On the campus of University of Richmond last week, the focus was on a mysterious gunman -- well, pellet gunman who struck fear in the city while helicopters hovered overhead and police dogs scampered about.
News cameras and reporters stood by the campus lake, with time to kill while officers searched for, it turns out, a seemingly harmless 19-year-old dishwasher when the question was finally asked of Major David McCoy: Who's going to be the new chief, by the way?
Smiling defensively, McCoy lowered his head and tossed up his hands as if to cut off the potential media barrage. No decision has been made, he insisted, not yet. "Nothing's happened," he said.
The scene, as casual a campus lockdown as one could imagine, served as a subtle reminder of how one person be it a misguided "Star Wars" geek or a popular police chief can put an entire city on edge.
In the case of Richmond Police Chief Rodney Monroe, a finalist to become the next chief in Charlotte, N.C., the potential impact is far-reaching. A man who some privately worried was a "risky hire" in 2005 just a small-time chief from Macon, Ga. has, in the span of about a week, emerged as the wild card in the upcoming mayoral election. Does he stay or does he go? The answer could significantly alter the city's political landscape for the next four years.
In the widely panned first term of Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, Monroe has been the one if not only saving grace. If he leaves, so does Wilder's biggest political asset.
"If Wilder runs, he's going to want Rodney Monroe to be by his side wherever he goes," surmises John Moeser, professor of urban studies at UR and longtime observer of city politics. "First of all, irrespective of the election, it's just going to be a great loss for the city. But I know this is going to be a real loss for Doug Wilder, not only because of Monroe's stature in the community, but what an immense boost Monroe would be to Wilder's campaign should he run."
Foregone conclusion? Not exactly. Monroe has been hinting subtly for some time that he could be on the way out. Even if Monroe doesn't get the job in Charlotte he's one of two finalists, and the city plans to make a decision by June 1 opportunities abound for the chief. It's not just the city's lowest homicide count in 26 years, 55 in 2007, but also the department's focus on community policing and data mining, greatly improved arrest and conviction rates, and reductions in aggravated assaults and robberies.
Wilder understands this reality all too well, which explains his early jump on the political blame game he launched last week. On Tuesday, the day the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran a front-page article on Charlotte's interest in Monroe, Wilder called a press conference to lay the blame, well in advance, on the shoulders of City Council.
"The City Council has slashed the chief's budget every year since he has been here," Wilder lashed out, however inaccurately. (Council, in fact, has increased his budget every year, a total of $17 million, from 2005 to 2008.)
If Monroe leaves, it won't be because of money, Wilder says, but because of the negative "environment" council created at City Hall, an interesting argument.
Indeed, Richmond pays Monroe $165,000, about $2,000 more than the Charlotte job. But if anyone is to blame for the "environment" one filled with political infighting and instability it would have to be Wilder, former Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks says.
"The fish stinks from the head," says Hicks, who also has explored running for mayor. "I think Wilder, in immediately going to 'Whose fault it is,' is demonstrating that he is the primary creator of that environment."
It might just be that Wilder is preparing his own exit, aware of the reality of running a campaign without Monroe to lean on.
If it is the environment, it's been a long time in the making. Wilder's tumultuous reign as mayor started immediately upon his taking office, launching into protracted fights right from the start with City Council, the School Board and the corporate elite.
While some say the chief's leaving would force Wilder to seriously reconsider a second term, others say the political argument has already been made. No one can reverse the goodwill Monroe has created in the last three years.
"I don't know that I think it means anything for the mayor," state Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, says of Monroe's potential departure. Wilder can still take credit for Wilder, McEachin says, and invoke Monroe's name on the campaign trail.
"He can do that regardless of where Rodney Monroe is," he says.
Monroe declined to be interviewed for this article, but in a lengthy interview with Style Weekly in December he dropped the hint that he could be on the way out. When asked of the political pressure created by the drastic reduction in homicides could it possibly drop below 55? Monroe seemed to recognize his political stock is, perhaps, peaking.
"It puts no different amount of pressure on me than what I put on myself every day," Monroe said. "I don't do this job for political reasons, or political purposes. I think I have something to give to the citizens of Richmond, but whether I'm doing it in Richmond or whether I'm doing in some other city, you can be assured that it will be on my terms."
Some have even speculated that Monroe himself could be strong mayoral candidate. Monroe has dismissed the suggestion in the past, but it's hard not to envision the police chief, if he chose to run, immediately becoming the front-runner perhaps even against his boss, Wilder.
"You could probably go ahead and reserve the place where the inauguration will take place," Moeser says. "No one could possibly compete with Rodney Monroe."
It's enough to make one explore the bigger, political picture, something Monroe appeared to do in the December interview.
"I tell the mayor and I tell others, if we really focus on education; if we really focus on de-concentration of poverty; if we really have a stronger push on certain health issues, teen pregnancy and things like that; yeah, there is room" for further crime reductions, Monroe said. "But law enforcement is going to get up against a wall somewhere. And unless we really start making some inroads into some other critical areas, we are going to be up against that wall for a while." S
Amy Biegelsen contributed to this report.