Today’s Black Political Trailblazer is L. Douglas Wilder.
On January 14, 1990, L. Douglas Wilder was sworn in as governor of Virginia, joining a line that includes Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and Harry F. Byrd. Wilder became Virginia’s 66th governor and the nation’s first elected black governor. In 2004, Wilder became the first mayor of the city of Richmond, Virginia. The grandson of slaves, Wilder is a moderate who immediately became a major influence in the U.S. political arena, announcing—but eventually repealing—his decision to run for the Democratic nomination in the 1992 U.S. presidential election. As a Washington Post correspondent wrote shortly before Wilder’s gubernatorial inauguration, “Willingly or not, Wilder becomes a symbol of the changing climate of politics in the South and the nation as a whole, the aspirations of American blacks to assume an equal place in society, and the uncertainties that confront any public leader as a new century looms.”
Wilder himself appeared aware of the significance of his victory in Virginia, noting in the Richmond News Leader that his office would be housed just blocks from the old White House of the Confederacy and just miles from the segregated neighborhood where he grew up. “As a boy,” he recalled in the News Leader, “I read the writings of [former U.S. President] Abraham Lincoln about freedom and equality, and I knew they were referring to me. My victory fulfills all of the dreams that could be dreamed by any person.”
After establishing himself as one of Richmond’s up-and-coming criminal lawyers, Wilder entered politics in 1969. He announced his bid for a vacant state senate seat, fully aware that no black had ever been elected to that body. Wilder, a Democrat, won a three-way race with less than 50 percent of the vote. Over the next 16 years, however, he was never opposed in a reelection bid for the seat.
In the Virginia state senate Wilder immediately attracted attention. In his first speech, in February of 1970, he called for dropping the state song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia,” because its lyrics glorified slavery and were offensive to blacks. Wilder told his fellow legislators that he and his wife had walked out of an official dinner when the song was played, with its warm words about “old massa” and the state where “this old darky’s heart am long’d to go.” His bill never passed and “Carry Me Back” remains Virginia’s official, if rarely sung, anthem. His protest, however, immediately established Wilder as the senate’s angry young man. Though he had never attended a civil rights demonstration, he was now seen as a spokesperson for black Virginians.
“I was perceived as the fair housing guy, the Martin Luther King guy, the ‘Carry Me Back’ guy,” he pointed out in the Atlanta Constitution. “All the pictures of me showed the Afro [haircut], and I was always frowning or snarling. But my record was working with people, too.” In fact, Wilder de-emphasized civil rights issues during his 16 years in the legislature, instead focusing on becoming a power among established leaders in the senate. He did, however, launch a nine-year campaign for a state holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with the effort ending in a compromise; the day was combined with a long-standing state holiday in January honoring Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, resulting in a “Lee-Jackson-King Day.”
Over the years, noted the Washington Post, “Wilder earned a reputation as a shrewd, pragmatic politician who used his engaging personality and deft sense of humor, as well as his clout with black voters, to maneuver into the inner circles of power in Virginia’s clubby legislature.” Wilder’s close friend and political ally, Jay Shropshire, told the Washington Post, “He was the black kingpin. They all called on Doug Wilder either up front or out back.” The extent of this power was made clear in 1982 when he managed almost single-handedly to block the nomination of the man chosen by Democratic Governor Charles Robb to run for the U.S. Senate. The aspiring nominee, Owen Pickett, then a member of the state House of Delegates, was too conservative to suit Wilder, so Wilder announced plans to run against Pickett as an independent. The threat scuttled Pickett’s nomination.
A Power in the Senate
As Wilder’s seniority grew in the senate so did his power. By 1985 he was a committee chairman and was rated among the five most influential senators. And while his early legislative record could be considered liberal—particularly on law-and-order issues—he grew more conservative over the years. He began to sponsor fewer anti-discrimination bills and became increasingly interested in stiffening jail sentences.
Republican opponents contended that Wilder changed his views to more conservative positions when he started to think about seeking statewide office. Wilder disagreed, telling a Philadelphia Inquirer correspondent, “When you increase your seniority, you don’t have to fight as hard to be seen and heard. I started growing politically.” Regardless, he was given little chance of success when he ran for lieutenant governor of Virginia in 1985. Prominent Democrats openly feared that public resistance to a black candidate would not only mean defeat for Wilder, but for Democrats on the rest of the statewide ticket as well. But Wilder refused to accept the conventional wisdom, renting a station wagon and, over a period of two months, visiting each of the state’s 95 counties and hundreds of its towns. The personal approach worked, and in a state where blacks constitute 19 percent of the voting population, Wilder beat his Republican opponent, 52 to 48 percent, becoming the first black candidate ever elected to statewide office.
As lieutenant governor, a job with limited duties, Wilder concentrated on politics. He made a number of highly publicized speeches urging blacks to assume more responsibility for eliminating social problems in the black community. Such addresses drew praise from conservatives who, in the past, had rarely sided with Wilder. By 1989, Wilder was in such a strong position to run for governor that only one Democrat, state senator Daniel W. Bird, Jr., of Wytheville, offered a challenge for the party’s nomination. Bird withdrew early, and Wilder was nominated unanimously.
In the general election, Wilder faced Republican J. Marshall Coleman, a surprise winner of a divisive Republican primary. Coleman tried to paint Wilder as a liberal while presenting himself as the conservative alternative, a stance more in line with Virginia’s political tradition. He pledged to make the war on drugs a central goal of his administration and ran hard-hitting television commercials accusing Wilder of being soft on crime. Wilder, meanwhile, focused on positive themes, including his own rise from poverty to a prominent political standing and his ability to form coalitions. The underlying message was clear: he wanted to reassure independent and Republican-leaning whites that he was an approachable politician. Abortion, however, became the overriding issue of the campaign. Coleman’s staff included activists from anti-abortion organizations, while Wilder’s media consultant had previously worked for a national abortion-rights group. Polls indicated that Wilder benefited more from the issue than Coleman did because most Virginians favored at least some degree of abortion rights. Coleman opposed abortion in nearly all cases.
And while abortion was the most visible issue, race was regarded as a significant force underlying the election. Although Wilder made few direct appeals to the black community, support for him there was close to unanimous. He campaigned hard in white neighborhoods, especially the rural regions of southern Virginia. Spending a record $7 million on the campaign, Wilder was, according to polls, comfortably in the lead going into election day. When the votes were counted, however, he won by the slimmest of margins, beating Coleman by only 6,741 votes.
Became Virginia’s First Black Governor
Wilder was inaugurated as governor in January of 1990. “As we salute the idea of freedom today, let us pledge to extend that same freedom to others tomorrow,” he told a huge crowd of spectators gathered at Capitol Square. “For we know that freedom is but a word for the man or woman who needs and cannot find a job.” Quoting black playwright Lorraine Hansberry, he added, “Freedom is a dream deferred when it dries up like a raisin in the sun.”
As governor, Wilder became known for conducting matters in Richmond secretively and earned a reputation for being vengeful toward his adversaries and inconstant in his political agenda. Though he has maintained his pro-choice position and continues to stress the importance of enacting civil rights legislation, he has eschewed his liberal views on the death penalty and taxation. He also gained the attention of the national media in what was referred to as a feud with a former governor of Virginia, U.S. Senator Charles Robb. A years-long rivalry between the two Democrats culminated in allegations by Wilder of phone tapping, and a criminal investigation was initiated. Commenting that the Wilder-Robb dissension may have “irreparably hurt” Robb’s career and “[raised] new questions about the Democrats’ image,” Newsweek correspondent Bill Turque noted in 1991, “For Wilder, the feud is likely to burn much of the historic luster from his national reputation.”
Wilder has, however, received praise from financial analysts as well as his constituents for maintaining his firm views on fiscal matters, trimming Virginia’s budget and cutting government staff during the recession of the early 1990s. “My vision is of a government that is prioritizing the spending of the taxpayer’s money,” he explained to Range. “We should spend for needed services, not for nonsense.” Virginia, an especially hard-hit state during the economic downturn, was faced with a budget deficit of $2.2 billion upon Wilder’s inauguration. “Instead of raising taxes,” observed Time correspondent Laurence I. Barrett, “[Wilder] deftly shaved expenses without cutting major arteries. He also created a $200 million contingency fund as a buffer against a 1992 deficit.”
After only two years in the governor’s mansion, Wilder announced on September 13, 1991, his intentions to seek the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination. Taking his moderate credo to the national arena, Wilder rose as a viable candidate who offered black voters an alternative to the more liberal aspirant of past elections, Jesse Jackson. The governor drew criticism early in his underfunded campaign, though, for such vague policy proposals as his Put America First Initiative, which entailed a “$50 billion spending cut, $35 billion in breaks for middle-class families and $15 billion in ‘reduce bureaucracy grants’ to states,” according to Time’ s Barrett. “How this game of musical dollars would lessen the deficit is murky,” the reporter remarked.
Pointing to the financial straits of the state of Virginia, Wilder withdrew his candidacy in January of 1992. “I said that if it became too difficult for me to govern the Commonwealth and conduct a presidential campaign, I would terminate one endeavor,” Wilder announced in his State of the Commonwealth address to the Virginia General Assembly, as quoted in the New York Times. “I was left with a choice: either to devote all of my energies to delivering the message or to guiding Virginia through these difficult times. I have chosen the latter.” Ayres also cited lack of voter confidence and Wilder’s less than one million-dollar store of campaign funds as reasons for his withdrawal. With his term as governor ending in 1994, Wilder, a man who, according to Barrett, “is in love with public life,” will no doubt remain an influential figure in American politics. “I am concerned about the direction this country is headed,” he declared, according to Ayres. “I have the vision, experience and fortitude that is necessary to help reverse this dangerous trend and put this great nation of ours on the right track again.”
Back to Politics
Wilder left office in 1994, obeying a Virginia law that does not allow governors to hold consecutive terms. For nearly ten years, Wilder engaged in the types of activities befitting an ex-governor: he briefly hosted a morning radio show that was broadcast in Virginia, Baltimore, Maryland, Washington, D.C.; he taught political science at Virginia Commonwealth University; he practiced law; and in 2002 he served as chairman of a commission to study efficiency in Virginia’s state government. He was honored to be considered for the presidency of his alma mater, Virginia Union University, though he declined the offer, and he has consistently backed efforts to create a National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
By 2004, however, the call of politics had pulled him back into public life. The city of Richmond, Viriginia, had been in decline for years, with poverty and crime plaguing the once-proud city. Citizens approved a new form of government headed by a strong mayor, and many in the city called for the experienced ex-governor to join the race. Explaining to Jet why he was willing to run, Wilder said: “I’m not entitled to rest when I look and see little kids being shot up and maimed and crippled, and people are afraid to go on their streets and walk and to be educated in their schools. I began to look around and see the reason.” In November of 2004 Wilder easily won the mayoral election, trouncing opponents who were outmatched against such a seasoned politician. In his acceptance speech, quoted in the Washington Post, Wilder told the citizens of Richmond: “This is a new beginning.” In truth, it was a new beginning for Wilder as well.