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GOLDMAN: Voting rights: Should Richmond change elected mayor law?

Paul Goldman is a local lawyer who helped run Doug Wilder's historic campaign for governor of Virginia.

Paul Goldman is a local lawyer who helped run Doug Wilder's historic campaign for governor of Virginia.

by Paul Goldman

RICHMOND, Va. – With the latest Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act, the question is now ripe for consideration: Should Richmond jettison the so-called “Goldman Plan” that is used to elect the Mayor? While the “Goldman Plan” has been praised by legal scholars as clever lawyering, it was never my original intention to come up with our unique, only-in-Richmond process where the Mayor is elected not by carrying the popular vote, but instead by winning 5 of the 9 Council district.

“Necessity” as the saying goes, “is the mother of invention.” When Doug Wilder asked me to be the executive director of the Wilder-Bliley Commission to help the members figure out a way to allow for an elected Mayor of Richmond, the goal was to use the “one person, one vote” principle. This is how we elect every other Richmond elected official, whether citywide, council, or school board. Indeed, it is how every other locality in American elects their Mayor. “One person, one vote” treats all of us as equals when it comes to electing our leaders. I always assumed this would be easy to do.

Wrong! Ironically, then Delegate, now Mayor Dwight Jones, Senator Henry Marsh, indeed every African-American elected official in Richmond opposed giving the people the right to elect their Mayor. They wanted the power to handpick the Mayor: therefore they supported keeping the Status Quo, which gave them the power to influence the City Council, then responsible for picking the Mayor.

I thought the people, not the politicians, should pick the Mayor: and thus helping my friend Doug Wilder get the people their right to elect their Mayor made perfect sense to me. Tim Kaine backed us too. In the beginning, it seemed “no problemo”, I didn’t think Jones and Marsh could stop it.

But I was wrong: they were able to use the Voting Rights Act – passed to give people more rights – to deny Richmonder’s the right to elect their Mayor!

They argued – wrongly as I proved – that no African-American could be elected Mayor if we allowed Richmonder’s to elect the Mayor the same way we elect the Governor or other citywide elected officials.

I proved this was simply wrong, based on a false claim that no white person would vote for an African-American candidate for Mayor.

This was the same argument Mr. Marsh and the others had made in 1985 when I was running Doug Wilder’s campaign for Lt. Governor: they said Wilder was a sure loser since he could never come close to getting the white votes needed to win.

But even though Jones and Marsh were wrong – proven I might add 9 years later when Jones himself got 70% of the vote in Richmond for Mayor!!! – they seemed able to use the Voting Rights Act to block the people from electing their Mayor. It is too complicated to explain the legalities here, so people will just have to take my word for it: they could use federal law to do it or at least this was a threat I couldn’t afford to overlook. So I gave Wilder and company my best advice. .

This is what led to the “Goldman Plan”, a hybrid really of an idea first proposed by UOFR Professors Moeser and Shields but re-crafted to meet the requirements of the Voting Rights Act and practical politics.

While this approach had never been used before in American local elections, it is constitutional and also acceptable under the Voting Rights Act since, in effect, the winning candidate under the old Council-appointed process likewise needed to get 5 votes [one from each of 5 council members] to be Mayor.

Marsh and Jones and their posse called me a bunch of names: and they would have killed the idea but for Wilder’s stature in the City. He wasn’t a fan of the Goldman compromise either at the beginning. But he realized that it was the only way to get the people the right to elect their Mayor without violating the Voting Rights Act. His backing of the 5 of 9 approach sealed the deal. ( So he Better to have a popular

He got his Commission to back it 11-0. He showed great leadership in my view. And when the business community balked at the idea – and the Richmond Times Dispatch threatened to pull its backing – Wilder and Bliley refused to buckle.

That’s how Richmond got its Elected Mayor although not a straight popular vote. Everyone now agrees it was the right move, even Jones and Marsh!

But the fact remains: “one person, one vote” is the better principle.

With the latest Supreme Court decision on Voting Rights, the question is now raised: Should Richmond change the “Goldman Plan” and adopt the “one person, one vote” standard, that is to say scrap the 5 of 9 Council District approach to electing the Mayor and go straight to a system where the person getting the most popular votes is the Mayor? The Supreme Court decision seemingly now would allow this plan to satisfy the voting rights act.

Ideally, the answer is. Sure, I kinda like having the Goldman plan, who wouldn’t?

But every vote should be equal: and this is only true in a pure situation where the Mayoral election is decided by who gets the most popular votes. Should there be a run-off is no one gets 50%? I think so, that makes sense, it would give the winner a stronger mandate. But I can be persuaded either way.

Moreover, and this is key: It is simply wrong to claim whites will not vote for blacks and vice versa. That is just not the case here in the 21st century. It isn’t true based on actual Richmond elections either! Give people some credit for gosh sakes!

I ran Wilder’s historic statewide campaigns. I ran his campaign for Mayor when he got 80%. Mayor Jones held a big press conference in 2008 to announce my support for his run, showing that I didn’t hold any grudges or anything from what he and Marsh had suggested a few years before.

Politics can be a nasty business at times, people say things, do things, that they later realize is plain wrong. As JFK said: you have to learn to forgive, but not forget.

I don’t take any of it personally. You can’t and be successful.

Fact: Dwight Jones would have been elected Mayor in 2008 and 2012 under a straight “one person, one vote” approach, he didn’t need the 5 of 9 system to win. But in 2003, he and Mr. Marsh thought the 5 of 9 approach was needed to allow an African-American to be elected Mayor.

Conversely, many white politicians believed that the 5 of 9 approach made it impossible for a non-black person to win.

My view was different: 5 of 9, while not perfect, was the only legal way consistent with the Voting Rights Act requirements, and it was sufficiently fair to all.

Politics, at times, is the art of the possible, governing requires practical decision-making.

But the law, after yesterday, is different now.

I could support the change. The Goldman plan served an important purpose for the last 3 Mayoral elections. But it seems time to go to one person, one vote now.

Richmond is ready.

Paul Goldman is in no way affiliated with WTVR. His comments are his own, and do not reflect the views of WTVR or any related entity. Neither WTVR nor any of its employees or agents participated in any way with the preparation of Mr. Goldman’s comments.

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