By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 25, 2009
Former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder announced Thursday that he would not endorse either of the gubernatorial candidates this year, despite multiple overtures by the White House that he throw his support behind Democrat R. Creigh Deeds.
In a long-awaited statement, Wilder cited Deeds's views on taxes and guns for withholding his support. The state senator has said he would consider raising taxes to fund transportation and opposes a 1993 law supported by Wilder limiting an individual's gun purchases to one a month.
Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor, who served from 1990 through 1993, is famously unpredictable around endorsement time, and some have questioned his influence. But President Obama's repeated attempts to secure his support for Deeds gave Thursday's announcement national significance.
White House political director Patrick Gaspard spent two hours with Wilder one day in July, and the president called Wilder this month on Deeds's behalf. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a close friend of Obama's and chairman of the Democratic National Committee, had also encouraged Wilder to back Deeds.
The decision is a blow not only to Deeds, who has struggled to attract support from some leaders in the black community, but potentially for Obama, who is facing the first electoral test of his presidency in the race between Deeds and Republican Robert F. McDonnell.
"The requests made of me have been to endorse Mr. Deeds, the Democratic Candidate, for Governor. I refrain from doing so and will leave that choice to the voters," Wilder said in his statement.
Wilder is the second prominent black Virginia resident to snub Deeds. In July, Sheila Johnson, the wealthy co-founder of Black Entertainment Television and a major Democratic donor from Middleburg, stunned the political establishment by endorsing McDonnell and his plans to revive the economy. Although Deeds had wide support across the state in a brutal three-way primary, the only congressional district that did not back him included parts of Richmond and Hampton Roads, which have high concentrations of black voters.
Still, a recent Washington Post poll of likely voters shows Deeds with widespread support among African Americans. More than nine in 10 black voters responded that they support Deeds, compared with 3 percent for McDonnell. Obama, who appeared at a rally for Deeds this summer, won the black vote in Virginia by a similar margin last year. The challenge for Deeds will be to ensure that those voters are motivated to show up at the polls on Election Day.
Deeds, whose Bath County home is about 92 percent white, has worked hard to make inroads in the community, spending Sundays at black churches and reaching out to African American organizations. He has refined his message on issues such as the achievement gap between races in public schools, the restoration of voting and other rights for ex-convicts and the low number of minority-owned businesses that have state contracts.
It will take more than the ambivalence of a retired politician to erode that support, said Del. Lionell Spruill (D-Chesapeake).
"I think a lot of people give Doug too much credit," Spruill said. "Once Obama comes to Richmond [to stump for Deeds], people will say, 'Doug who?' "
Wilder's race for governor helped Virginia transcend its segregationist past. In office, he established the state's rainy day fund and pursued lasting gun control measures but often clashed with fellow Democrats. He was elected mayor of Richmond in 2003. And although crime dropped under his watch, his combative style put him at odds with the City Council and school officials. He decided not to run for reelection last year.
In his statement, Wilder said his overriding concern this year is the economy and he tasked the next governor with the job of putting "our fiscal house in order." He said he opposed any increase in taxes that would disproportionately affect poor families. He criticized Deeds for supporting the repeal of the handgun law, which "would allow the truck loads of guns to come back in exchange for drugs from those Northeastern states where gun laws are more stringent."
Wilder remains a powerful and influential force in some quarters. Terron Sims II, president of the Northern Virginia Black Democrats, a grass-roots group that grew out of Obama's candidacy last year, said Obama was only able to carry Virginia last year because of Wilder's barrier-breaking career.
"We love Doug," said Sims, an Arlington resident who supports Deeds. "He's the first black elected governor in the United States of America. That's going to carry a lot of weight."
McDonnell also courted Wilder, meeting with him just this week. The Republican nominee has reached out to black voters as well, particularly small-business owners.
Dave Rexrode, deputy campaign manager for McDonnell, said the efforts are crucial in light of the narrow vote count by which McDonnell beat Deeds four years ago in the race for attorney general.
"Having won the last election by just over 300 votes, he doesn't take anybody, any group for granted," Rexrode said. McDonnell will spend Friday in Virginia Beach and Norfolk with Johnson, where their agenda will include an African American business leaders roundtable at Virginia Wesleyan College.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.