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With City Council elections just two months away, more than daffodils will be blooming in 1st District yards.

Council At Large

Outside of the 1st District, few Richmonders know Manoli Loupassi, former assistant commonwealth's attorney, or George Baskerville III, a vice president for Merrill Lynch. But in the May race for John Conrad's soon-to-be vacated City Council seat, it pays to know your neighbors.

Getting elected isn't solely a matter of winning votes by campaigning door-to-door or scoring points with the deep-pocketed and influential establishment. It's not a matter of appearing too young, or too old. Instead, it's a contest where the real challenge rests in a candidate's ability to turn people out — particularly in the city's most affluent and, arguably, most socially connected district, where each contender claims he's better qualified to fill Conrad's shoes.

Most candidates for political office would panic with only two months to lock down voter support. But when it comes to recent City Council elections, it's just the right amount of time to get the job done without overloading voters with campaign talk.

Presidential candidates spark little more excitement. On Feb. 29, a warm and cloudless day, a paltry 150 voters had turned out by lunchtime at City Hall to cast ballots in Virginia's first Republican presidential primary. Comparatively, it doesn't bode well for the upcoming City Council election, which typically attracts fewer than 15 percent of Richmond's registered voters. Just four years ago, that number was a pathetic 16,143 or less than 10 percent of all voters in the 62-square-mile city limit. The 1998 City Council election attracted only slightly more voters.

But the 14 candidates who've filed with the registrar's office at City Hall — the deadline is 7 p.m. on March 7 — hope that on May 2, Richmond voters will respond unpredictably — and choose to vote.

After all, these nine elected officials choose the mayor and city manager, fill top vacancies in city departments, and do much to set the tone and course for local and regional public policy. In the voting booth, every pull of the lever counts — council elections have been won by fewer than a dozen votes. Understandably, the 1st District, which includes Windsor Farms and the newly named Museum District, will perk up to see whether Loupassi or Baskerville seizes Conrad's seat. But other district races also could rally excitement — perhaps even enough to get voters to the polls.

So far, new candidates — who've filed the needed 125 signatures with the city's registrar's office — are challenging incumbents in both the 3rd and 8th districts. And though it is expected that Sa'ad El Amin will run uncontested in the 6th District, and Vice Mayor Rudy McCollum will run alone in the 5th, neither incumbent had registered with the city registrar's office by Friday's presstime.

Look for three races — in the 1st, 3rd, and 8th districts — to heat up in the coming weeks. But it's the 1st District race that has caused constant chatter since Conrad announced in August that he wouldn't run again. Names of potential candidates circulated: Manoli Loupassi; former City Council Member Ben Warthen; former school board candidate Charles Price; and retired city employee Charles Peters. Only Loupassi stuck it out. But then, in late December, another name was added to the list, a name new to Richmond politics, but certainly not new to Richmond: George Baskerville III. Some insiders say he's Conrad's heir apparent. Either way, for now, this race appears to be the one to watch.

"City Council issues tend to be provincial," says Conrad, who's trading his 1st District seat for the chance to be Virginia's next attorney general. Most district concerns cover everything from trash pickup to improving the infrastructure of neighborhoods such as Reedy Creek. "There is no job too small for City Council people," Conrad says assuredly. But beyond district problems are the regional issues that affect every neighborhood from Glenburnie to Gilpin Court: education, public safety, taxes, economic growth and transportation. The current council members have voted to initiate such programs as the convention center expansion, Neighborhoods in Bloom and the Canal Walk development.

"One of the toughest issues is a balancing act," says Conrad of the pressing concerns facing the next City Council. "Where are you going to get the money? It's the classic contest between business [district] monies and those targeted to serve the neighborhoods." In addition to responding to finance issues, Conrad says the new council will face the hot topic of redistricting, based on 2000 census numbers. "It's a huge issue for the next incumbents that nobody's mentioned." What's more, Conrad says, bring up the issue of changing council elections from May to November, and be prepared to put out a fire. But issues like these that ignite both support and opposition are precisely the reason City Council elections are so important. It's the kind of stimulation that Conrad feels forces people to take local politics seriously.

Manoli Loupassi already does. Loupassi's law office on the fourth floor of the Branch building downtown is cluttered with all kinds of paperwork from pamphlets to bumper stickers. Since June, he's hit the streets meeting his 1st District neighbors to gather more than 600 signatures on his petition for candidacy. Loupassi reels off what he believes are the issues important to his district: education, public safety, promoting business. Loupassi dismisses his lack of political experience, saying that Tim Kaine was roughly his age (32) when he began his career.

Despite rumblings that behind-the-scenes politicos have pledged allegiance to Baskerville, Loupassi appears confident of the support he's been promised - including the endorsement of Del. Panny Rhoads. "In the city of Richmond, many of the business elite are supporting George Baskerville, but I believe people will say that an equal number are backing Loupassi."

"We're always looking for the best and brightest," says James Ukrop, whose quiet but powerful tug on Richmond's political reins lead to the start of the Citizen's Coalition for a Greater Richmond, a political action committee that endorses candidates and contributes to their campaigns.

"We are waiting until the filing deadlines are over," says Jon King, co-chair of the coalition, who declined to comment on whom the group will support. After the March 7 deadline, each City Council candidate will be interviewed by the coalition. "It's an egalitarian, nonpartisan, nonracial process," says King. "What I think we've done is to help create a more productive City Council."

But the coalition can only endorse candidates. Voters must elect them to office. "We're trying to make it sexy," says King, speaking of the group's efforts to bolster voter participation. King says he's optimistic that the coalition will even sponsor an event, possibly at Brown's Island, to take place the weekend before City Council elections to encourage people to vote.

Baskerville hopes he's not too late to get in the game. "We're at such an important crossroads. We've had some positive momentum. We can't drop the ball now," explains Baskerville, 61, from his sixth-floor corner office in the Merrill Lynch building. And just as Loupassi hopes his age will work for him, so, too, does Baskerville. "Being old is cool," he adds saying that most people don't realize Conrad was already 42 when he was first elected to City Council. But behind his laid-back exterior, it's clear that his financial expertise is what he'll tap to convince voters he's got the muscle to give City Council what it needs — tools for economic growth. "There's no reason on God's green earth why we can't be a real tourist destination. We have to understand where we're going, not just where we've been."

And where we've been is nowhere Conrad wants to revisit. "Progress has been made because Richmond woke up. When people feel effective they show up and vote. That's the key to a healthy city."

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