Virginia Notebook: Wilder Again Plays His Hand Alone
Thursday, October 1, 2009
It's one of the most popular parlor games in Virginia politics: guessing who, if anyone, will get former Democratic governor L. Douglas Wilder's endorsement.
This year, the game came to a swift end when Wilder announced last week that he would sit out the governor's race.
The decision wasn't shocking (he had done the same in prior years), but it was surprising this year considering he had been courted by President Obama and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, his party's national chairman.
Wilder said in a lengthy statement that he could not endorse Democrat R. Creigh Deeds in his race over Republican Robert F. McDonnell because Deeds supports a tax increase to pay for road and transit improvements ("This is not the time in our Commonwealth to talk about any kind of tax increase") and boasts a pro-gun record ("I do not see how endorsing a proposal to have more handguns brought into our cities and suburban areas qualifies as any type of urban renewal plan").
Wilder, an outspoken and sometimes combative politician who has a place in history books as the nation's first elected black governor, doesn't mind breaking with his party. He relishes the sport of keeping everyone guessing about what he's going to do -- and his pattern, if there is one, is to wait until the end and try to figure out who is going to win.
In 1997, he refused to endorse Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr., and Republican James S. Gilmore III went on to victory. In 2001, he endorsed Democrat Mark R. Warner -- his former campaign manager -- after Warner convinced him that he would not raise taxes (which turned out not to be true).
Four years ago, he asked Kaine, Republican Jerry Kilgore and independent candidate H. Russell Potts Jr. to respond to questionnaires, then endorsed Kaine days before the election.
That year, Wilder refused to back Deeds in the attorney general's race against McDonnell -- again, because of his record on guns. Some Democrats say Wilder's lack of support might have been enough to change the outcome of a race decided by a few hundred votes.
As Deeds and McDonnell court the state's African American voters, the question now is: Will Wilder's non-endorsement make any difference?
Two decades after he was elected governor, Wilder's influence has waned. But Obama and Kaine wouldn't have made the effort if they thought it had vanished.