An effort by top Virginia Democrats to head off an independent U.S. Senate candidacy by the state's leading black politician collapsed today when the Speaker of the House of Delegates boycotted a summit meeting with Gov. Charles S. Robb.
The meeting was called by Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond), who has threatened to lead black voters out of the Democratic Party this fall unless party leaders demonstrate their commitment to issues that he says are of importance to blacks.
A potential Wilder candidacy poses a direct threat to Del. Owen Pickett (D-Virginia Beach), a longtime Robb ally and a former state party chairman who this week won a majority of the convention delegates who in June will choose a party nominee to seek the seat of retiring independent Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr.
Prospects for a reconciliation dimmed today when House Speaker A.L. Philpott (D-Henry) -- the focus of black leaders' ire -- failed to show up. The conservative Southside Democrat chose instead to attend a Crime Commission meeting two floors below.
"It was obvious he was giving us the back of his hand, that he doesn't have any time for us," said an angry Wilder, after leaving the two-hour meeting that was attended by all five of the state's black legislators and ranking party leaders, including Robb.
Wilder, who last week said there was "no room" for Philpott in Virginia politics, said nothing was accomplished at today's meeting. "Nothing happened today that would deter me from running," said Wilder.
"For my own part, the sooner we resolve these differences of opinion the happier I'll be," said Pickett after the meeting, acknowledging continuing speculation over a third-party candidate has hampered his campaign against Rep. Paul S. Trible, the likely GOP nominee.
Lingering doubts about Pickett's statewide appeal and the conflict with Wilder have prompted speculation about an alternative draft candidate emerging from the Democratic party convention in Roanoke on June 4-5. Lt. Gov. Richard J. Davis and Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton) have said they would accept such a draft but will not seek the nomination as long as Pickett is a candidate.
The crisis within the Democratic Party began toward the end of the recent legislative session when a series of bills pushed by Wilder and other black lawmakers were killed in House committees. Wilder has charged that the bills -- ranging from a Martin Luther King holiday to a ban on tax exemptions for segregated schools -- fell victim to Philpott's strategy of stacking key committees with conservatives hostile to black issues.
Despite Robb attempts to dissuade him from running, Wilder has said repeatedly that Democrats no longer can take black voters for granted. In particular, he has criticized Pickett for failing to disassociate himself from the Philpott wing of the party.
Pickett today said he appreciated Wilder's concerns but called the legislative setbacks "water over the damn." He also said he regretted Philpott's absence, which he said only lengthened the delicate negotiations among party factions.
Philpott could not be reached for comment after the meeting. The seven delegates present at today's meeting -- including Pickett -- said they hope to arrange a meeting with the speaker as soon as possible.
Wilder said he will continue to consult with black political leaders before making up his mind to run. He said he hopes his decision will be ready within the next 10 days.