It was a warm, fall evening and Doug Wilder, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, was making the last stop of his campaign in Northern Virginia. The reception was held at a private home and most of the 50 or so people there were white. By the time he'd finished speaking, Wilder had given them something that's been a long time coming to Virginia: a sense of pride about race relations.
The state that went to the wall with massive resistance to school desegregation was about to elect the first black to statewide office in the South since Reconstruction. The Democrats, shut out of the statehouse between 1970 and 1982, were leading the Republicans in the polls with a ticket that defied history: at the top was Gerald Baliles, a moderate and former attorney general; in the middle was Wilder, a state senator since 1969 and black; and for attorney general, Mary Sue Terry, an experienced member of the House of Delegates, and one of a handful of women serving in Richmond.
That night, the people in that middle-class suburban home had a sense of history, restrained disbelief and, above all, pride. Over and over, you could hear people saying, "Do you really think it could happen? In Virginia?"
Wilder spoke of his 60-day, 3,000-mile odyssey that took him across Virginia much of the summer. He told of the tobacco-chewing, burly white man who took him aside at one stop, saying he wanted to talk to him. Wilder went with him, not knowing what to expect. The man reached into his pocket, pulled out $200 and gave it to him. Then he hailed a group of friends over to introduce Wilder to them.
Wilder then told of making a courtesy phone call to A. L. Philpott, a former segregationist, who is speaker of the House. He wanted to let Philpott know he would soon be in his district. He expected nothing, he just wanted to let him know he was going to be there. Philpott organized a breakfast to introduce him to the community leaders. Later, Wilder said, the speaker's brother took him around to introduce him to others and to tell them he had the Philpotts' support. That was a turning point. The man who started out as a decided underdog had turned a corner and so had the state.
Throughout that trip, Wilder said, he stayed overnight in white people's homes. That point was not lost on a white-haired woman who was listening to him. "When I was the welfare commissioner in the county right next to where he was talking about," she said later, "blacks couldn't stay overnight. They could come in and work during the day, of course, but they couldn't spend the night."
Wilder's supporters knew they were seeing history that night, but they also knew this was Virginia. Well, it was Virginia, and on Tuesday Wilder was elected lieutenant governor, winning 52 percent of the vote. Terry won by a landslide, getting 61 percent of the vote -- 71,000 more votes than Baliles, who won with 55 percent.
All three candidates were proteges of Gov. Charles S. Robb and their resounding victories can only enhance his prominence in the national Democratic Party. He campaigned hard for them and they ran on themes that stressed continuity of administrations and continued excellence. Robb, who under state law cannot succeed himself, had established a record of fiscal conservatism and social responsiblity that was difficult for the Republicans to run against. He enjoys a remarkably high 73 percent popularity rating in a state that has not gone for a Democratic presidential nominee or elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1966.
Race and gender were factors in the campaigns, but they were minor. Wilder did not make civil rights a central issue; he stressed the Robb record, he stressed his own experience as a state senator and his position on the Senate's powerful Privileges and Elections Committee. He made a point of meeting people in person, not just on television. Terry stressed her experience as a state prosecutor and her role in toughening the state's drunk-driving laws. She raised more than a million dollars for her campaign, more than any candidate ever to run for the office. So much for the notion that women candidates can't raise money.
All three candidates ran as experienced, moderate, thoughtful lawmakers who represented the mainstream of the electorate. There is a lesson for both political parties here. The voters of Virginia made their choice on the basis of who the candidates were, what they stood for, and what they had accomplished -- not what they looked like. That is something the state, and the nation, can be truly proud of.