A mayor for Chesterfield

Entering my 60th year, I can safely say that – however long I live – the majority of my life will have been spent in Chesterfield County. I call myself a native, though, as Chesterfield had no hospitals in 1951, I technically emerged onto life’s stage in Hopewell. Still, this is where I spent my infancy, childhood and teen years.

In the course of my lifetime, I’ve spent 11 years in the Charlottesville area, mostly being educated, partly doing the educating. In my 20s, I spent two-and-a half years in Southside Richmond among the swinging singles of St. John’s Wood. During my 40s, when I was working regularly in regional theatre, I’d spend a few months at a time in such places as Louisville, Birmingham or Allentown. And an idyllic four months in Boca Raton.

But I’ve spent the rest of my life, thus far, in Chesterfield, in my childhood home before college and after Dad died and, during my 30s, in a condo I owned in Midlothian.

When I was a kid, Chesterfield was a rural county with a few substantial villages and only a hint of post-war suburban development. If the world operated to suit my personal whims, it would have stayed that way.

But that’s not how the world works, and the reality now is that my native county has become the largest political subdivision in central Virginia. Bigger than Richmond. Bigger than Henrico. Richer and more populous than any locality within a two-hour drive.

Rural Chesterfield never had much clout. When I was a kid, Richmond and Henrico dominated area politics. At General Assembly budget negotiations, they got all the gravy, and Chesterfield, in the quaint phrase of those times, sucked hind teat. That’s why, even today, many Chesterfielders pay tolls to get downtown, while Henricoans commute via freeways.

And why, even today, I share the instinctive reaction of old-time Chesterfielders when I hear the words “regional cooperation.” When I was growing up, the sort of cooperation expected of Chesterfield was pretty much like the cooperation expected of a prize turkey at the holidays. It started with getting plucked and just kept getting worse.

Yet the fact is that, if Chesterfield had a coherent vision of its own future and dynamic political leadership, “regional cooperation” could now work in our favor. We are, after all, the big dogs in the region – if only we could forget past injustices and take advantage of our present wealth and power.

But what, exactly, is “regional cooperation?” In major newspapers, such as the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly, “regional cooperation” is a frequent source of favorable commentary by editorialists, business and political leaders, scholars, even men and women of the cloth.

Of course, about half the time, regional cooperation seems to be a way of dressing up some sort of special-interest agenda. Calls for regional cooperation in developing a baseball diamond or sports complex, for example, are often about enriching some private entity. Calls for regional cooperation in developing a performing arts or convention center generally work for the primary benefit of the jurisdiction in which the new site is to be located – inevitably, Richmond City.

At other times, calls for regional cooperation are unaccompanied by concrete proposals, in which case they mean about as much as a Miss America contestant’s call for world peace.

In actual fact, our region has few glowing examples of such cooperation. RIC is a reasonably good regional airport. The RMA, while unfairly imposing much of its burden on Chesterfielders, offers a well-designed commute to downtown. And the region supports two Governor’s Schools worth bragging about.

But, in an emerging era of economic retrenchment, higher fuel costs and growing environmental concerns, action at the regional level looks increasingly more promising than waiting for leadership and money from federal and state governments.

The problem is this: For Chesterfield to play a role commensurate with its population, wealth and power, we must be able to speak with one voice. And our political system, devised in rural, agricultural times, simply cannot do that.

Which is why this old Chesterfield country boy has begun thinking that Chesterfield needs to adopt a city charter, providing for a strong mayor elected by the voters of the whole county.

A strong mayor could negotiate with Richmond’s mayor on at least an equal footing; negotiate with the Governor and legislative budget-makers from a position of authority; and assert our due weight in the regional discussions that will define the way we live in next century of central Virginia’s history.

A Board of Supervisors, elected from separate sections of the county and often governing by shifting 3-2 majorities, cannot speak with one voice. So long as we lack that unified voice, we will never receive due consideration in the councils of the mighty.

Chesterfield needs a mayor.

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