You never know what L. Douglas Wilder might do.
In 2012, the man who became Virginia’s first black governor abruptly declined to support President Barack Obama for re-election. As Richmond’s mayor, elected as a healer and doer, he kicked the school system out of City Hall in 2007. All the while, he pushed an image of being a visionary and builder.
Now he’s holding a forum for mayoral candidates next week at Virginia Union University, as first reported by Richmond magazine. About 10 declared and undeclared candidates say they’ll attend.
Wilder’s gambit seems odd because the forum is April 6 — weeks before candidates must formally file to run, June 14.
Does that mean that the 85-year-old is going to run again for mayor, a position he had held from 2005 until 2009?
The immediate answer seems to be no. It instead seems to reiterate Wilder’s deep frustration with his successor, Mayor Dwight C. Jones, who took command in the strong-mayor system that Wilder helped launch a decade ago. As one political insider says on background, Wilder isn’t in the running but is deeply concerned about the city’s path.
Wilder had bitter public words for Jones in an opinion piece published Feb. 6 in The Richmond Times-Dispatch. “The Jones administration inherited a properly functioning financial operation,” he wrote. “Seven years later, there is a distressingly dysfunctional fiscal operation. This administration can’t fully reconcile its fiscal books in the timely fashion that would meet best practices.”
Wilder was equally damning about the state of Richmond’s schools. “Jones says he has worked on educational issues for 45 years,” he wrote. “But as mayor, he used money intended for new schools for other things, and now he says Richmond Public Schools and school advocates should hope to have their tax bills increased.”
Of the city’s 45 schools, only 17 have won full accreditation. Two missed even a partial mark — Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School and the Patrick Henry School of Arts and Sciences. About 40 percent of all city school students meet poverty guidelines.
“Wilder’s very concerned about building new schools,” says Paul Goldman, a political analyst and former aide to Wilder when he ran for governor. “It’s so frustrating having put up the effort, including a referendum [in 2003], and have nothing come of it.”
Jones plans to put only $5 million into a $169 million plan to rebuild schools over a 15-year period. He won few new friends when his press secretary, Tammy Hawley, said that parsimony was in order because not all taxpayers use the schools.
Wilder’s strategy is to get things moving by putting together as many potential candidates as possible for the forum. “We sent invitations to anyone who had talked about running or had been seen as a possibility,” says Bob Holsworth, a political analyst who will help moderate the forum.
Among the candidates planning to attend are council members Jon Baliles, Chris Hilbert and Michelle Mosby, local activists Chad Ingold, Rick Tatnall and Lillie Estes, and Jack Berry, who resigned last week as head of Venture Richmond, a nonprofit that puts on Friday Cheers, the Richmond Folk Festival and other events.
Bruce Tyler, a local architect and former Republican councilman, also will attend, saying he’s qualified because he’s spent 35 years an independent businessman and for his work on council: “I was known as someone who was very diligent about the budget.” He is running this time as an independent.
He says “he can’t imagine” Wilder running. The biggest issues facing the city are that “we do not have control over the financial situation,” he says. “We can’t control schools, leaf pickup or road repair.”
Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney has declined to attend.
At the prodding of Wilder, the outlines of the campaign are starting to appear.
Mosby, who is City Council president, seems likely to get older-line black voters. Berry is banking on the business crowd, likely to tout his administrative experience from Venture Richmond and as Hanover County manager.
But Berry has little political history, Holsworth says. Neither does Stoney, but he’s likely to get help from Gov. Terry McAuliffe, with whom he’s worked for years, and the deep pockets of the mainstream Democratic Party.
A wild card, as always, is Joe Morrissey — who announced the birth of a second child with his fiancee, Myrna Warren, last week. The former commonwealth’s attorney and state delegate says he’ll announce his mayoral plans Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Satellite Lounge on Jefferson Davis Highway.
It’s wise to take Morrissey seriously, Holsworth advises. He is “a sophisticated political thinker and has very high name recognition. He’s a serious contender.”
Morrissey says he doesn’t know if Wilder’s ultimate intention is to run for mayor. “I have no clue,” he says. “I think he could add to the discourse. The more we get to talk about the city’s problems, the better.”
One of the most vexing ones, Morrissey says, is improving schools. “I have three young babies who are going to go to Richmond Public Schools,” he says. “I’ve got skin in the game.”
To go: The mayoral forum will be held Wednesday, April 6, at 7 p.m., at Virginia Union University's Coburn Hall, 1500 N. Lombardy St.
Editor's note: This story reflects a clarification from the print version. Candidates may file to run until the deadline, June 14. Also Bruce Tyler is running as an independent.