RICHMOND, JULY 16 -- Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, saying Virginians should "let the chips fall where they might," admonished black leaders today to grant no special favors to the prominent black figures around the state who now are facing legal or political difficulties.
"You must refuse to serve as a patsy for any public official who finds that they are in trouble with the legal authorities," Wilder said tonight in Norfolk. "There are no 'black' public officials under criminal investigation or 'white' public officials under criminal investigation.
"A public official is a public official," added Wilder, who is black. "A guilty criminal is a guilty criminal."
Wilder's speech was noteworthy for its timing, coming during a year when several black officeholders are struggling to hold their jobs in the face of charges of corruption and worse, and for its delivery at a banquet honoring the Norfolk Journal and Guide, the nation's third-oldest black newspaper.
A good part of Tidewater's politically powerful black establishment was attended the banquet for the paper, which is read widely by black leaders there and elsewhere in Virginia. Wilder specifically selected the occasion to have maximum impact, associates said.
"Let us as friends speak frankly," said the lieutenant governor, one of the country's most visible black politicians and a sure bet to seek the governor's office when Gov. Gerald L. Baliles leaves, as required by state law, in 1989.
"The primary task of a free press in our society is to report the truth and seek the truth," he said, recounting the contributions of the dwindling number of black newspapers in the United States. "You can flourish again, but only if you hold fast to an uncompromising pursuit of the truth."
Wilder's address coincides with a particularly difficult period for black politicians in this state, as a handful of elected leaders have alienated their own constituencies through misconduct in office or criminal behavior.
In Portsmouth, which is next door to Norfolk, Mayor James G. Holley III faces the growing resentment of voters there because of his lavish out-of-town expenses, hundreds of phone calls paid for by taxpayers and an investigation that found his fingerprints on three pieces of hate mail that were part of a vicious campaign against black leaders in that city during the latter half of 1986.
Portsmouth residents have launched a recall petition drive against Holley, who faces no criminal charges, and voters in Petersburg have done the same thing against City Council member Clyde Johnson, a Baptist preacher who was convicted by an Alexandria jury last month on 15 charges of molesting young girls over a period of 15 years. The jury recommended a prison term of 161 years.
Although two council colleagues of Johnson have called for his resignation and more than 450 people in his home ward have signed the recall petition, there also has been a strong show of support from other black ministers and many in Johnson's congregation.
Some Johnson supporters have suggested that the initial charges were racially motivated, but one Wilder confidant said tonight that the lieutenant governor scoffed at that notion.
In the speech, Wilder asked his audience: "Do the victims of crime -- or those hurt by official lawlessness -- suffer any less or greater due to the color of the victimizer?"