In the history books, L. Douglas Wilder will take his prominent place as the first African-American governor elected in the United States. But in grand fashion Sunday afternoon, during his Jan. 2 inauguration at the Greater Richmond Convention Center, Wilder became Richmond's most famous mayor.
In the main ballroom, with more than 2,000 people on hand, Wilder's swearing-in ceremony rollicked along like a tent revival. From the gospel music of The Bethel Ensemble Chorale to the shouting prayers of the Rev. Dennis E. Thomas — "Give us not a mayor, but give us a pastor of God!" — the setting for Wilder's storybook addendum seemed to take on near-biblical proportions.
To the uninitiated, this wasn't just another Wilder rant. This was God versus Satan, or, more precisely, Wilder versus Satan.
Bill Cosby, the mutilmillionaire comedian and close friend of Wilder's, couldn't resist the analogy during his introductory remarks. He went so far as to describe some of those in officialdom at City Hall, many of whom may soon see Wilder's wrath up close, as the devil's workers. They may wail and curse, Cosby warned, but be fooled not.
"Devilish people will do devilish things," Cosby said. "When you remove devilish people from their seats, you got to carry them out sometimes."
Then, Cosby added, "Don't be surprised when he fires the whole city."
If questions still lingered about the tone of Wilder's first term as mayor — as if the almost-daily press conferences skewering everyone from City Council members to the police chief weren't enough — let the uncertainty be put to rest.
The mood at the convention center was a giddy mix of joy and enthusiasm — and fear, no less.
"I love it," chortled Willie Taylor, a 73-year-old Richmond resident sitting among a row of chairs behind the punch-and-cookies table. "I think it's going to be all right!"
Others concurred. City Auditor Lance Kronzer, a council appointee who doesn't report to Wilder, smiled widely and described the mood as "hopeful." A wide-eyed David Hicks, Richmond's commonwealth's attorney, predicted that Wilder would run into no significant obstacles.
"No one is even close to his weight class," Hicks said, referring to potential challengers on City Council, if there are any. "Fools get their due pretty quickly."
In the General Assembly, Wilder has pledged to push for changes to the new city charter, including giving the mayor power of veto over City Council matters. He will likely get what he wants, said Delegate Franklin P. Hall, D-Richmond.
Wilder, already tinkering a bit with the upcoming gubernatorial race, will have plenty of receptive ears on Capitol Square. "He will not forget who his friends are," Hall said. "That's Doug Wilder."
Not all were terribly caught up in the fire and brimstone. City Councilman William J. Pantele dismissed the idea that Wilder would turn City Council meetings into his own personal firing line.
"I think things are going to work much more smoothly than some people have been led to believe," Pantele said, as Wilder and Cosby exited the inaugural stage into a moving swarm of cameras, outstretched hands and shrieking children.
Does Satan stand a fighting chance? — Scott Bass