty statement that graciously suggests Wilder's work is done and ties Goldman to Wilder at the same time.
Jones' chances might rely not so much on who's in the race, but who might yet enter.
"The big question right now is [City Council President] Bill Pantele and whether he's going to run," Moeser says. Pantele has conducted a poll on his odds as a mayoral candidate, but has yet to make any clear indication about his intentions.
"The bigger question still is what are Doug Wilder's plans. We may not know until the last minute. He has always enjoyed keeping people in suspense, and so we may not know until June 10," the filing deadline, says Moeser. "Assuming that he does run, it's pretty clear he's not going to have nearly the support that he had the first round."
Although 2004 marked the first time in 55 years Richmond voters would elect their mayor, the election this fall will, in certain regards, be the real first.
Last time around, former Gov. Wilder was ushered into office with a landslide 80 percent of the vote, riding a wave of euphoria. Wilder, the city's great political hero and the country's first black governor, clearly outclassed the three other candidates, who may have been competitive under normal circumstances. Now it's different.
Wilder's halo has been significantly tarnished during his three and a half years in office. A poll conducted by Christopher Newport University asked 350 citizens if they agreed "with the way Richmond Mayor Wilder has attempted to define and put into place the new strong mayor form of government." Only 47 percent said yes, although folks privy to preliminary internal polls for potential mayoral candidates conducted since then say only 20 to 30 percent of voters would pick Wilder in a hypothetical field of candidates.
So what to make of Jones?
Richmond's rules of engagement are unique. The city is carved up into nine districts, one for each member of City Council. To win the election outright, a mayoral candidate must win the most votes in five of the nine districts. If no one wins five, it goes to a runoff between the top two vote-getters, who compete again for a majority of the districts.
Delegate Jennifer McClellan, a legislative black caucus member and a Jones supporter, says she sees three scenarios.
"If Wilder is in, the strategy is get to a runoff," she says. "There's still a possibility that Wilder and Pantele won't run, then it's easy."
If Wilder decides to go back to his river house in Charles City County and Jones faces Pantele, the district map becomes key.
"Pantele's more well-known in the 1st and 2nd, Jones in the 7th and 6th," McClellan says, echoing conventional wisdom on the race and the issue of race. The 1st and 2nd districts are predominantly white districts, the 6th and 7th largely black.
"I don't know what the business community would do. I've heard people say Jones would be a good candidate. I've heard people say they want Pantele to stay where he is because he knows and understands the budget in a way no one else does," McClellan says.
If Jones faces Wilder directly in the general election or head to head in a runoff, racial politics become nearly unavoidable, says Clarence Townes, former School Board chair and old-guard Wilder supporter.
"If it's two popular persons running, the battle is not over the total outcome," he says. "The battle is over who's going to do the best in the African-American neighborhoods, and I think that Doug would probably win that, because he still has a significant following."
Wilder would be a formidable opponent but won't necessarily have people marching in line behind him, says Bishop Gerald O. Glenn, an influential and conservative minister whose large majority-black congregation includes many Richmond voters and city employees.
"Dwight Jones and Doug Wilder, it's going to be a slugfest," he says. "Mr. Wilder is a formidable foe. He has enough old guard and he knows the vernacular of the business." Still, Glenn says he isn't sold on Wilder.
"I would not encourage anyone to be involved in another Friday-night barrage," he says, referring to the attempted move-out of Richmond Public Schools offices from City Hall. "I thought that was the height of imperial arrogance. We had a lot of members that work in city government that were impacted by that."
Glenn was approached to support Jones, but won't do that either. Glenn falls politically to the right of Jones, but sees possible vote pickups for him in the church-going community.
"I know I shouldn't eat chocolate; I'll eat diet chocolate," he says. "Jones would probably be diet chocolate, but I shouldn't have chocolate at all. Sometimes you have to take the lesser of two evils."
Al Bowers, a well-known minority business contractor and consultant and recurring Wilder foe, says how the districts will behave this year could be upended by another candidate: Sen. Barack Obama.
"There will be more people coming out to vote than at any time in Richmond's history. One word: Obama," says Bowers, who has considered running for mayor himself.
Glenn says that typically Wilder's support has not been institutional. An independent since he left the governor's office, Wilder doesn't draw his strength from parties, churches or civic groups. The flood of new voters Obama could bring might mean more support for Wilder, or it could spell success for Jones, who, though hardly a new face in politics, benefits from a perceived outsider status in city government.
"I'm not predicting it," Glenn says, "but with Obama at the top, that new broom might sweep out the old dust. Or the old Doug."
For now, the city is left reading between the lines. S