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Black Leaders Try to Offset Wilder's Snub of Beyer

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 28, 1997; Page B01

Virginia's black legislators, several of them angered and frustrated by former governor L. Douglas Wilder's decision not to endorse Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr. for governor, are redoubling efforts to get African Americans to the polls next Tuesday to support the Democratic ticket.

At the same time, some African American leaders say, the decision by Wilder -- the nation's first black elected governor -- has been a wake-up call to Democrats that they can't take the black vote for granted. Signs of that are stronger than ever this year: In September, the then-president of the Virginia NAACP personally endorsed a Republican for attorney general, and on Nov. 4 a black lawyer from Charlottesville will try to become the first black Republican in the House of Delegates.

But it was Democrat Wilder's move a week ago to stay neutral in Beyer's race against Republican James S. Gilmore III that has prompted African American leaders to work harder for Beyer.

It has also brought strong, emotional reactions from some of the state's black leadership.

"Governor Wilder's the beneficiary of a long fight by a lot of people who cleared the way for him," said state Sen. Henry L. Marsh III (D-Richmond), who roomed with Wilder in law school in the late 1950s. "He has turned his back on the people."

Marsh said that Beyer, who shared the ticket with Wilder in 1989, supported Wilder then and had a right to expect Wilder's support now.

"He didn't expect to be betrayed," said Marsh, who was Richmond's first black mayor. "But that was a betrayal, that's all it was."

The legislative black caucus has responded with new radio and print advertising on behalf of the Democratic ticket, and by sponsoring a series of rallies that started last weekend and will continue through next Tuesday.

Wilder declined yesterday to respond to such criticism, or to explain his decision to make no endorsement in the governor's race.

"I may have something further to say on the subject matter of the election next Monday night on my show," said Wilder, who was interviewed at the Richmond radio station that carries his weekly talk show.

His announcement of neutrality came at the end of his radio program on Oct. 20, after he earlier had held out the possibility of endorsing Gilmore. He gave no explanation on the show, but he criticized Beyer for tardiness in supporting a law that Wilder championed in 1993, limiting Virginia handgun buyers to one purchase a month. At an Oct. 6 debate that Wilder moderated, he said both men would make good governors.

Beyer is running behind Gilmore, and several black leaders fear Wilder's move could hurt Beyer by signaling to African American voters -- who traditionally vote heavily Democratic -- that there is no difference between the two candidates.

Virginia NAACP Executive Director Linda Byrd-Harden said she believes Wilder has damaged his credibility among those who worked hard to elect him.

"Refraining from making an [endorsement] when you've led the commonwealth to believe that you were going to make a decision was dishonest, to say the least," she said. "He has hurt himself more than anybody else. He can't take a stand on who should be the governor -- a position that he held? That shows a lack of leadership."

But other black leaders defended Wilder. "We can't ask the former governor of Virginia to do anything he doesn't want to do," said Paul Gillis, the NAACP's past president, who took heat himself for endorsing Republican Mark L. Earley of Chesapeake for attorney general. "He's playing his brand of politics. This is the way he plays the game."

And state Sen. Yvonne B. Miller (D-Norfolk), who strongly backs Beyer, said people can't just assume blacks will vote Democratic.

"There is no monolithic white community. There is no monolithic black community. There are multiple views in all the ethnic groups. And I honor and respect the governor's right to have his own view."

The day after Wilder announced he wouldn't endorse either candidate, members of Virginia's legislative black caucus were on the phone to the Beyer campaign, offering to increase their efforts for the Democratic ticket, said Del. Jerrauld C. Jones (D-Norfolk), chairman of the 15-member all-Democratic caucus.

The radio ads aimed at African American voters and featuring legislative leaders went on the air this weekend, political ads will be placed in six black weekly papers this week, and rallies like one held Saturday in Norfolk are planned, he said.

"If anything, it intensifies our resolve to get [Beyer] elected because we know the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans despite [Wilder's] signals to the contrary," Jones said.

Black caucus members said that Gilmore's conservative positions -- in which he has vowed to build on four years of Republican Gov. George Allen's achievements -- would hurt African Americans. They said that while Beyer favors affirmative action, Gilmore has said he opposes "racial preferences."

Beyer, the only major party candidate to attend the NAACP's statewide convention for a gubernatorial debate Friday night, said that "there's nothing gimmicky that I can do" to win African American support. "I have to trust that they believe the very clear agenda that I've laid out."

NAACP officials harshly criticized Gilmore for declining to attend the debate. But Gilmore insisted it was no snub.

"I really wanted to come," he said. "They were pretty determined that they were going to have a knock-down, drag-out debate, and we just weren't going to do that.

Gilmore spent Saturday morning working a GOP event meant to reach minority voters, and on Sunday he visited two black churches. "I'm one of the most inclusive candidates, and my record shows that," he said.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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