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Randy Wright was determined to rise – and did

News source: hamptonroads.com

By Harry Minium
The Virginian-Pilot
© September 20, 2009
NORFOLK

W. Randy Wright often mangles the English language, and even in a suit can look disheveled. He lacks a college degree and often raises the ire of others with blunt, in-your-face talk. Raised in a poor family in blue-collar Norview, Wright excelled at bowling in high school, not academics.

Yet, he now mixes confidently with the city’s business and political elite.

Wright, a city councilman since 1992, is one of the region’s most powerful political leaders and a catalyst for some of Norfolk’s most ambitious projects: among them, MacArthur Center, East Beach and the revitalization of Ocean View.

Next year, light rail, a project that Wright pioneered, will begin rolling through Norfolk. It’s a project that some say will be Wright’s legacy.

Yet he is also Norfolk’s political bull in a china shop. He relishes political controversies and plays politics like a contact sport.

“So many people have underestimated Randy over the years, to their detriment,” Norfolk attorney Peter G. Decker Jr. said.

He has successfully defended his council seat in four elections and intends to run again next spring.

Many would like to see him go. Others know better.

“One of the first things I did when I decided to run for governor was talk to the mayor of Ocean View,” U.S. Sen. Mark Warner said. “Anyone running for political office in Virginia seeks Randy’s support. He has a loyal following.”

Wright was the third of four children born to parents who dropped out of high school to work during the Depression. His mother, Billie, became a housewife. His father, Buddy, a Navy veteran of World War II, maintained furnaces for the Army.

Formal schooling was not a priority in the Wright household. The family lived in a three-bedroom cottage on Winward Road in Norview.

Wright’s older brother, Bobby, wore hand-me-downs from a cousin. Randy Wright wore what he called “third-me-downs” after his brother outgrew them.

Standing just 5-foot-8 and 112 pounds as a high school senior, he was often picked on. “You took a licking and kept on ticking,” Wright, 63, said.

He graduated from Norview in 1964 and went to work as an apprentice printer. He spent days in the shop, his nights going to school and weekends with his wife in a rental house in his old neighborhood.

Although his family was apolitical, politics intrigued him, and when he was 21 he registered to vote.

In 1968, he went to see former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, then running for president, at a rally at Foreman Field. Wright voted for Wallace, a former segregationist.

The next year, he voted for Henry Howell, a supporter of civil rights, for governor.

Wallace and Howell had one thing in common: They were populists who railed against the establishment

“That appealed to me,” Wright said.

It’s an appeal Wright adopted in his political career.

In 1973, his son Eddie was born, and a few years later he and his wife bought their first home, in the Tarrallton section of the city. Finally, after years of struggling, Wright felt like he was middle class.

Out of curiosity, he began to attend Roosevelt Area Civic League meetings. It would prove to be a pivotal decision.

Civic league officer Joanne Wall liked the questions Wright asked at meetings, and within a few months she asked him to be civic league president.

“I told her I’ll do it only if you can’t find anyone else,” he recalled.

His political career was thus launched.

He learned that he could give a good speech and used that strength to capitalize on discontent over high real estate taxes.

In 1978, he and others formed the Norfolk Tea Party, an anti-tax group that attracted national attention when Wright, dressed in Native American garb, and others threw tea into the waters of the Hague.

Wright was bitten by the political bug. He wanted to run for council but knew he couldn’t unless he had his own business. “You can’t be on the City Council and work for someone else,” he said.

Longtime friend Bob Hicks came up with a plan to enable Wright to run: He told him to buy a printing company.

Wright did so in 1984, and not long after that, he and his son moved in above the Granby Street business. He and his wife had recently separated and Wright couldn’t afford anything else.

He didn’t let his finances slow down his political ambitions, though.

In the early 1980s, he helped lead a successful fight to end busing for integration in elementary schools, which he said unfairly forced students from the Ocean View, Bayview and Roosevelt neighborhoods onto buses, while allowing upper-income kids to walk to school.

His stance was popular on the city’s blue-collar east side but engendered hostility in black neighborhoods.

In 1986, he ran for the council. It was then that Mabel Carnes, one of Wright’s early supporters, told him he needed a makeover.

“I looked at him and said, ‘If you’re going to go somewhere, you’ve got to change a few things,’ ” she said.

“At times, he looked like John Travolta in ‘Grease.’ ”

She taught him to chew without his mouth open, pronounce words correctly and wear a coat and tie.

The tips almost worked.

On election night, Wright lost by fewer than 500 votes. He was devastated but not defeated.

A few weeks before the election, he had met Arlene Brooks, a Virginia Beach real estate agent, on a blind date. “He took me by the hand and he never let go of my hand that night,” she said. “He was so romantic.”

Within a year, they were married.

He continued hosting town hall meetings, all the while plotting his next political race.

Wright knew the best way to get elected was to eliminate the city’s at-large system, which the city’s business establishment had used to maintain control of the council. So he began meeting privately with some of the city’s most influential black leaders, who thought the system discriminated against African Americans.

It was the first time that Wright had spent time with many of the leaders, who were suspicious of him after he fought to end busing.

“We started to know each other and found out we had much more in common than not,” Wright said.

Eventually, James Gay, Herbert Collins and others filed a lawsuit that after eight years, forced the city to adopt a ward system. Gay and Collins, both now deceased, credited Wright with providing invaluable help. “He was with us all the way,” Collins said.

Collins and Gay won their lawsuit in 1991, and a ward system was introduced in 1992. Wright ran in Ward 5, castigating the city’s “shadow government” for spending too much money downtown and not enough in Ocean View.

He won easily and was ready to shake up City Hall.

A few days after he won, Wright and his wife strolled past 90 acres of slums in East Ocean View. He told her he was going to propose tearing down all 1,600 residences there, mostly apartments, and build anew.

“They’ll never let you do it,” she said.

A year later, he announced plans to replace the apartments with a neighborhood called East Beach. Most residents and landlords wanted to stay. Some threatened Wright, who needed police escorts for public hearings.

Wright remembers a man at one of the meetings asking him, “Are you going to allow me to keep my home?” Responded Wright: “No, I’m not.”

“It was a very difficult thing to say.”

Wright’s biggest battle was with the housing authority, a state agency that redeveloped East Beach. The agency wanted a South Carolina group to build East Beach. Wright wanted a conglomerate led by Virginia Beach developer Bart Frye.

“I wanted a local developer who would be invested in the project,” he said.

Housing authority officials, including board chairman Doyle Hull, protested, as did many prominent city officials. But with the backing of Mayor Paul Fraim, Wright got his way.

Hull was so upset, he asked not to be reappointed to the board. David Rice, who headed the housing authority, also left, Hull said, “because of Randy’s meddling.”

“We lost some of our very best people.”

East Beach established Wright’s reputation as a hard-nosed politician, said Bob Layton, a housing authority commissioner and a longtime ally.

“He got tremendous pressure from the heavyweights in the city to back off, to leave this alone,” Layton said. “But he simply believed what he was doing was right. Time has proven him correct.”

Over time, he became more powerful.

He opposed spending money downtown, saying it should go to neighborhoods, and pushed ordinances that forced bars, used car lots and pawn shops to seek city permission before opening.

He lobbied for dredging Pretty Lake and replacing the Shore Drive Bridge with a taller one, which gave owners of hundreds of middle-class homes access to deep water. The city has poured $200 million into Ocean View since he was elected, mostly for tearing down blighted housing, strip bars and seedy hotels.

Wright’s most controversial decision may have been a petition to rescind a council decision allowing Calvary Revival Church, a majority black church, to build a 3,000-seat cathedral in Roosevelt Gardens in 1993.

He was conflicted on the issue, he said, because of his deep religious faith. He has long attended weekly Bible study with an interracial group, including Del. Algie T. Howell Jr.

Yet he fought the church with zeal, gathering more than 20,000 signatures on petitions that would have forced a referendum on the issue. Sensing defeat, the church agreed to build a school on the site instead.

Councilman Paul R. Riddick bitterly criticized Wright, calling him a racist. Today, Riddick is one of Wright’s closest political allies.

“Randy is not a racist,” Riddick said. “I know him much better now than I did then.”

Wright’s growing power eventually led to a miscalculation. In 1995, he ran for clerk of the circuit court and claimed just a third of the vote citywide. “I ran for financial reasons,” Wright said.

Even so, he was re-elected to the council by a large majority in 1998.

Two years later, he was tested again. He and Fraim backed different candidates for a superward council seat. Barclay C. Winn won thanks in large part to huge majorities in Wright’s ward. The day after the election, Wright and Fraim mended their relationship by having breakfast.

Said Wright: “Paul and I, we’ve lifted this city on our shoulders in many cases to move it forward. In East Beach, he never flinched. He stood with me 100 percent.”

Wright also stood with Fraim. He supported tens of millions of dollars in city subsidies for MacArthur Center, an unpopular vote in his ward. It marked a reversal for Wright, who previously had railed against downtown spending.

After Winn’s election, Wright turned his attention to light rail, a subject he says is his passion.

He came by his love for mass transit as a boy. His parents didn’t drive, so he learned to get around by bus. He became intrigued with light rail in 1996 when he took a train from Anaheim to Los Angeles while in California for a conference.

Few gave Norfolk a snowball’s chance of succeeding with light rail. Virginia Beach, the state’s largest city, had said no to light rail in a 1999 referendum. That didn’t stop Wright.

He traveled the nation, buttonholing federal officials in hotel lobbies from New York to the West Coast, even if they could talk for only a few minutes.

“I learned that the powerful people you need to see are never in Washington,” he said.

He personally oversaw cost reductions for the project, helped engineer a merger of the region’s mass transit agencies and even came up with the name for Norfolk’s light rail: the Tide.

“Randy is the reason Norfolk has light rail,” said former Republican Rep. Thelma Drake. “He was relentless.”

Next year, Norfolk will be the smallest city ever to have light rail funded by the federal government, which is paying about half the cost of the $288 million project.

Virginia Beach is considering a proposal to extend light rail to the Oceanfront.

Many know of Wright’s work in Ocean View, Fraim said.

“But light rail, someday, will touch every community in this region,” Fraim said.

Political life has been good to Wright. He owns a small but successful print shop near Military Circle. His wife is a successful real estate agent.

They own four homes, two in North Carolina. Their principal residence, on Little Creek Inlet, east of East Beach, is assessed by the city at $816,600.

Wright travels extensively, dotes on his grandchild, Tyler, and makes no apologies for the wealth he has amassed, saying he and his wife earned every dime honestly.

Even so, some say Wright is too close with developers who do business with the city, including Ocean View residents Ronnie and Judy Boone.

“He’s been in office too long and controls things too tightly in Ocean View,” said Bill Kerry, a Wright critic who lives in East Ocean View.

Wright acknowledges being friends with the Boones and others but said those relationships have helped the city.

“When I was first elected, you couldn’t get a developer to do anything here,” he said. “I had to knock on doors and build relationships.”

Those relationships, among other things, have taken a toll on his popularity. In 2006, Wright defeated a relatively unknown candidate with little money by just 521 votes.

Wright apologized to his constituents for not paying enough attention to their needs and reconstituted the Norfolk Tea Party as the Norfolk Tea Party II. In 2007, the group forced the largest real estate tax reduction in city history.

Wright, who employs a polling agency, said his standing has improved since 2006.

Kerry disagrees, saying that if Wright runs for re-election in May, he will lose.

“People are tired of him,” he said.

Tommy Smigiel, a Granby High School assistant principal, announced last month that he will run against Wright.

Wright said he’s ready for the competition.

In the meantime, he’s ticking off a “Bucket List” of 60 things he’s trying to do before he dies, most with his son, Eddie. They have already watched a championship boxing match in Las Vegas, visited the Baseball Hall of Fame, played at the “Field of Dreams” baseball stadium in Iowa and herded cows on a dude ranch.

“One of the things I’ve learned is that no matter how tough things get, you’ve got to have fun,” he said.

Still, there’s nothing he likes better than the trappings of politics. That was never more evident than during a visit to downtown two years ago by Prince Philip, husband of England’s Queen Elizabeth.

As the prince, Wright and others were being led in to a private dinner, Wright beamed.

“Not bad,” he said, winking, “for a poor boy from Norview.”

Pilot writer Meredith Kruse contributed to this report.

Harry Minium, (757) 446-2371, harry.minium@pilotonline.com


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