Wilder, L. Douglas
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Wilder, L. Douglas

L. Douglas Wilder

1931

Politician, lawyer

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, announcingbut eventually repealinghis 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."

Surprisingly, race was hardly an issue in the campaign leading to Wilder's November 1989 election. Rather, abortion became the pivotal controversy, and Wilder benefited from his highly publicized pro-choice stance. His media campaign cast the issue in terms of government intervention and personal privacy, and it invoked such symbols as the American flag and Thomas Jefferson's Monticello to illustrate Wilder's abortion-rights views. In the end, one exit-polling sample indicated that single-issue voters concerned about abortion were 62 percent to 38 percent for him. After the elections, analysts predicted that abortion would be one of the litmus tests for candidates in the early 1990s and that politicians favoring a woman's right to an abortion would most often benefit.

Grandson of Slaves

Wilder was born on January 17, 1931, in the poor and strictly segregated Richmond neighborhood of Church Hill, a few miles and a world away from the state capitol. His father's parentsJames Wilder and Agnes Johnson Wilderhad been slaves in nearby Goochland County. The two were sold to separate owners after their wedding, and James Wilder needed a pass to visit his wife on Sundays. Douglas Wilder was the seventh of eight children born to Robert Wilder, a salesman and supervisor of agents for a black-owned insurance company, and Beulah Wilder, a woman who loved books and kept house full time for her large family.

According to the Atlanta Constitution, Wilder described his family's financial situation as "gentle poverty;" his parents never had spare money, but were always able to provide hot meals and warm beds for their children. He remarked in the Washington Post: "It was stressed that however things are, they can be better if you make them better. We were never told there were limitations. Our parents acted as if we had great opportunities compared to what they had. We were never afraid of challenge." As a youth, Wilder shined shoes, delivered papers, and waited tables at clubs and hotels in Richmond while attending the all-black Armstrong High School, where he acted in plays, was a sergeant in the cadet corps, and earned good grades.

During his early years, Wilder explained, he was hardly aware of racism because he rarely encountered white people. But as he began riding streetcars he noticed that black people were always seated in the rear. After high school, he was barred from even considering the state's all-white public colleges, so he enrolled in Virginia Union University, a private all-black school in Richmond. There, he studied chemistry, waiting tables to pay his tuition money and learning about racism firsthand.

"I read Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and I didn't understand it at first," Wilder told the Washington Post. "But then I realized, I'm experiencing this. I'm invisible. Here I am serving the coffee, pouring the tea, and guys are telling all these kinds of [racial] jokes around me." Washington Post reporter Donald P. Baker wrote that Wilder eventually became so outraged that he half-seriously considered "sprinkling poison in the salads" of white diners. Wilder himself told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he instead sought more peaceful solutions. "I won't mislead you and say I was not angry, but I didn't react to anger."

After graduating from college in 1952, Wilder was drafted into the army and served in the Korean War; the experience changed his life dramatically. The army, which had been desegregated by presidential order, was Wilder's first experience in an integrated environment. It also gave him his first opportunity for leadership: he was promoted to sergeant and won the Bronze Star for heroism at Pork Chop Hill in 1953. While dodging enemy fire, he and another soldier had captured 19 North Korean soldiers by hurling smoke grenades in their bunkers.

Back from Korea and armed with a degree in chemistry, Wilder answered an advertisement run by the state of Virginia for a chemist-technician. Upon applying, he was told that the job was not available but that he could become a cook at a state school for troubled boys. He called the experience "humiliating." Around the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation of public schools. Wilder said the ruling prompted him to attend law school. "It restored my faith," he acknowledged in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "It had a very startling effect on me because nine white men wrote the decision. Whether it was because of political expediency, I don't care, but it was something that was cathartic [for me]."

At a Glance

Born Lawrence Douglas Wilder, January 17, 1931, in Richmond, VA; son of Robert Wilder (in insurance sales) and Beulah (Richards) Wilder; married Eunice (divorced, 1978); children: Loren, Lynn, Lawrence, Jr. Education: Virginia Union University, BS, 1952; Howard University, JD, 1959. Military service: U.S. Army, served in Korea; received Bronze Star.

Career: Attorney, 1959; Virginia state senator, 1969-86; lieutenant governor of Virginia, 1986-90; governor of Virginia, 1990-94; Richmond, Virginia, mayor, 2004. Hosted radio talk show, 1994-95; headed state commission, 2002.

Selected memberships: American Bar Association; American Trial Lawyers Association; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); United Negro College Fund.

Selected awards: NAACP, Spingarn Medal, 1990.

Addresses: Office Office of the Mayor, 900 E. Broad St., Richmond, VA 23219.

Since there were no Virginia law schools open to blacks, Wilder soon enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C. His roommate, Henry Marsh, who later became Richmond's mayor, told the Washington Post, "Doug was one of the more outstanding members of the class. He was articulate and intelligent. He had a lot of skills." Upon obtaining his degree, Wilder returned to Church Hill in 1959 to open a law practice. He quickly developed a reputation for flamboyance, driving convertibles and wearing trendy clothes, but also for competence, taking on difficult criminal defense cases. He ran a one-man firm specializing in lucrative personal injury cases and eventually became wealthy.

Entered Politics

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 liberalparticularly on law-and-order issueshe 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.

Sources

Periodicals

Atlanta Constitution, November 5, 1989.

Black Enterprise, January 1985; February 1986; January 1989; January 1990; June 1991; January 1992.

Business Week, November 20, 1989; December 9, 1991.

Detroit News and Free Press, September 14, 1991.

Ebony, April 1986; November 1989; February 1990; February 1991.

Jet, May 6, 1985; November 25, 1985; February 3, 1986; June 26, 1989; November 6, 1989; November 27, 1989; April 9, 1990; December 30, 1990; February 25, 1991; September 23, 1991; September 11, 1995; March 17, 1997; February 11, 2002; June 21, 2004; October 18, 2004.

Maclean's, November 20, 1989; December 9, 1991; January 20, 1992.

Newark Star-Ledger, November 8, 1989.

Newsweek, February 18, 1985; November 18, 1985; November 6, 1989; November 20, 1989; May 14, 1990; November 12, 1990; March 4, 1991; June 24, 1991; October 14, 1991; November 25, 1991.

New York Times, November 8, 1991; December 9, 1991; December 23, 1991; January 9, 1992; January 10, 1992; January 11, 1992.

New York Times Magazine, January 12, 1992.

People, December 9, 1985; November 6, 1989; July 23, 1990.

Philadelphia Inquirer, November 5, 1989.

Playboy, September 1991.

Richmond News Leader, April 10, 1989; October 21, 1989; January 13, 1990.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, October 8, 1989; January 14, 1990; November 7, 2004.

Sacramento Bee, October 29, 1989.

Time, April 17, 1989; November 20, 1989; September 17, 1990; November 26, 1990; March 4, 1991; November 11, 1991; November 25, 1991; January 20, 1992.

U.S. News & World Report, November 18, 1985; December 26, 1988; November 20, 1989; January 22, 1990; May 13, 1991; December 30, 1991.

Wall Street Journal, November 26, 1991; December 23, 1991; January 6, 1992; January 9, 1992.

Washington Post, October 22, 1989; November 8, 1989; January 7, 1990; November 3, 2004.

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Tom Pendergast

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Wilder, L. Douglas 1931–

L. Douglas Wilder 1931

Governor of Virginia

At a Glance

Learned About Life as an Invisible Man

Became Known as the State Senates Angry Young Man

Took on a More Conservative Bent

Won the Governorship by a Slim Margin

Entered the National Political Arena

Sources

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 Virginias 66th governor and the nations first elected black governor. The grandson of slaves, Wilder is a moderate who immediately became a major influence in the U.S. political arena, announcingbut eventually repealinghis decision to run for the Democratic nomination in the 1992 U.S. presidential election. As a Washington Post correspondent wrote shortly before Wilders 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.

Surprisingly, race was hardly an issue in the campaign leading to Wilders November 1989 election. Rather, abortion became the pivotal controversy, and Wilder benefitted from his highly publicized pro-choice stance. His media campaign cast the issue in terms of government intervention and personal privacy, and it invoked such symbols as the American flag and Thomas Jeffersons Monticello to illustrate Wilders abortion-rights views. In the end, one exit polling sample indicated that single-issue voters concerned about abortion were 62 percent to 38 percent for him. After the elections, analysts predicted that abortion would be one of the litmus tests for candidates in the early 1990s and that politicians favoring a womans right to an abortion would most often benefit.

Wilder was born in 1931 in the poor and strictly segregated Richmond neighborhood of Church Hill, a few milesand a worldaway from the state capitol. His fathers parentsJames Wilder and Agnes Johnson Wilderhad been slaves in nearby Goochland County. The two were sold to separate owners after their wedding, and James

At a Glance

Born Lawrence Douglas Wilder, January 17, 1931, in Richmond, VA; son of Robert Wilder (in insurance sales) and Beulah (Richards)Wilder; married Eunice (divorced, 1978); children: Loren, Lynn, Lawrence, Jr. Education: Virginia Union University, B.S., 1952; Howard University, J.D., 1959.

Attorney, 1959;Virginia state senator, 1969-86; lieutenant governor of Virginia, 1986-90; governor of Virginia, 1990;member of Democratic Party. Military service: U.S. Army, served in Korea; received Bronze Star.

Awards: Spingarn Medal, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 1990.

Addresses: Home Richmond, VA. Office Office of the Governor, State Capitol Bldg., Richmond, VA 23219.

Wilder needed a pass to visit his wife on Sundays. Douglas Wilder was the seventh of eight children born to Robert Wilder, a salesman and supervisor of agents for a black-owned insurance company, and Beulah Wilder, a woman who loved books and kept house full time for her large family.

According to the Atlanta Constitution, Wilder described his familys financial situation as gentle poverty; his parents never had spare money, but were always able to provide hot meals and warm beds for their children. He remarked in the Washington Post: It was stressed that however things are, they can be better if you make them better. We were never told there were limitations. Our parents acted as if we had great opportunities compared to what they had. We were never afraid of challenge. As a youth, Wilder shined shoes, delivered papers, and waited tables at clubs and hotels in Richmond while attending the all-black Armstrong High School, where he acted in plays, was a sergeant in the cadet corps, and earned good grades.

During his early years, Wilder explained, he was hardly aware of racism because he rarely encountered white people. But as he began riding streetcars he noticed that black people were always seated in the rear. After high school, he was barred from even considering the states all-white public colleges, so he enrolled in Virginia Union University, a private all-black school in Richmond. There, he studied chemistry, waiting tables to pay his tuition money and learning about racism firsthand.

Learned About Life as an Invisible Man

I read Ralph Ellisons Invisible Man, and I didnt understand it at first, Wilder told the Washington Post. But then I realized, Im experiencing this. Im invisible. Here I am serving the coffee, pouring the tea, and guys are telling all these kinds of [racial] jokes around me. Washington Post reporter Donald P. Baker wrote that Wilder eventually became so outraged that he half-seriously considered sprinkling poison in the salads of white diners. Wilder himself told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he instead sought more peaceful solutions. I wont mislead you and say I was not angry, but I didnt react to anger.

After graduating from college in 1952, Wilder was drafted into the army and served in the Korean War; the experience changed his life dramatically. The army, which had been desegregated by presidential order, was Wilders first experience in an integrated environment. It also gave him his first opportunity for leadership: he was promoted to sergeant and won the Bronze Star for heroism at Pork Chop Hill in 1953. While dodging enemy fire, he and another soldier had captured 19 North Korean soldiers by hurling smoke grenades in their bunkers.

Back from Korea and armed with a degree in chemistry, Wilder answered an advertisement run by the state of Virginia for a chemist-technician. Upon applying, he was told that the job was not available but that he could become a cook at a state school for troubled boys. He called the experience humiliating. Around the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation of public schools. Wilder said the ruling prompted him to attend law school. It restored my faith, he acknowledged in the Philadelphia Inquirer. It had a very startling effect on me because nine white men wrote the decision. Whether it was because of political expediency, I dont care, but it was something that was cathartic [for me].

Became Known as the State Senates Angry Young Man

Since there were no Virginia law schools open to blacks, Wilder soon enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C. His roommate, Henry Marsh, who later became Richmonds mayor, told the Washington Post, Doug was one of the more outstanding members of the class. He was articulate and intelligent. He had a lot of skills. Upon obtaining his degree, Wilder returned to Church Hill in 1959 to open a law practice. He quickly developed a reputation for flamboyance, driving convertibles and wearing trendy clothes, and for competence, taking on difficult criminal defense cases. He ran a one-man firm specializing in lucrative personal injury cases and eventually became wealthy.

After establishing himself as one of Richmonds 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 maiden 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 darkys heart am longd to go. His bill never passed and Carry Me Back remains Virginias official, if rarely sung, anthem. His protest, however, immediately established Wilder as the senates 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.

Took on a More Conservative Bent

Over the years, noted the Washington Post, Wilderearned 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 Virginias clubby legislature. Wilders 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 singlehandedly 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 Picketts nomination.

As Wilders 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 liberalparticularly on law-and-order issueshe grew more conservative over the years. He began to sponsor fewer antidiscrimination 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 dont 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 states 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 partys nomination. Bird withdrew early, and Wilder was nominated unanimously.

Won the Governorship by a Slim Margin

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 Virginias political tradition. He pledged to make the war on drugs a central goal of his administration and ran hardhitting 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. Colemans staff included activists from anti-abortion organizations, while Wilders media consultant had previously worked for a national abortion-rights group. Polls indicated that Wilder benefitted 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.

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.

Entered the National Political Arena

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 Robbs 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 Virginias 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 taxpayers 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 Wilders 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 governors 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 Times 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 by B. Drummond Ayres 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 Wilders 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.

Sources

Atlanta Constitution, November 5, 1989.

Black Enterprise, January 1985; February 1986; January 1989; January 1990; June 1991; January 1992.

Business Week, November 20, 1989; December 9, 1991.

Detroit News and Free Press, September 14,1991.

Ebony, April 1986; November 1989; February 1990; February 1991.

Jet, May 6, 1985; November 25, 1985; February 3, 1986; June 26, 1989; November 6, 1989; November 27, 1989; April 9,1990; December 30,1990; February 25, 1991; September 23, 1991.

Macleans, November 20, 1989; December 9, 1991; January 20, 1992.

Newark Star-Ledger, November 8, 1989.

Newsweek, February 18, 1985; November 18, 1985; November 6, 1989; November 20, 1989; May 14, 1990; November 12, 1990; March 4, 1991; June 24, 1991; October 14, 1991; November 25, 1991.

New York Times, November 8, 1991; December 9, 1991; December 23, 1991; January 9, 1992; January 10, 1992; January 11, 1992.

New York Times Magazine, January 12, 1992.

People, December 9, 1985; November 6, 1989; July 23, 1990.

Philadelphia Inquirer, November 5, 1989.

Playboy, September 1991.

Richmond News Leader, April 10, 1989; October 21, 1989; January 13, 1990.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, October 8, 1989; January 14, 1990.

Sacramento Bee, October 29, 1989.

Time, April 17, 1989; November 20, 1989; September 17, 1990; November 26, 1990; March 4, 1991; November 11, 1991; November 25, 1991; January 20, 1992.

U.S. News & World Report, November 18, 1985; December 26, 1988; November 20, 1989; January 22, 1990; May 13, 1991; December 30, 1991.

Wall Street Journal, November 26,1991; December 23, 1991; January 6, 1992; January 9, 1992.

Washington Post, October 22, 1989; November 8, 1989; January 7, 1990.

Glen Macnow

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Macnow, Glen. "Wilder, L. Douglas 1931–." Contemporary Black Biography. 1993. Encyclopedia.com. 30 May. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

Macnow, Glen. "Wilder, L. Douglas 1931–." Contemporary Black Biography. 1993. Encyclopedia.com. (May 30, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2870500077.html

Macnow, Glen. "Wilder, L. Douglas 1931–." Contemporary Black Biography. 1993. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2870500077.html

Lawrence Douglas Wilder

Lawrence Douglas Wilder

Lawrence Douglas Wilder (born 1931) was the first African American elected governor in the United States. He rose from waiting tables in the segregated country clubs of the Jim Crow South to become a powerful Virginia state legislator who broke the color line by winning statewide elections as lieutenant governor in 1985 and then as governor four years later.

Lawrence Douglas Wilder was born January 17, 1931, in Richmond, Virginia, the youngest of Robert and Beulah Wilder's ten children. Robert Wilder sold insurance for an African American-owned insurance company, making the Wilders middle-class for their day. Wilder remembered his childhood as "gentle poverty."

Starting at age 13, Wilder held a variety of jobs to earn money for college. For example, he worked as a shoeshine boy, elevator operator, and paper boy. In 1947 at age 16, Wilder entered Virginia Union University, where he studied chemistry. He also began waiting tables at the city's segregated hotels and country clubs where Virginia politicians often gathered. Unlike the other waiters, Wilder always stayed in the room to listen to the speeches.

After graduation in 1951 Wilder was drafted by the U.S. Army and sent to Korea, where he saw duty on the front lines. In Korea Wilder demonstrated his aptitude for politics, organizing a meeting of African American soldiers with their commanding officer to complain about a lack of promotions. The promotions were soon forthcoming; Wilder became a sergeant. He also won a Bronze Star for heroism when he and another man helped capture 19 Chinese prisoners on Pork Chop Hill.

After the war Wilder returned home to Richmond, working as a toxicologist in the state medical examiner's office. But Wilder soon concluded that his laboratory work was a dead-end job and he sought a new profession. In 1956, enthused by the opportunities opened by the Supreme Court's decision striking down segregation, he decided to go to law school. Because Virginia law schools still barred African Americans, he attended Howard University in Washington, D.C.

After graduation in 1959 Wilder began practicing law in Richmond. In 1969 one of Richmond's state senators ran for higher office. While that campaign was still in progress, the upstart Wilder, with the foresight and chutzpah that later became his trademarks, announced that he would run in the special election to fill a vacancy. Wilder's abrupt announcement preempted senior African American leaders who might have otherwise made the run. With two white candidates splitting the white vote, Wilder had an easy victory, becoming the first African American to serve in the Virginia Senate since Reconstruction.

Wilder immediately shocked conservative whites with what they considered his militance on racial matters. Wilder made headlines by stalking out of a reception where the state song, "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia," was played. He claimed its lyrics were racist and tried unsuccessfully to have the song repealed.

Wilder was considered a liberal in a decidedly conservative legislature, but because the 1970 redistricting gave Wilder a predominantly African American district, he faced no opposition for re-election. Wilder gradually gained seniority, and with it, committee chairmanships. In time, a newspaper poll ranked Wilder as the Senate's fifth most influential member. Wilder was easily the most prominent African American leader in Virginia.

In 1981 some African Americans were skeptical of Charles Robb, the Democratic candidate for governor. But Wilder was instrumental in organizing a large turn-out of African American voters that helped make Robb the state's first Democratic governor in 16 years. In return, Robb consulted Wilder on almost a daily basis about appointments.

However, Wilder objected to Robb's choice of conservative Owen Pickett as the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1982 and threatened to run as an independent. Thus, Pickett was forced to withdraw. Wilder's threat angered many Democrats, but it dramatized his growing political clout. In 1985 when Wilder sought the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, no one dared oppose him lest they alienate African American voters the party needed.

Nevertheless, most party officials were convinced Virginia wasn't ready for an African American candidate and feared that Wilder would drag the 1985 ticket down to defeat. Republicans were so confident of victory that they denied the nomination to their strongest candidate, who had angered conservatives, and instead nominated John Chichester, a littleknown state legislator more acceptable to the right wing.

Knowing he had to do something dramatic to win in a state that was only 19 percent African American, Wilder set out on a two-month tour of the state by stationwagon, vowing to stop in every town he passed through. This "back-roads tour" captured the citizens' imaginations and Wilder became an unlikely folk hero among white, rural Virginians. The tour also enabled Wilder to save money for a television blitz featuring a rural policeman with a distinct Southern drawl declaring his support for the African American candidate. The ads were a sensation that the lackluster Chichester was unable to match. A vote for Wilder became synonymous with a vote to distance Virginia from its racist past. Wilder won with 52 percent of the vote, becoming the first African American to win a statewide election in Virginia.

As lieutenant governor, Wilder feuded openly with Governor Gerald Baliles and former Governor Charles Robb, both fellow Democrats. But Wilder's constituency base made him invulnerable to attack. In 1989 Wilder faced only token opposition for the Democratic nomination for governor. Despite their differences, Wilder sought to portray himself as the logical heir to Robb and Baliles. He also tried to paint Republican Marshall Coleman as a rightwing extremist and used Coleman's opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest to dominate the campaign. Coleman was on the defensive for much of the campaign and blamed the news media for cheering on Wilder to make history. Nevertheless, the election was the closest in Virginia history, a development most political analysts attributed to some whites' reluctance to support an African American in the privacy of the voting booth. But a recount, the state's first in a statewide contest, upheld Wilder's 7,000-vote margin.

On January 11, 1990, Wilder was sworn in as the first African American elected governor in the United States. As governor, he astonished friends and foes alike. He distressed allies by purging state boards of many Robb and Baliles appointees. Yet the Wilder administration saw no major increase in the number of Black appointees; most of his key advisers were whites who were personally loyal to him.

But Wilder surprised opponents by stressing fiscal conservatism. He insisted on a surplus in the state budget. He won a modest tax cut. He ordered state colleges to reduce proposed tuition increases. Then, as soon as the legislature adjourned, Wilder set out on a nationwide speaking tour to tell Democrats that the way to win the White House in 1992 was to follow his example. He suggested they practice "fiscal discipline" and free themselves from "special interests."

He also took swipes at the party's leading liberals, specifically Jesse Jackson and Mario Cuomo, by suggesting that he was part of a "New Mainstream" of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism while they were not. Many commentators predicted Wilder would be a likely candidate for vice-president in 1992; others saw Wilder positioning himself as a moderate alternative to Jackson. In the fall of 1991 Wilder began campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president.

Some African Americans were upset with Wilder for his attacks on Jackson. They also complained that Wilder refused to pay enough attention to African American concerns. For instance, Wilder came out against proposals to create an African American-majority congressional district in Virginia after the 1990 census. Wilder declared that his election proved African Americans did not need special treatment to win office. Stung by the criticism, however, Wilder looked for a dramatic way to respond. In May 1990 Wilder ordered state agencies and universities to divest themselves of investments with ties to South Africa, the first Southern state to take such an action. And despite Virginia's economic problems in the national recession, Wilder held to his pledge of not increasing taxes.

In January of 1992 Wilder wirthdrew his presidential candidacy. He pointed to the deteriorating fiscal state of Virginia, claiming that governing the commonwealth and conducting a presidential campaign at the same time allowed him to do neither job full justice.

After finishing his term as governor in 1994, Wilder began a two-hour weekday radio show, The Douglas Wilder Show, which lasted only months before it was canceled.

At a news conference Wilder announced he would hang up his hat. "I will not run for another elected office and I almost rule out serving in any governmental capacity," he said.

Further Reading

Three books have been written about Wilder: When Hell Froze Over (1988, updated 1990), by Roanoke Times & World-News reporter Dwayne Yancey, details Wilder's political career, with special emphasis on his breakthrough campaign for lieutenant governor. Wilder: Hold Fast to Dreams (1989), by Washington Post reporter Don Baker, is a biography that follows Wilder through his nomination for governor. Claiming the Dream (1990), by Norfolk Virginian-Pilot reporter Margaret Edds, is an account of Wilder's campaign for governor. □

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Wilder, L. Douglas

L. Douglas Wilder (Lawrence Douglas Wilder), 1931–, American political leader, b. Richmond, Va. The grandson of slaves, Wilder studied law at Howard Univ. A Democrat, he was elected a state senator in 1969, becoming the first African American to serve in the Virginia legislature since Reconstruction. Wilder was subsequently Virginia's lieutenant governor (1986–90) and then governor (1990–94), the first elected African-American governor in U.S. history. During his term in office he held the line on taxes, balanced the state budget, and succeeded in passing controversial bond issues and a handgun control measure. The outspoken and often combative Wilder was briefly an unsuccessful aspirant for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992 and just as briefly an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate from Virginia in 1994. In 2004, however, he made a minor political comeback when he was elected mayor of Richmond, Va.; he served for one term.

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