Nobody's vision of a rugged adventurer, with his trademark comb-over fighting to hold down errant curls, the squat, barrel-chested William J. Pantele manages the rumpled, comfortable look even in a starched shirt and fresh charcoal gray suit.
But if his previous political life weren't enough to prove his survivor credentials, Pantele has spent the past four years serving as foil — and foiler — to Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's imperial take on the city's new at-large mayor government.
Born in the city's Museum District, the grandson of entrepreneurial-minded Greek immigrants, Pantele attended Mary Munford Elementary and Albert Hill Middle before his parents moved to the Henrico County suburb of Sleepy Hollow.
Pantele the politician showed his face early. In middle school, he was on the school newspaper staff. He was in student government in high school, and again took student government seriously while studying political science at Hampden-Sydney College. At the University of Virginia, he followed his father's path, earning a law degree.
“My personality is and has always been to take leadership roles,” says Pantele, 50, who moved back to Richmond — and back into the city — just as soon as life allowed.
Pantele's first job out of law school was in Richmond, and the self-described “city guy” moved into a Fan apartment. Strawberry Street CafAc and Joe's Inn were his stomping grounds.
Pantele built a successful law practice representing small businesses. He developed an interest in local government land-use issues and became a frequent ally to the city's development community.
Married in 1991, Pantele and his wife, Alison, moved to the city's North Side neighborhood of Sherwood Park. There he became friendly with then-City Councilman Tim Kaine, and began building his grassroots political experience.
He helped organize the community's neighborhood crime patrol. Church involvement as well as leadership roles with various high-profile community boards and committees cemented Pantele as a player.
“I discovered this intense interest in economic development,” and “finding ways to make the city more interesting — more successful,” says Pantele, who “in spite of government” helped foster redevelopment of Tobacco Row and the city's small business incubator programs. “Along the way of doing all these activities it just naturally flowed into city politics,” he says.
Pantele was elected in 2001 to replace Kaine as the 2nd District's councilman. Kaine left after his successful bid for lieutenant governor.
A year later, City Councilwoman Gwen Hedgepeth was implicated in a $2,000 bribery scandal — ostensibly arranged by developers led by H. Louis Salomonsky — to vote Pantele for the old Council-selected mayor post. Hedgepeth and Salomonsky were convicted, but Pantele — named in FBI documents as “Councilman A” — was never directly implicated in the scheme.
It was a surprising turn for a man whose self-described “political wonk” temperament is far more akin to a planning department staffer than to a cutthroat politician.
Pantele credits his late mother with helping push him toward elected office. She shared her son's passions both for Richmond and for dreaming big dreams about the city's downtown redevelopment.
“Billy — she always called me Billy,” he says — “you have so many things that you want do to do, you should do it.”
Weathering the Hedgepeth scandal, Pantele rebuilt a reputation and became chairman of council's finance committee.
In 2007, his profile rose again with his selection as council president. It began one of the most exhausting periods in Pantele's political life. A successive ratcheting up of rhetoric, deeds and legal bills between council and Wilder have made Pantele the public face for measured resistance to Wilder's frequent power grabs.
“It's been a good couple of years for City Council,” Pantele says with his now-familiar wry smile. In May, Pantele decided again to take the road less traveled.
“It was a hard decision,” he says of joining the mayor's race. He gave up his relatively secure 2nd District council seat where some hoped he would stay and serve as a counterweight to Wilder's successor.
But Pantele says the past four years have been frustrating — watching Wilder put the city's future on hold to jockey for political supremacy.
“Think about a four-year term and where the city is right now — this once again was a crossroad decision to me,” he says. “I'm at a point where I really have some clear ideas of what the city can accomplish.”