Former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder will become this city's first elected mayor in more than 50 years, opening a new chapter in his unpredictable and storied political career.

Wilder, 73, a Richmond native, defeated three other candidates Tuesday, including the current mayor, Rudolph C. McCollum Jr., who was appointed by the City Council three years ago.

Wilder was the nation's first and only elected African American governor when he took office in 1990. He will be inaugurated mayor in January, the result of a six-month campaign that returned him to the political scene after 10 years.

At a downtown victory party, Wilder reiterated many of his campaign promises, telling energetic partisans that he will work to return this struggling city to its days as a vibrant urban hub.

"This is a new beginning," Wilder said, telling those in the crowd that he would be counting on each of them to help him lead. "There is an opportunity for all of us to reach out and reclaim and rebuild. I want to see a Richmond that doesn't just have a post office address to designate us, but rather a community that unites us."

Besides McCollum, Wilder defeated former School Board member Charles Nance and architect Lawrence E. Williams in the nonpartisan election. To win, Wilder needed a majority of the votes in five of the nine City Council districts. In unofficial returns, he swept all nine.

In an interview after the polls closed, McCollum said that running against a politician as prominent as Wilder was an uphill battle.

"To say that we were an underdog is an understatement," McCollum said. "But I believe we put forth a positive campaign . . . and I believed it was necessary to talk about the good things going on in the city."

During the campaign, Wilder consistently expressed disgust that the capital city has fallen into what he called disrepair, often citing Richmond's high poverty levels, poor student performance in city schools and an increasing homicide rate. He also described City Hall as a "cesspool" of corruption after several council members and other city officials were convicted of felonies.

Wilder and his supporters said the former governor's experience managing state government in tough economic times in the early 1990s and his ability to work with local and national business leaders would help restore Richmond as a commercial and residential center. For nearly 40 years, this city of nearly 200,000 has lost jobs and residents steadily as the middle class has fled for the suburbs.

"He's just what the city needs right now, someone to come in and get City Hall moving again," said Norwood Davis, former chairman of Trigon Blue Cross Blue Shield and a prominent Richmond business leader who contributed to Wilder's campaign fund.

But many of Wilder's opponents speculated that the Democrat was simply a front for the city's powerful Republican business interests, which have long squabbled with City Hall.

The former governor raised more than $360,000 during his six-month campaign, much of it from Republican business donors from the city and across the state. Those contributions followed Wilder's public denouncements of Virginia's current governor, Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, for supporting tax increases during the last General Assembly session.

Other critics said privately that Wilder was simply bored and wanted to burnish his image as a political power broker. He disputed both those claims.

McCollum sought to talk up the city's progress and exploit Wilder's recent GOP allegiances.

"This is a city that's on the move," McCollum often said, alluding to $3 billion of development in the past five years.

All four candidates said they would address the city's crime rate and poorly performing public schools. In addition, Nance offered plans to raze all of the city's public housing, and Williams said he hoped to make City Hall more accountable to neighborhoods.

Wilder was able to run for mayor of his home town because of a change he helped orchestrate in the city charter.

Since 1948, the mayor had been selected by the City Council, and the daily management of the bureaucracy had been overseen by a city manager.

But two years ago, Wilder teamed up with former Republican congressman Thomas J. Bliley Jr. and designed a charter change to centralize authority in a popularly elected mayor. The change was put before voters last November and won by a ratio of 4 to 1.

Originally, Wilder said he was not going to run for the job. But he said he felt compelled after many residents and civic leaders encouraged him to enter the race.

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.

"The buck will stop with me," Wilder said at campaign forums and in interviews.

Since leaving the governor's mansion 10 years ago, Wilder has worked on creating a slave museum in Fredericksburg and chaired a task force on government waste for Warner.

L. Douglas Wilder flashes victory signs at his celebration. Behind him is Virginia Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), a former Richmond mayor.Wilder celebrates his mayoral victory with a supporter during the party. "This is a new beginning. There is an opportunity for all of us to reach out and reclaim and rebuild," he told the crowd.