Power Struggle Rattling Richmond

L. Douglas Wilder became Richmond's mayor after persuading the city's voters to approve a change allowing them to directly elect their mayor.
L. Douglas Wilder became Richmond's mayor after persuading the city's voters to approve a change allowing them to directly elect their mayor. (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)

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By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 1, 2007

RICHMOND -- At 7 p.m., 150 movers swarmed the Richmond public school offices in City Hall, prying open locked filing cabinets, packing confidential student records and dumping family photos and coffee mugs into cardboard boxes.

By midnight, a judge had temporarily halted the abrupt, unannounced eviction of the school system from the building it had called home for more than 30 years.

The Sept. 21 ouster was brought on by none other than L. Douglas Wilder, the former Virginia governor turned Richmond mayor.

It was classic Wilder. The charismatic, often flamboyant Wilder, 76, has spent his political life testing how much power he can amass, how far he can push people and how many headlines he can grab.

Hailed by many when he was elected the nation's first black governor in 1989, Wilder became known as an outspoken, sometimes combative Democratic governor who was not shy about breaking rank with his party.

"He's the kind of person to push the envelope," said Robert D. Holsworth, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and a friend of Wilder's, adding that what happened in Richmond is not "all that different from what people know Doug Wilder as."

After leaving the executive mansion, Wilder returned to his birthplace of Richmond and practiced law for many years. In 2003, he successfully persuaded the city's voters to approve a change allowing them to directly elect their mayor and give that person executive powers, the only one of Virginia's 39 cities to have a strong-mayor form of government.

Then Wilder turned around and ran for the job himself.

His first order of business was successfully getting the General Assembly to approve altering the city charter to give him even more clout, including veto power over City Council actions and broad authority over the city budget.

He fired the city manager, police chief and a dozen department heads and eliminated a handful of agencies. He had run-ins with the once-supportive Richmond business community and owners of a minor-league baseball team looking for a new stadium.

"I guess they thought I was going to just sit around and cut ribbons, that I wouldn't have the energy to do what I've been doing," Wilder said after a few months on the job. "I know a lot of people are wondering . . . what's the old bastard going to do next?"

Here's what he did next:


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