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On the Wilder Side of Politics, Picking None of the Above

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009

RICHMOND

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.

Wilder's decision will probably have an impact on the yet-to-be-announced endorsement of the Richmond Crusade for Voters, an African American group that works to educate voters, its president said this week.

"Governor Wilder still has a very strong following," crusade President Antione Green said. "There are a lot of people who still appreciate what he's been able to do."

Wilder, 78, the grandson of slaves, has been a fixture in Virginia politics for four decades, serving as a state senator, lieutenant governor and governor before running for president in 1992. He briefly returned to elective office as mayor of his home town of Richmond.

But Wilder managed to make more than a few enemies during a mayoral term that was marked by criticisms of excessive spending (including an eight-person security detail for himself), repeated clashes with the City Council and his abrupt late-night eviction of school officials from City Hall.

Wilder's endorsement might not help as much as it used to, but his non-endorsement hurts all the same.

No one really expected Wilder to endorse McDonnell because he never has supported a Republican, but declining to endorse anyone sends enough of a message.

"I've got a great deal of respect for Doug Wilder," Deeds said. "He's a historic figure, and I look forward to seeking his advice when I'm governor."

Deeds needs the all-important African American voting bloc to line up behind him and to turn out in November.

About 80 percent of African Americans identify themselves as Democrats. Even those who call themselves independents generally vote for Democratic candidates. Last year, about 20 percent of Virginia voters in November's general election were black.

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.

Deeds has the support of Obama, who has campaigned with him, as well as African American legislators and community activists across the state.

"President Obama has more influence in Virginia than Doug Wilder," said Del. Kenneth Cooper Alexander (D-Norfolk), chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. "Once [voters] hear from the president, they are going to say, 'Doug who?' "

Wilder, who also refused to endorse in the three-way Democratic primary among Deeds, former delegate Brian Moran and former national party chairman Terry McAuliffe, has been critical of Deeds in the past on his willingness to change positions on hot-button issues, such as same-sex marriage and background checks for gun buyers.

McDonnell, who largely shares Deeds's views on gun rights, did not get Wilder's endorsement -- but acts as if he did. McDonnell, who has the support of Sheila Johnson, the wealthy co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, frequently praises Wilder and, in just the last week, has stepped up his references to him. McDonnell, the former attorney general, worked with Wilder to reduce crime in Richmond and praises him for not raising taxes during a downturn in the economy.

"Governor Wilder and I have maintained a very positive and friendly relationship over the last many, many years," McDonnell said. "We have a lot of mutual respect for one another."

In typical Wilder fashion, the former governor appears to have left the door open to change his mind.

"The question before me is whether I support the Democratic candidate's position in addressing these issues," he wrote at the end of his statement. "I have not thus far in the progress of the campaign, and as aforesaid refrain from so doing."

Thus far in the campaign? Does that mean Wilder might change his mind in the next five weeks?

Only Wilder knows.

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