The Blue Raccoon

Friday, May 16, 2008

Newsflash: The Governor-Mayor won't run again

Any celebration round Richmond may be short-lived, however. Though the Governor Mayor made his official announcement this morning, who will run to replace him is an open question.

So far we have:

• An elder career state politician who is yet another sanctimonious demagogue, who can exhort his congregation to vote for him

• A crazy person who used to work for the Governor-Mayor and accepted being on his payroll without qualms (But -- maybe -- crazy is what we need? Really? )

• A well-meaning but unknown architect

• Dirt Woman

There are others waiting in the wings, and with the playing field now leveled by the departure of the Governor-Mayor, they'll be rushing to declare.

Whoever runs must carry five of the nine districts and that means the candidate probably will need to be an African-American. Except...where is our magnetic, magnanimous, knee-weakening stem-wending oratorical visionary, less-talk-more-action candidate?


That person doesn't exist, or isn't running.

Why? Why is Richmond so impossible to govern? Or why must we again and again subject ourselves to loonies and mediocrities? The city's political class didn't descend upon us from on high. They were not foisted upon us. They come out of the population.

Because, as some have suggested to me, Richmond chased away its potential black leadership base during the 1950s and 1960s. Certainly Arthur Ashe thought so; in one of his memoirs he made a list of Maggie Walker High School graduates who'd gone elsewhere to become surgeons, symphony conductors, university professors, museum directors, civic leaders, etc. This example was his way of saying: see what you did? You drove out some of the best with your short-sighted policies and ignorance. Now you're really stuck, Richmond. Because both black and white parents want to send their children to good schools, and would prefer safe streets.

The ones who stayed behind; well. And there've been exceptions. Ask yourself, why was it that the great Oliver Hill served just one history-making term on City Council--1948-1950--and he was defeated by just 44 votes when he ran again. How different might Richmond be had he attempted another run; or somehow, that he could've won in '50? He didn't make the effort again; that he was the only black man on Council certainly had something to do with his decision and he was outvoted by six whites. And there were greater issues to tackle--like integrating the schools. Still, since then, when has such intelligence and courageousness taken seat in Council chambers? That's a long, long time -- and just one man.

For the most part, we've seen a leadership fatally flawed and too easily taken in by consultants and schemers and anxious to use the positions of public trust as ways to advance themselves. These are people who've risen to Council level who've been for some reason convinced of the "bomb the village to save it" way of approaching urban improvements.

The list is long and sad: Sixth Street Marketplace, the Coliseum and Project One Building -- all realized while there was a majority African-American City Council--I'd even go so far as to criticize the decision to place the James Center and Omni where they are, as they defaced and permanently ruined the potential to restore the Great Turning Basin, (three blocks long, two wide and 50 feet deep), and wiped away the Tidewater Connector canal locks. An unknown tourist revenue was forsaken, and an aesthetic quality that no other East Coast city could match. At least when the Reynolds Metals Corporation built its plant along the canal, that firm chose to preserve the locks unearthed there. You can walk among the dry, antique locks today.

Then in the later 1990s somehow the electoral process delivered unto Richmond a Council composed of winners beginning at the top with the Rev. Leonidas Young, Jr., --later indicted and accused to stealing the life savings of one of his parishioners while on her death bed.

Under Young's watch, the horrendous 1995-1998 "Ministry of Fear" Crestar bank complex was placed upon prime bluffs overlooking the river. Crestar was bribed with $25 millions of "incentives" to build there; and that later became SunTrust. To paraphrase, those perjuries against architecture ought not to have been authorized, then they should never have been built-- at least on those properties, and not in that sleek, featureless Tysons Corner Baroque style. [Image via Richmond City Watch.]

Why does Richmond seem persuaded that it either cannot deliver, or doesn't deserve, better? As I've written before on glossy pages: for most of its history, Richmond was governed by a white majority that sufficiently mismanaged the city to almost wreck it. From 1977 on, Richmond has been governed by a black majority that has sufficiently mismanaged the city to almost wreck it. We are running out of colors and running out of time -- if Richmond should join the sorority of great cities to which she could make rightful claim, next to Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans. Instead, the city and its leadership has hurried us along to become not the best Richmond, but a fake one, a copy of the Charlottes and Atlantas and Northern Virginia suburbs that are long on add-cement-and-reflective glass-and-mix building and short on character. As a Richmond Grande Dame once said of the family moving into one of the new mansions off River Road, "Well, I'm sure they have good plumbing."

"It would be side-splitting if it were not so heart-breaking..." as Richmond novelist James Branch Cabell once observed.

If I were to run--and I'm not--but if I was going to, well, I would've started months ago. And my campaign would've been to walk every street of the city, from east to west, working north to south, shaking whosever hand, asking what is on people's minds and taking notes. I'd have a backpack filled with flyers and DVDs of me talking about who I am and why I'm doing this, a laptop and a video camera. I'd establish a web site about the excursion--my 'scanning' of Richmond. I would make no promises, but try to offer some approaches to solutions, and see whether people actually understand that politicians are just people, not miracle workers.

At night, I'd seek to stay with whomever would let me, wherever they happened to be, and I would learn about them and their part of the city. I'd update the website. I'd accept whatever donations were given to me and hand them off to whoever was assisting me.

And that's what I'd do. No real speeches, no campaign per se, and when I ended up back home I'd sit on my porch, go through the research I would have accumulated during my journey, consult with people smarter than me about possible actions, and wait for whatever happened in November.

Instead, we're going to get the same old tired thing delivered by the same tired, old people. My city, my city, I weep for it.

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