The U.S. Department of Justice on Monday endorsed Richmond's bid to hold citywide elections for mayor, clearing the way for former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder (D) to run for the office.
Wilder's bid, which he announced in May, is now official under a restructuring of the city's charter that he helped develop and promote. In November, voters approved the change 4 to 1. Previously, the City Council had selected the mayor from among its members, all of whom are elected from wards.
Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, federal approval was required for the change. The act requires some southern cities to secure federal approval when changing their electoral process.
Wilder, who was out of town Monday, has said in interviews and news conferences that he wants to run for mayor to restore accountability to City Hall and "bring together" the city of 200,000 that he says has been plagued by corruption, a high crime rate and failing schools. Wilder, 73, is a Richmond native.
His former chief aide, Paul Goldman, said citywide elections will give Richmond a fresh start.
"This is a historic change," Goldman said in an interview. "Currently there is no accountability in our system. . . . It's just been inept for too long."
Opponents of the measure, including Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (D-Va.), told Justice Department officials this month that the at-large mayor plan would illegally dilute blacks' voting strength in the city. Opponents also had said that minority candidates are less able to raise money than white candidates, a concern for future elections.
Scott criticized the Justice Department's decision as partisan but said he wasn't surprised by it. Opponents could still delay the November election by challenging it in federal court, but several political observers here doubted that would happen.
Most elected officials here approved of the measure and said the voters had spoken. Mayor Rudolph C. McCollum, who opposed the idea at first, said he was eager to run against Wilder. Both likely gubernatorial candidates, Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R) and Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) -- a former mayor of Richmond -- also supported the measure. And several of the city's representatives to the General Assembly said they also liked the idea.
"I think if the right person gets in there, he'll be able to pick up the pieces of the city," said Sen. Benjamin J. Lambert III (D-Richmond). "I think [Wilder] has the potential to do a very good job."
As a career politician, Wilder, the nation's first and only elected black governor, continues to burnish his image as a maverick, often breaking ranks with his own party. Last winter, he sparred with Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) over Warner's budget proposal, and just last week, he addressed a group of Republican lawmakers who opposed those tax increases.
Most recently, Wilder, the grandson of slaves, has been involved in establishing a slavery museum in Fredericksburg. Last fall, he resigned from the board of trustees of Virginia Union University, saying he could not get a complete picture of the school's financial condition.
But the news that Wilder is making a run has excited many people in Richmond.
"Doug is running for mayor -- that's what everyone is talking about," said Julius Denty, a carpenter who has lived in Richmond all of his life. "It's going to be an election to remember."