The voices of Virginians, as they so often do, helped tell a rich and exasperating story of Lawrence Douglas Wilder (D) as hundreds gathered in Richmond last week to mark the 10th anniversary of his inauguration as America's first elected black governor.
"You could be as mad with Doug Wilder as you can be mad with anyone in the world, and he could come into the room and in five minutes he will have charmed you," said Sen. Benjamin J. Lambert III (D-Richmond).
"He's a very likable person," Lambert added, "but he has another side of him, too: Don't get him on your wrong side."
"He doesn't suffer fools gladly," said Wilder's son, Larry, a Richmond lawyer.
"He is almost a loner," said Sen. Henry L. Marsh III (D-Richmond). "He listened to people, but he did his own thing."
"He was a model for governors serving in difficult circumstances," said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia professor and the dean of political pundits in the Old Dominion. "When the economy is bad, governors ought to look to what Doug Wilder did in Virginia."
"He didn't raise taxes when he was under pressure to do so," said Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R), the state's current no-new-taxes governor. "He tightened the belts, he made the budgets balance and he was highly responsible--and that's what he's going to be remembered for.
"And that's why I call on him constantly," Gilmore added. "I appreciate his advice. I value it, and I consult with him frequently."
And Wilder on Wilder: "I'm not unmindful of the fact that I rubbed a lot of heads the wrong way in my governorship. Not by choice, but I had no choice."
Lambert, the younger Wilder, Marsh, Sabato and Gilmore were just a few of the voices in a 15-minute video portrait that was a high point of the Wilder gala sponsored by Virginia Commonwealth University, his academic perch for the past several years.
The atmosphere at the new VCU athletic center, where 700 people came for Wilder's party, was electric, reminiscent of the crystalline January day when he was sworn in before a crowd unlike any other that had witnessed a Virginia governor's inauguration.
Black, white, Republican and Democrat, in-town and out-of-town--there was an enduring, expectant feeling of great promise, of things that were suddenly possible in politics. There was also a tinge of regret, of promise unfulfilled; as gentlemanly as Marsh, Lambert and others were in their video testimonials, their bitterness about past clashes with Wilder shone through.
Wilder, who had just turned 69 on Lee-Jackson-King Day earlier in the week, was flying high, soaring on the evening of goodwill and rememberances.
"It's amazing. It's a surfeit," Wilder said of the celebration, the proceeds of which will help fund a scholars program in his name. "I'm humbled.
"It really means that Virginia has an opportunity to reflect on how it moved ahead of the rest of the nation" with his election, Wilder added.
Wilder said he was more than aware of his lightning-rod personality within the Democratic Party and, more broadly, across the state and nation.
"We've got to be real and honest about recognizing the different stripes," he said. "We're going to differ. There will be points of argument. They shouldn't be personal. They shouldn't be lasting."
Robert D. Holsworth, Wilder's colleague at VCU and another leading pundit on Virginia politics, offered a three-word assessment of the Wilder Era in the video. It may have been the fairest and most neutral of all.
"An American original," Holsworth said.
Gilmore Preaches Low Taxes
Gilmore took his low-tax message to Arlington's Marriott Crystal Gateway last week to deliver the keynote address at the annual Ronald Reagan Dinner of the Conservative Political Action Committee, or C-PAC.
By all accounts, Gilmore turned in a boffo performance and brought things home to the many Northern Virginians in the audience, reminding them of his 1997 campaign pledge to eliminate the state's tax on cars, promising to help keep the Internet free from taxation and once again drawing a line in the sand against new taxes to help ease the region's worsening transportation crisis.
"Those of you who work around Washington or work in Northern Virginia know all about our transportation difficulties we have here, and they are real," Gilmore said. "I'm very concerned, really, about the people who go to and from their jobs and are spending time in their cars."
But a big N-O to new taxes, Gilmore hastened to add.
"We're not going to raise taxes to build more transportation in the commonwealth," Gilmore said. "The easy way hurts individual people out there who are our citizens."
Early Run for the Money
Lt. Gov. John H. Hager and Attorney General Mark L. Earley were also at C-PAC, scoping out potential support for their respective bids for the GOP gubernatorial nomination next year.
Hager is off to an early lead in the money sweepstakes, having raised $1 million last year and sent nearly $170,000 to legislative candidates for the Republican majority win, leaving $662,000 in cash on hand, a spokesman said.
Earley raised $650,000 for the year, sent more than $100,000 to candidates and had a balance exceeding $200,000, his spokesman said.
Concern About Southside
Democrats are rallying around workers who are struggling in the factory towns of Southside Virginia, where recent textile mill layoffs have sent unemployment skyrocketing as high as 25 percent in some areas. In Martinsville alone, about 3,000 people are out of work.
Over the weekend, lawmakers toured hurting areas and later in the week took to the legislative floor to remind colleagues about the severity of that region's economic crisis.
In the House, Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria) took the lead one day, speaking passionately about an economic divide that separates a city like his--2.4 percent unemployment, median household income of $65,367--from rural Virginia.
Moran told a story about his own father's layoff from a beer company in the late 1950s, when his mother was pregnant with her seventh child, Moran himself.
"That crisis was never forgotten in my house," said Moran, 40.
"We must not leave anyone behind," he added. "Because when one of us bleeds, we all bleed."