The man with the silver hair and cowboy boots stepped onto a city bus and decided he had an important announcement to make.
"If I'm elected mayor, your bus fare will be reduced by 25 cents!" declared L. Douglas Wilder, the former Virginia governor who is looking to open a new chapter in his storied political career on Election Day. With a wink, he added: "You can bet on it!"
Turning a rush-hour bus into his personal campaign convoy, Wilder walked down the aisle, shook hands, signed autographs and joked with a pair of teenagers.
"I need your vote now," the nation's first elected black governor told an elderly woman as she got off the bus.
"You just do what you say you will," she responded.
It's been that kind of a fall on the campaign trail for Wilder as he seeks to become this city's first elected mayor in nearly 60 years. Long considered one of Virginia's most unpredictable politicians, Wilder, 73, has walked the streets of Richmond with entertainer Bill Cosby and has touted his ability to turn around this struggling city of 200,000. His promises include the bus-fare reduction, a lower crime rate and sweeping out "dysfunction" at City Hall.
But he also has faced those who are curious about why he's coming out of retirement and those skeptical about whether he will deliver on his promises.
Since 1948, Richmond's mayor has been selected by the City Council, and the daily management of the bureaucracy has been overseen by a city manager. Now, Wilder is at the center of a major change in city government -- one that will centralize authority in a popularly elected mayor, and one that he says will set the state capital on a course to its former glory as a commercial hub in central Virginia. Last year, city residents voted by a 4-to-1 ratio to change the city's charter to allow a strong-mayor system.
Wilder faces three other candidates in Tuesday's nonpartisan election: Rudolph C. McCollum Jr., the current mayor; Charles Nance, a former School Board member; and Lawrence E. Williams, an architect.
Those who have known Wilder for years have said there are complex reasons why this legendary figure in Virginia politics -- who hasn't lived in Richmond since he left the governor's mansion in 1994 -- is returning to politics in the city.
"I think he's genuinely concerned about the city's future, but he likes to be in the limelight of getting things done," said state Sen. Benjamin J. Lambert III (D-Richmond), who is also a longtime friend of Wilder's. Lambert dismissed speculation that Wilder was simply bored and needed a challenge.
"I think he also sees this as his last shot to do something for the city and the state," Lambert said, " . . . his last shot to be considered a great Virginian."
Wilder shrugs off talk of any personal motivations he might have in running for the office, saying he doesn't need any more public adulation than he receives every day. Instead, he hammers away at his disgust at seeing his hometown fall into "disrepair" over the past 20 years, a place where 20 percent of the residents live in poverty, the homicide rate continues to climb and jobs continue to flee.
"There's nothing that burns in me that says that I have to keep my hand in the pie," Wilder said in an interview Tuesday as he toured the city's dilapidated south side. "I want to make people . . . believe that Richmond [can] be governed. . . . This is the capital city of Virginia, and it should be governed like it's a capital city."
Richmond has had its share of struggles over the past 30 years, as many whites, businesses and middle-class residents have fled the city. In addition, 15 years of corruption and scandal at City Hall has led to convictions and resignations of a dozen City Council members and top city officials.
Yet Wilder's longtime critics and mayoral opponents -- including McCollum -- have tried to paint Wilder as a moneyed establishment candidate who is a front for the city's Republican big-money interests. Wilder, who has raised more than $360,000 within several months, has received most of his big-ticket contributions from GOP supporters. Wilder's campaign fund is more than 10 times as large as those of his nearest competitors.
"This is not what the residents of Richmond had in mind when they voted for a charter change," said Craig Bieber, a former executive director of the Virginia Democratic Party and the campaign manager for McCollum. "They didn't count on this being an election about money, and one dominated by big businesses interests."
In addition, many in the city's Democratic political establishment -- many of whom supported Wilder when he was the state's Democratic governor -- cannot forget his very public feuds with members of his own party.
Recently, Wilder was the featured speaker at a two-day retreat for Republicans in the House of Delegates. That followed his decision to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in March with Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) to chastise Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) for his plan to increase taxes.
"I'm not going to be someone who cuts and runs and cozies up to Republicans so I can win," McCollum said.
But Wilder appears to have broad support across the city, from its dilapidated neighborhoods to its powerful business community. He also picked up the endorsement of an important grass-roots organization that represents many African American voters.
"Doug is a change artist. . . . We don't need more of the same in this city from [the] city council," said Beverley W. Armstrong, a local Republican business leader who contributed $5,000 to Wilder.
Wilder has tried to stoke his civic vision with a populist rhetoric, saying that he is hoping to attract opportunities for the city. He often talks about giving the children of the city "a chance" and to raise the tide for all Richmonders.
"Winning is the game, there's no doubt about that," he said as he mingled with city residents Tuesday, referring to his bid to be mayor.
"But if I can't win for the people, then I don't want to do it."