Virginia Democratic Gov. Charles S. Robb today angrily tried to put aside questions that race may be a major factor in the party's nominations for statewide offices next year, saying it would be wrong to support or reject any candidate on racial grounds.
But Robb, in an unusually long, one-hour news conference, also acknowledged that he privately has encouraged potential candidates who may run against black State Sen. L. Douglas Wilder of Richmond, the party's only candidate so far for lieutenant governor.
"I'm not recruiting, but I'm not discouraging anyone from running," Robb said in the sometimes heated exchange with reporters. "If somebody wants to get in, I'm saying, 'Go to it' and I'm saying I'll stand up and say, 'It's not racist to challenge Doug Wilder.' "
Robb stressed today that he would condemn any effort by any candidate to use racial issues in a campaign, but said, "I am not certain that Doug Wilder or any black candidate can necessarily command a majority of votes . But I hope we have come to the point in Virginia where that can happen."
Robb, who said the Capitol press conference was called partly to get the race issue "out in the open" and behind his party, said it had been "blown out of proportion" by the media.
He suggested there are several "qualified candidates" who may run for state office next fall but have been intimidated by the media coverage, fearful their campaigns will be seen as racially inspired.
Wilder, a 15-year veteran of the Senate who formally announced July 3, insisted today that much of his opposition is "racially inspired" because some Democrats are trying to keep him from running rather than openly challenging him.
"They're saying I shouldn't have announced. That's racially inspired," Wilder said. "I'm prepared for opposition. I never thought that no one else would announce."
Robb declined to criticize a recent private meeting of 18 white male legislators called to discuss concerns that a state ticket that includes Wilder could lead to the defeat of Democratic legislators next fall. At the meeting, the legislators also expressed concerns about the campaign of Del. Mary Sue Terry (D-Patrick), the only Democratic candidate for attorney general.
Robb said the meeting, which was led by Democratic Party Chairman Alan A. Diamonstein of Newport News, did not intentionally exlude blacks and women. Robb said he told the legislators that they should run or find other candidates if they are not happy with the current candidates.
"If there is anybody who thinks they ought to withdraw they're not being either realistic or fair. But at the same time, there is absolutely no reason why either of those individuals cannot be challenged for those positions."
Robb said a "healthy nomination" fight could only improve Wilder's and Terry's chances in the November elections.
"And I think anyone who would suggest that the challenge to Doug Wilder is racist or a challenge to Mary Sue Terry is sexist is just way off base."
Robb said he expected to remain neutral in the nominating process, but left open the possibility that he might become publicly involved before the party's June 7 nominating convention if racial or other damaging infighting arose.
"I am suggesting to you that the Democratic Party is in good shape," Robb said. "I'm encouraging anyone who would like to participate . . . . "
Robb rejected a call by Wilder and other six members of the legislature's black caucus to oppose a plan proposed by Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews of Hampton that would allow elected Democratic officeholders, most of whom are white, to become automatic delegates to the party's nominating convention.
The plan also would require that meetings to choose delegates be first held at the precinct level, a step that is seen by many as likely to reduce black influence in a number of large cities.
Robb said today that the plan was "a step in the right direction" to get more party officials involved in the election process.