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Harry Moroz

Mayor L. Douglas Wilder on Combating a Simplified Notion of Cities

Mayor L. Douglas Wilder of Richmond is a formidable – and somewhat atypical – force in American politics. In 1990, he became the first elected African American governor in the United States (the first unelected was P.B.S. Pinchback of Louisiana), he ran for president in 1992, and then, after 10 years of private sector work, he became the mayor of Richmond in 2004. In an article about his abortive bid for the presidency, the New York Times described Mayor Wilder’s unique position – from the perspective of political insiders – in Democratic politics:

In distancing himself from the liberal policies offered by Mr. [Jessie] Jackson, Governor Wilder painted a political vision that seemed aimed not only at black voters but also moderate whites, a coalition that some Democrats have said could be a winner for the party if only a candidate would come along who could forge it.

A 2004 article described Mayor Wilder’s mix of politics this way:

But Wilder has weathered criticism from those who say he may be a Democrat, but his policies cater more to Republicans. They point to his unflagging support for the death penalty and deep cuts he made to higher education budgets while governor.

Indeed, the Mayor’s more-or-less unwavering support for Senator Obama in the Democratic primary campaign was considered somewhat surprising. Last summer, Politico related:

Wilder’s frequent practice has been to haze fellow Democrats, either with public digs or a mischievous silence, if he believed they had not paid their dues or could challenge him for influence.

Mayor Wilder criticized former President Bill Clinton’s remarks about Senator Obama leading up to the South Carolina primary. Mayor Wilder told CNN:

A time has come and a time goes. Mr. President has had his time.

In an interview with MayorTV at the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual meeting last week, Mayor Wilder was unflagging in his support for Senator Obama (we spoke just after the Illinois politician addressed the group). He endorsed Senator Obama’s assertion that the United States must view cities as solutions and extolled the benefits of regional economic growth that is built from the inside – from downtown areas – out. Mayor Wilder called a presidential urban agenda “absolutely necessary”.

The Mayor also discussed the “simplified” notion of urban areas that was popularized until quite recently and talked about some of the steps necessary to move beyond this urban stereotype.

The code words that have been used to define the problems of the city have been simplified to: urban issues, urban crime. Crime is crime.

At the same time, Mayor Wilder spoke freely about Richmond being ranked as one of the nation’s most dangerous cities early in his mayoralty. He told MayorTV that such a label gave parents, businesses, and, indeed, anyone considering moving to Richmond pause.

To combat this harmful label, he described a community policing effort that has helped generate trust between the community and the police force. He credited his Police Chief Rodney Monroe with developing the successful strategy. Richmond’s reduced crime rate is considered one of the primary achievements of the Mayor’s term. (A recent Economist article noted that Mayor Wilder’s announcement of his decision not to run for re-election coincided with Police Chief Monroe’s decision to move to Charlotte, North Carolina.)

At the end of the interview, Mayor Wilder deftly compared FDR and LBJ, while lamenting that presidents in between and presidents since have not addressed urban issues.

Please find MayorTV’s complete interview with Mayor Wilder here.

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Posted at 1:29 PM, Jun 25, 2008 in Community Development | Economy | Election 2008 | MayorTV | Urban Affairs
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