The man who would be mayor wheels his black Toyota down the heart of Virginia's state capital and remarks on what once was.
"See there? That used to be the old Miller and Rhodes department store. And there, the old Thalhimer department store," says L. Douglas Wilder, Virginia's 66th governor who's now seeking to be this city's first popularly elected mayor in more than 50 years.
He points excitedly as he passes a row of pockmarked and faded storefronts on Broad Street, the main thoroughfare in the city's long-ago commercial center. "These streets, they used to be packed with people."
The former governor travels on: "Now, look," he continues, just as excitedly, as he passes several stores with 'For lease' signs in the window. "Fly-by-night stores. Everybody leaves after dark. . . . Something's got to change."
As Wilder, who 15 years ago became the first elected black governor in U.S. history, warms to the next big challenge in his storied political career, he is also hoping to resurrect his home town of nearly 200,000 and rid it of what he considers its many urban ills. This former capital of the Confederacy has suffered from violent crime and poverty and corruption in city government that over the years quickened the flight of middle-class residents and businesses.
"People always ask me: 'Why are you doing this?' " he said to a group of about 100 supporters at a meet-and-greet cocktail party in a historically black neighborhood called Jackson Ward on Wednesday evening. "And I tell them, 'I want to be a bridge between rich and poor, black and white, young and old. And to give our young people a chance they are not getting.' "
This mix of down-home moxie and grand civic vision is classic Wilder, a combination that has made him one of the most successful figures in modern Virginia politics, his supporters say. And he has been giving his audiences plenty of his pitch.
But when pressed about why he is seeking office after more than 10 years, he reverts to the maverick image that has followed him in his nearly four decades in politics.
"I've never been one to shrink from a challenge," Wilder said as he made his way through Church Hill, the neighborhood of shaded Victorians and dilapidated clapboard homes where this grandson of slaves grew up. "They told me I couldn't be the lieutenant governor and I did it. They told me the same when I ran for governor. And there's no doubt this will be a challenge, if I'm fortunate to be elected mayor. But all my life I've been told I couldn't, and it's the same now."
Wilder played a big part in giving himself this chance. Since 1948, the mayor has been selected by the City Council, and the daily management of the bureaucracy has been overseen by a city manager.
The former Democratic governor teamed up with former Republican congressman Thomas J. Bliley Jr. and designed a change in the city charter to centralize authority in a popularly elected mayor. The change was put before voters in November. "We got 12,000 signatures. No one thought we could do it," Wilder said. The proposal won by a ratio of 4 to 1.
Under the strong-mayor system, the city manager's job will be abolished and the mayor will appoint a chief administrative officer to supervise city departments. The mayor will oversee the budget and finances.
Wilder will face three other candidates Nov. 2: Rudolph C. McCollum, the current mayor; Charles Nance, a School Board member; and Lawrence E. Williams, an architect.
When he was working on the charter change, Wilder vowed he wouldn't run for mayor. Later, he said, civic leaders and city residents encouraged him to take the reins of his home town.
Wilder, 73, hadn't lived in the city in more than a decade, choosing to reside in rural Charles City County. He has recently moved back to Richmond.
Some opponents question whether Wilder, who stepped down last year as president of his alma mater, Virginia Union University, after only one week on the job, has the patience to deal with the details of city governance.
Still others are concerned whether he can deliver what he's promised.
"I think it's just a simplistic position to say that he can just come in and fix the problems that . . . are very complex," said Raymond Boone, an old friend of Wilder's and the editor and publisher of the Richmond Free Press, the city's African American newspaper. He has written several editorials critical of the charter change. He said Richmond's decline in the 1970s and 1980s was caused largely by long-standing racial tensions that accelerated the flight of established businesses to the suburbs.
"I can't see how simply changing the city government structure will relieve all of our problems, and I'm not sure if [Wilder] fully appreciates that," Boone said.
Others see Wilder's flamboyant personality and style -- with his silver hair and penchant for cowboy boots -- as the best hope for energizing the city. Some have likened his run to that of Jerry Brown, the former California governor who became mayor of Oakland in 1998. Brown promised to turn that city around after years of decline.
"People in this city are looking for someone who can bring the energy back to town," said G. Manoli Loupassi, a council member from the West End. "He's a guy that can have instant success. . . . He has national and international acclaim. We need somebody who can come in here with his credentials and give us instant recognition."
Fewer than half of Richmond's public schools have test scores high enough to qualify for state accreditation. One in five city residents lives at or below the poverty line. Violent crime, which had declined somewhat over the past several years, is up again, with homicides rising 10 percent this year. In the mid-1990s, when many cities were experiencing reductions in homicides, Richmond had one of the highest rates in the country. It was a city of 250,000 in 1950, but its population fell to 197,000 in 2000.
Over the past five years, several council members and city employees have been convicted of crimes including mail fraud, tax evasion and bribery.
"I think a lot of what has gone on over the past 10 years has really been a stain on the city's reputation -- and even how we feel about ourselves," said Del. Viola O. Baskerville (D-Richmond), who served as a City Council member and vice mayor in the mid-1990s. "What we really need is an ambassador, someone who will bring confidence back to the city."
But others say the city already has started to turn a corner. They point out the $3 billion in economic development begun in the past five years -- including the construction of a federal courthouse, a waterfront apartment complex on the James River and a performing arts center in the vacant Thalhimer department store.
In addition, the convention center was just expanded, the first mall in a generation opened on the city's South Side last year, and there's even talk of building a $58 million downtown stadium for the minor league baseball team, though Wilder said he is skeptical about that idea.
"This is a city on the rise," said Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), a former mayor and council member who helped usher in a tax-abatement program for property owners to encourage neighborhood development. "We obviously have some things still to work on, but I think on balance the city is beginning to move in a positive direction."
McCollum, the mayor and mayoral candidate, pointed to statistics showing that young singles are moving into formerly abandoned neighborhoods. "Whether people want to admit it or not, there is progress going on in this city," he said. Referring to Wilder, he said: "We've even been able to get a former governor to move from the county to the city."
But many observers say voters are excited about the prospect of having Wilder's strong personality shake things up. "People see him as giving the city a chance, an opportunity," said John V. Moeser, a professor of government at Virginia Commonwealth University and a supporter of the charter change.
It is this notion that Wilder seeks to encourage as he travels the city.
"I'm sick and tired of hearing about Richmond . . . and that it's not what it could be," he said to the crowd at the campaign event. "We can be better . . . and all I want to do is leave this city better."