DATE: Sunday, July 27, 1997                 TAG: 9707270047

SECTION: LOCAL                   PAGE: B1   EDITION: FINAL 


DATELINE: PORTSMOUTH                        LENGTH:  164 lines


It's 7 p.m. on a Tuesday, and roughly 200 people have packed the City Council chambers for a public hearing on the city budget.

The tension is thick, and the room is buzzing with angry banter from parents and school district administrators who want the city to spend more money on education.

With more than 40 people signed up to speak, it's obviously going to be a long night - one that will go well past 1 a.m.

A hush blankets the room as the meeting starts and Mayor James W. Holley III cuts on his microphone. The mayor peers out into the crowd and drifts into one of his trademark monologues about the ``Portsmouth family'' and the need for cooperation and patience because ``the road to success is always under construction.''

Holley's words draw smiles, chuckles and even some rolled eyes from the audience. But his mission is accomplished. He has broken the ice, and now it's time to get down to the business of solving Portsmouth's problems.

``That is the leader's job - to circle the wagons,'' Holley says. ``We are all in this together. We have to hold hands.''

It's been slightly more than a year since Holley made a surprising return to the mayor's office. In 1987, voters booted him from office after a hate mail and expense account scandal.

And Portsmouth - which had gone through some tough times during Holley's absence - has begun a renaissance.

In the 1996 election, Holley promised jobs, a stronger economy and a better quality of life for Portsmouth in his campaign to defeat Gloria Webb.

Holley has spent the past 12 months trying to make good on those promises - healing social and political wounds, bridging gaps between communities, building fresh relationships with businesses and leading Portsmouth's rallying cry.

The 70-year-old mayor, who's still a practicing dentist, keeps the schedule of someone half his age. He splits his time between his dental office on Effingham Street and the mayor's office on the sixth floor of City Hall. When Holley's not tending to teeth, he's meeting

with citizens, businessmen and city staff.

The city has prospered during his second reign.

Officials announced that it had finished the 1996 fiscal year with a $6 million budget surplus, that violent crime statistics declined for the first time in years, that more than 400 new jobs were created, and that a number of redevelopment projects were begun.

But how much credit should Holley receive for Portsmouth's reversal of fortune?

Some believe the turnaround would have happened anyway and that Holley was fortunate to be at the wheel while it occurred.

Others say Holley's tireless efforts to boost Portsmouth's image and fortunes are making it happen.

``I think Mayor Holley has done an outstanding job of moving Portsmouth forward,'' said Diane Davis-Wagner, a lifetime resident. ``That is evidenced by the business activity and the revitalization of the downtown area. The citizens are motivated to participate and help in the revitalization plan. He has accomplished what he set out to do in his campaign.''

Councilman C. Cameron Pitts said that, although Holley shouldn't get all the credit for the turnaround, the mayor has certainly been a catalyst.

``He has the ability to make people feel good about themselves,'' Pitts said. ``His leadership promotes that continually. And as time goes on, I think that is what is going to be the salvation of this city.

``In the past we had been our own worst enemy. We were always complaining about how bad we were doing. The negativism of the city has turned around because of his leadership.''

And what of Holley's monologues during council meetings or his tendency to stray from the script when he speaks at banquets and ribbon-cuttings?

``That is Mayor Holley's style. He is cheerleading,'' Councilman J. Thomas Benn said. ``He has done as much as anyone could do to make the council feel like a team. And we, as a council acting as a team, give the citizens confidence in our ability to govern.''

Although Webb acknowledged Holley's ability as a leader, she said Portsmouth's turnaround started long before he took office.

``I think the energy started back maybe two years before I went out,'' Webb said. ``The economy turned around. We had a lot of action as far as the High Street corridor. There was a lot going on in the city. Our staff did a good job getting word out that Portsmouth was a good destination with quality neighborhoods.

``The pieces were put in place, and eventually it was going to pay off. We have a lot of potential, and we will keep reaching it, whether I'm the mayor or Dr. Holley is the mayor.''

But that's the way it is sometimes in politics, says Del. Kenneth Melvin, D-88th District.

``All these changes are taking place on (Holley's) watch. In politics that is what counts,'' said Melvin, whose district covers Portsmouth. ``Some people would say that Bill Clinton is benefiting from an economy that started with George Bush.''

Even Holley admitted that Portsmouth's situation wasn't as dire as some thought when he took over.

``The whole bottom would have had to fall out for me not to be able to bring this together,'' he said recently.

Melvin said Holley is ``the right man at the right time.''

Holley said it's a case of the right ingredients being in place for Portsmouth's success - namely a good relationship between the council and city staff.

``Sometimes the chemistry isn't there,'' he said. ``This council is receptive to the initiatives from management. There is not a lot of stonewalling. Management cannot move forward if you don't get anything approved.''

Although the council agrees to most of the staff's initiatives, that doesn't mean it's a rubber stamp body, City Manager Ronald W. Massie said. ``They question pretty well. They don't buy much on faith. I understand why people might say that, but it is an example of the unity they have achieved and reflective of the hard work and common purpose that drives them,'' Massie said. ``I think the relationship between the administration and the council is very close, and a lot of that is due to the mayor's leadership.''

Few would have believed it possible for Holley to come back so strong after such a plunge from grace.

Holley had been one of the first blacks elected to the City Council since Reconstruction, and was the first black mayor in any Hampton Roads city.

But a lifetime of achievement was overshadowed when he was identified - though never formally charged - as the only suspect in a series of vulgar and threatening letters sent to black leaders who opposed closing I.C. Norcom High School, Holley's alma mater and once the city's only secondary school that admitted blacks.

Then Holley became the first Virginia politician in modern times to be recalled.

During his years off the council Holley remained visible in the community and politics. Yet, he lost two races for the Virginia General Assembly - including one against Melvin. Some had written Holley off for good. And because Holley was approaching 70, that seemed possible.

Ironically, Holley's rebirth was keyed by Portsmouth's demise.

In 1995, Portsmouth had the 14th-highest murder rate in the nation, according to the FBI. A poor economy had sapped the city of jobs and eroded its tax base. Businesses had left Tower Mall and MidCity Shopping Center, leaving Portsmouth without a major shopping area.

Voters listed jobs and economic development as the city's most important issues in the 1995 council elections. They chose Holley over Webb for mayor by 1,675 votes.

Holley is pleased with Portsmouth's performance since his return, but there's still work to do, he says.

He was disappointed that the city couldn't meet the school system's total budget request for the 1998 fiscal year. School officials had asked for an additional $3 million, but the city only provided an increase of $1.3 million.

``I was despondent that after a review we did not have the resources,'' Holley said. ``We are not where we need to be.''

Holley said he wants to help bring Portsmouth more business.

``I have to get the Economic Development Department more leads,'' he said. ``When I was really rolling, I was getting them 30 a month.''

But to do that, Holley said, the city may need to decrease its real estate tax rate.

``If you do that, it creates more money,'' Holley said. ``You get more growth. Businesses look at the bottom line.''

Those are some of the goals Holley hopes to accomplish during his next three years in office.

And to those who doubted him when he returned to power last year, Holley has this to say:

``They have to admit, `He is pretty good.' '' ILLUSTRATION: MIKE HEFFNER/File color photo

Since his 1996 re-election, Mayor James W. Holley III, and his city,

have been rebuilding. But even he admits that he is due only part of

the credit for the city's successes.


Mayor James W. Holley III has good reason to look toward a brighter

future: This year, things are looking up for the city he loves. In

his second reign, Portsmouth has a $6 million budget surplus.

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