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Ex-Governor Wilder Blasts Beyer, Dangles Endorsement

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 13, 1997; Page A01

Former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder, a frequent antagonist in his own party, is injecting himself into this year's race for governor by accusing fellow Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr. of pandering to African American voters and of not articulating a clear vision for the state.

The move is vintage Wilder, analysts say: withholding a coveted endorsement to try to increase his influence in the Nov. 4 election. But Wilder -- who eight years ago became the nation's first elected black governor -- says he is merely reflecting concerns about Beyer that he has heard from "the people," including Democratic Party members.

"One of Don's biggest problems is having to define himself and show that eight years as lieutenant governor have meant something and brought something relative to experience," Wilder said today. "He has to show he can articulate something and put it into action. That's what I've heard. And yes, these are party people that are concerned."

Although he has not yet endorsed anyone, Wilder has praised the efforts of Beyer's rival, Republican James S. Gilmore III, to help burned black churches keep their insurance, and he has criticized Beyer's attempts to promote racial healing after the burnings. On Friday, Wilder met privately with Gilmore, who asked for his endorsement.

Beyer, who spoke yesterday at a 223-year-old firehouse near his home in Old Town Alexandria, shrugged and smiled when asked about Wilder's digs.

"I come back to the [serenity] prayer: There are some things that I cannot control," he said. "I will continue to treat Governor Wilder as the friend he is and the historic figure in Virginia politics and hope that I earn his endorsement. But I intend to win this race regardless."

Political analyst Thomas R. Morris, president of Emory and Henry College in Emory, Va., said Wilder's criticism of a Democratic candidate follows a familiar pattern.

"It's vintage Doug Wilder to criticize his fellow Democrats and then make them come to him to get his endorsement as the leading spokesman for the African American community," he said. "He is a political wild card."

In 1993, Wilder waited until the last minute to campaign for Mary Sue Terry, who lost the governor's race. Three years ago, he actually ran as an independent against Sen. Charles S. Robb before withdrawing and endorsing Robb, as Democrats united against Republican Oliver L. North.

Still, some Democrats see a kernel of truth in some of Wilder's criticism, saying Beyer's campaign has sometimes fallen flat. And besides being worried about Gilmore's gaining momentum in what polls have indicated is a tight race, they are concerned that black voters -- who are key to a Beyer victory -- either won't show up at the polls or, with the economy booming, will break tradition and vote to keep a Republican in the governor's mansion.

No Democrat has been elected Virginia governor in the last 30 years without receiving at least 94 percent of the black vote, said William H. Wood, executive director of the University of Virginia's Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. Although recent polls have Beyer carrying 68 percent of black voters, compared with only 8 percent for Gilmore, 24 percent are undecided.

During his nightly radio show on Monday, Wilder lashed out at Beyer, a two-term lieutenant governor who served his first term under Wilder, over an advertisement Beyer's campaign ran in the Richmond Free Press, a newspaper aimed at the black community. Wilder said the ad appealed to black voters' "emotions," and not their intelligence.

Among other things, the ad accuses Republicans of trying to cut funds to a state agency that encourages minority businesses and of trying to limit voter registration by opposing "motor-voter" laws. The ad includes photos of Beyer with black students and community leaders.

Wilder said the ad was inappropriate because it was "targeted" at the "African American population" and would not have run in a paper of general circulation. "If you look at the pictures with Mr. Beyer, you see in every picture he's going to have an African American with him in this paper," Wilder said. "Let's not pander to the emotions of people."

Wilder also accused Beyer of allowing Gilmore to determine the battle fronts in the campaign, notably through Gilmore's proposal to virtually eliminate Virginia's property tax on cars and trucks. Beyer criticized Gilmore's plan for several weeks before proposing his own tax cut initiative.

Beyer rejected the notion that his campaign is short on vision, noting his proposals to improve education and increase teacher pay.

"We have talked very concretely about the many things that I want to do over the next four years," he said. " . . . Anybody who doesn't think that I have articulated a very clear vision for the environment, for education, for public safety and for economic growth isn't going to all my speeches. . . . I spend all day, every day, talking about a very clear, and I think exciting, next four years for Virginia."

But some Democrats are troubled by Beyer's campaign. Sen. Charles J. Colgan, a Prince William County Democrat who pitched his own property tax cut plan during the last legislative session, said he thinks Beyer's delayed tax cut plan is symbolic of a "lackluster" campaign.

He said the last thing he wants is a repeat of Terry's loss to Republican George Allen four years ago. "With Mary Sue, the enthusiasm just wasn't there," Colgan said. "The fire wasn't in the belly. With Don, I think it is, but it may come along a little later. I think he's got to build a little fire under his campaign."

Gilmore said today that he is confident the tax issue is playing to his advantage and that he believes Wilder was not merely playing politics in discussing an endorsement of the Republican.

"We believe that he's certainly open to that," said Gilmore, a former state attorney general.

But several black civic leaders today questioned how much impact a Wilder endorsement would have for either candidate and made it clear that the former governor doesn't speak for all African Americans in Virginia.

"That's an insulting notion," said Michele Woods Jones, of Hampton, an officer in the Links Inc., the largest African American women's civic group in the country.

Hampton lawyer William M. Batts III, chairman of the board of Newport News General Hospital, agreed. "I would have to think [a Wilder endorsement] would have impact," he said. "How [much] is questionable. . . . For some strange reason, we have the notion that some black person speaks for blacks, but we never flip the coin and say that any one white person speaks for whites."

Del. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond), a leading member of the Legislative Black Caucus, disputed Wilder's criticisms.

"Any criticism of Don Beyer as pandering to African Americans is misplaced," he said. "He's simply trying to see that a core constituency of the Democratic Party is not being taken for granted. It's no different from Jim Gilmore courting the Christian Coalition."

Staff writer Mike Allen, in Alexandria, contributed to this report.

© 1997 The Washington Post
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