When Virginia state Sen. L. Douglas Wilder of Richmond wanted to block the almost certain nomination of a conservative Democratic legislator for the U.S. Senate in 1982, Wilder announced that he would enter the race as an independent.
Wilder's threat, carrying with it the prospective loss of thousands of black votes, was enough to scare the state's Democratic Party leaders into abandoning their choice and hurriedly finding another candidate.
This spring, when Wilder sought his party's nomination for lieutenant governor, no one challenged him, largely because his potential Democratic rivals again feared alienating blacks.
For many, the two episodes are dramatic confirmation of the power of blacks in the state's Democratic coalition and of the arrival of Lawrence Douglas Wilder, a handsome, gregarious Richmond lawyer, as their unquestioned leader.
"Without the black vote, the Democrats can forget it," said G.C. Morris, an editorial writer for the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk who specializes in state politics. "It was a given Doug was going to run this year ," Morris said. "The fear for Democrats was that running against Doug, rightly or wrongly, would be perceived as an effort to deny political office to a black man."
Now, with the nomination in hand, the 54-year-old Wilder has set about to prove that he is a viable candidate and is able to reach out beyond his base to white voters who make up 85 percent of the Virginia electorate.
"He was up here last week," said state Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William). "I took him around the county and I was surprised at the reception he got. Everyone seemed delighted . . . . He can really pour on the charm. He's a fighter and a scrapper."
Eschewing racial issues and campaigning on his 15 years in the legislature, Wilder has surprised many politicians during a 60-day automobile tour across the state that produced largely favorable media coverage and some unlikely supporters.
Among them: conservative House Speaker A.L. Philpott, who hosted a breakfast for him in the state's rural Southside, and former segregationist congressman Watkins Abbitt Sr., who showed him around Appomattox, the Civil War town.
Some Democrats say such events may show that racial attitudes in Virginia may not be as much a handicap for Wilder as may have been expected.
The campaign, Wilder's first political contest outside Richmond, marks a new chapter in his storybook rise from the city's poor, segregated neighborhoods to become an established lawyer and a power in the state legislature.
It also marks the first time that Wilder has faced serious opposition and unaccustomed scrutiny in what already is shaping up to be a hard-fought battle with his Republican opponent, state Sen. John H. Chichester of Fredericksburg.
The Republicans quickly sought to label Wilder as one of the "most liberal" of Virginia's 140 legislators -- a charge Wilder said was racially tinged and a reflection of a campaign that the Democrat said has reached "an all-time low" in mudslinging.
For Wilder, however, who has won reelection since 1969 without opposition, the raw nerve battle of a state campaign may focus beyond his voting record to his business and law practice, issues that have received only limited attention in Richmond.
In 1978 the Virginia Supreme Court upheld a disciplinary reprimand a circuit court judge had issued against Wilder for "inexcusable procrastination" over a lawsuit. Democratic state Sen. Edward M. Holland of Arlington, treasurer of Wilder's campaign, said in an interview last week that the sanction -- the mildest form of discipline the courts can issue -- is a troublesome blemish on Wilder's legal career.
And Wilder, who owns outright or is part owner of about $1 million in real estate in Richmond, acknowledged in an interview that he failed to list about $110,000 of his properties on disclosure forms filed with the state Senate.
Failure to disclose assets fully is a violation of the state's conflict-of-interest law, but the provision is rarely enforced.
Among his unlisted properties are four boarded-up town houses in Richmond's Church Hill area, including one house that has been the target of repeated neighborhood complaints about its unsafe condition.
The house was cited as late as last spring by city inspectors for housing code violations.
Wilder defended his actions over the lawsuit and the housing. He said he appealed the disciplinary proceeding because he believed that he had acted properly in the case. He said he believed his clients' chances of recovering damages in the suit were remote.
He said his Richmond properties are no worse than other properties in the same neighborhoods but said he will file an amended disclosure form that includes them. "The plan I had is to fix them up and rent them out," he said. "I don't think when I buy them they should automatically be transformed into a Taj Mahal."
While the court said Wilder's handling of the lawsuit did not "reflect on his character, nor upon his legal ethics," it found Wilder's conduct unprofessional and said he had "neglected a legal matter . . . and that he prejudiced and damaged his clients . . . ."
His reprimand is one of several cases cited in a Virginia State Bar guidebook on professional responsibility that is given to all new lawyers who begin practice in Virginia.
"It was an unfortunate episode," Holland said. "Frankly, it's the kind of thing that every attorney dreads."
A third potential problem for Wilder is the "whisper campaign" treatment his 1978 divorce is receiving.
In June during the Democratic state convention here, Richmond radio station WRVA-AM reported that Wilder could be "vulnerable if and when the full details of his divorce papers and charges of spouse abuse are ever made public again."
The divorce record was sealed by a state judge in 1978, and Wilder and his ex-wife Eunice decline to discuss the case, saying it was a personal matter and has nothing to do with his campaign.
Wilder says the reprimand, like his divorce, should not be a campaign issue. "I don't think it the reprimand had anything to do with my candidacy and I still don't," Wilder said, adding, "I accept the judgment of the court."
The reprimand case involved a New Jersey family who hired Wilder in 1966, before he was elected, after they were involved in an automobile accident in a Richmond suburb. It was more than two years later before Wilder filed suit for them, according to court records, and two years still later before he sought additional action in the case. Ultimately their lawsuit died of inaction.
"Doug made an evaluation there was no way to collect the money; he thought the claim had no merit," said William S. Frances, the attorney who later represented the New Jersey family and settled their dispute with Wilder out of court for an undiclosed sum.
Frances, who described himself as a strong political supporter of Wilder, said that nonetheless he had been angry at Wilder for his handling of the case.
Wilder's most substantial properities are listed on his Senate financial report, including a group of downtown buildings he owns with a local physician, Dr. Charles Sutton. Those buildings and lots are assessed at $700,000 and leased to the Richmond Chamber of Commerce for $70,000 a year.
Wilder also owns two East Broad Street town houses he remodeled for law offices. The property is assessed at $185,000, according to city property records.
This year, Wilder was ordered by a Richmond General District Court judge to answer a city complaint about the garage behind a house in Richmond historic Church Hill area that he did not list and that was cited as an "unsafe vacant and open building." The case was dismissed after Wilder showed that the property was partially repaired and promised that more work would be done.
"I like him personally," said 64-year-old Evelyn Browne Fields, a longtime family friend who lives two doors away from the Wilder property. "But what he is doing to our neighborhood, I sure don't like."
"It's an eyesore," Fields said of the Wilder house, which overlooks a Civil War battlefield. "We don't like having that . . . boarded-up property in our block."
Another neighbor was more critical. "I can't think of a worse neighbor," said Donald L. Reid. "The thought of a politician allowing this . . . . A kid could wind up falling and getting hurt. He must be stupid."
Neighbors say little has happened since the court case. The house is marked by boarded up windows, two-foot-high weeds and grass and piles of rotted construction debris.
Wilder, one of eight children of a Richmond insurance man, grew up in the neighborhood. His renovated law offices are just a couple of blocks from where he grew up on cobblestone streets, although he now lives in the fashionable integrated neighborhood of old homes in Ginter Park.
Friends say Wilder likes to dabble in oil painting -- landscapes and animals -- and plays tennis for relaxation. A weekly bridge game has been suspended for the duration of the campaign.
A graduate of the then-segregated Virginia Union University with a degree in chemistry, Wilder served in the Korean War, in which he won the Bronze Star for heroism.
After the war, the only job Wilder was offered was as a cook. He went to law school instead.
Wilder attended Howard University because Virginia's colleges were segregated and the most the state would do for any black law student was donate $300 toward his or her schooling. Wilder's three children have since attented the University of Virginia or its law school.
Elected to the state Senate in 1969, Wilder represents a predominately black area, but his district includes parts of the city's fabled "Main Street" row, the office locale of bankers, stockbrokers and business persons who have helped run the state for decades.
Wilder, the first black state senator since Reconstruction, served as the only black in the Senate until 1983, when Newport News elected Robert Scott, a lawyer.
Considered one of the best orators in the Senate, Wilder over the years has transformed himself from an angry young black student, who thought armed revolution might be needed to end segregation, to become the ultimate insider of genteel Virginia politics, where decorum is as prized as philosophy. He tried for nine years to get Virginia to honor civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. with a state holiday, succeeding only after he agreed to link the King holiday with one honoring Confederate generals Lee and Jackson and after the federal government enacted a King holiday.
Wilder's style has cost him some support from blacks. Some were angered by his coolness toward Jesse L. Jackson's presidential campaign last year.
"In the final analysis," Wilder said then, "the Jackson campaign was such that it ran differently than my own. His was to strike -- and I think he has struck -- the conscience of this country, and I'm running to be elected."
Sa'ad el Amin, a Richmond lawyer and civil rights activist who has been a longtime critic of Wilder, contends that Wilder is being tolerated on the Democratic ticket because neither gubernatorial nominee Gerald L. Baliles nor Mary Sue Terry, the candidate for attorney general, can draw enough blacks to help the Democrats win.
"He is a white man's candidate," said el Amin. "Any man . . . who denies his blackness is of no use to us and is a tool of white people."
Wilder refuses to respond to anything el Amin says.
But at a July 3, 1984, news confernce that kicked off his campaign, Wilder was clear about his main goals. "I don't intend to spend a lot of time telling you that I am black," Wilder said as he pulled at his face with both hands. "There's nothing that could change the color of my skin."
Many state politicians said Wilder can "win" the election even if he loses to Chichester, if Wilder is perceived to have run a respectable campaign that gets more than 40 percent of the vote. That, some say, would open the door to other blacks seeking state office