Two well-known political figures, one a white Republican, the other a black Democrat, recently reflected on Virginia's racist past with observations that may remind voters of the state's historic divisions and its capacity for change.

Republican Mark L. Earley, the attorney general who wants to be governor, and Democrat L. Douglas Wilder, the nation's first elected African American governor, spoke about race in very different venues last weekend.

Earley, addressing the Virginia chapter of the Christian Coalition, an important part of his electoral base, produced an uncomfortable silence in his mostly white audience when he spoke movingly about Virginia's legacy as a slave state and commonwealth that for decades denied suffrage to women.

Although it was a cradle of American liberty, "Virginia was the entry point of injustice and tragedy," Earley said Oct. 2 at the national coalition's annual conference in Washington.

Reflecting on his stay years ago in the Philippines, then under the Marcos dictatorship, and a later tour of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum a few blocks down the street from the conference, Earley won back the crowd with a ringing endorsement of political inclusion.

Last Sunday, Wilder appeared on Richmond television in a rare interview, criticizing fellow Democrats (as usual), singling out Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) for praise (as usual) and sharing some thoughts about race, an issue he generally avoided in his landmark campaigns of 1985 and 1989, for lieutenant governor and governor, respectively.

He dismissed Richmond's imbroglio about the depiction of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on a public mural as "much ado about little," saying Lee is an undeniable part of Richmond's past and that of Virginia and the nation.

"To the extent that it was a part of history, it is a depicting of history," Wilder said of the mural.

He went on to say that Richmond, like other communities, remains divided by race--"They're separate as fingers on their hand!" he said of black and white leaders--and added that the state capital "lost some bounce, it lost some thrust" in the national publicity that accompanied the debate over the mural.

Wilder said Virginia communities need to get past old racial divides.

"I could sit here and bring up issues of race every second that we're talking on this show, but for what purpose?" Wilder said. "I could bring you the historical slights that have occurred through the years, but for what purpose?

"And I could bring you indefensible things that have occurred but, again, for what purpose? So there comes a time when you have to put history in its place and move ahead."

"Times never change," Wilder said. "People change."

Wilder Lets Loose on Democrats

Former governor L. Douglas Wilder, whose tart tongue delights reporters and other foragers for quotes, had an earful on the WRIC-TV show last Sunday for his fellow Democrats, many of whom would rather he take a vow of silence.

Wilder on the party, which may be on the verge of losing the legislature: "The Democratic Party organization has suffered dramatically. There's no organization. . . . People have forgotten how the party got to where it is. We talk about themes but not people. . . . We're becoming technocrats. We deal in poll numbers. We deal in seeing how big a staff we can have. We conduct our involvement with politics in offices, and we depend a great deal on television, and we don't go to the people.

"They've got to change the leadership that they have, if it exists," Wilder said. "For the Democrats to continue to believe that life will be . . . as it was in the past is a big mistake."

Wilder, who has burned more bridges to party regulars than anyone can count, said the disarray in Democratic leadership bodes poorly not only for legislators next month but also for Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Virginia) a year from now.

He added that he has raised the issue of party leadership with Democrat Mark R. Warner, the Alexandria businessman running for governor in the 2001 race.

"My view is: If not you, then who?" Wilder said he told Warner.

Craig K. Bieber, the long-suffering executive director of the state Democratic Party, said he and other party activists had heard Wilder's critique before--and almost certainly will hear it again.

Revisiting Rights of Dying Patients

The administration of Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) is signaling its intent to curtail a 1992 law allowing physicians to withhold medical care from terminally ill patients in certain cases.

Claude A. Allen, the cabinet secretary for health issues, told a Charlottesville audience that doctors may have too much power to hurt patients under the Virginia Health Care Decision Act.

"If there's a real desire to do wrong here, you can certainly do that," the Daily Progress quoted Allen as saying to student groups at the University of Virginia.

"We're in a place where, unless we curtail this law, anyone coming in can do pretty much whatever they want," Allen said, according to the Charlottesville newspaper.

The state legislature's 2000 session may consider a proposal allowing dying patients who want continued treatment to transfer to another physician who is willing to provide it.

"I don't believe we should encroach upon a doctor who doesn't want to provide treatment," Allen said. "Patient autonomy is the issue."

Gilmore's Conservative Appointees

Gilmore has again showed his conservative colors with a round of appointments to a college board, this time at James Madison University in Harrisonburg.

Helen R. Blackwell, of Arlington County, wife of Republican National Committee member Morton Blackwell, was appointed to JMU's board of visitors. Charles H. Cunningham, of Fairfax County, an executive of the National Rifle Association, and Mark D. Obenshain, son of a Virginia Republican icon, were both reappointed to the board.

Blackwell, a newsletter editor for the Eagle Forum Education and Legal Defense Fund, is the immediate past regent of the Eleanor Wilson Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Her husband, a longtime GOP activist, gave the introductory address for presidential hopeful Steve Forbes at last weekend's Christian Coalition conference in Washington.

Cunningham, the NRA's federal affairs director, had served four years as the Christian Coalition's director of national operations and voter education.

Obenshain, a Harrisonburg lawyer, is son of the late Richard Obenshain, an architect of Virginia's modern GOP, and the husband of Suzanne S. Obenshain, who has served on a statewide board on aging issues.

Candid Comments: Money Talks

The candidates debate hosted by the Springfield Chamber of Commerce recently featured some refreshing political candor.

State Sen. Warren E. Barry (R-Fairfax) has no opponent but nonetheless was given 10 minutes to address the audience. This was his opening: "As you can see, I'm unopposed. Not because I'm that great, but because I raised enough money in advance that nobody really wanted to take me on."