Former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder has made a career out of tweaking fellow Democrats. The more powerful -- like the current Democratic governor, Mark R. Warner -- the better the target for Wilder's derision.
But lately, it seems, Wilder has crossed a new threshold that has political tongues wagging around the state. It's almost as if Wilder, the nation's first black governor and a lifelong Democrat, has become a Republican.
Last night, he was the featured speaker at a two-day retreat in Reston for Republicans in the House of Delegates. That follows his decision to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in March with U.S. Sen. George Allen, one of the state's leading Republicans, to chastise Warner for his plan to increase taxes.
And this month, Wilder announced plans to run for mayor of Richmond, his home town, in an election that Wilder and former U.S. representative Thomas J. Bliley Jr., a Republican, engineered. Bliley and Wilder co-chaired a commission that pushed for the direct election of the city's mayor.
All of which has Wilder's friends and enemies alike wondering just what he's up to.
"He has his own drummer, somewhere," said John G. Milliken, who served as secretary of transportation under Wilder in the early 1990s. "I don't know exactly where he finds his drummer, or where he hears it, but he does."
Wilder used his speech to several dozen Republican lawmakers last night as an early platform in his bid for mayor, promising to seek help from the conservative lawmakers to fight crime in Richmond, where the violent crime and homicide rates have risen.
"We are not going to be happy with the crime rates we have," he said.
The Republicans welcomed Wilder with open arms, at one point jokingly chanting, "Four more years!" One delegate called it "a strange night," recalling that he had worked for weeks 15 years ago to defeat Wilder.
When asked to comment on Wilder's attendance at the Republican retreat, Warner only chuckled. Many other Democrats also declined to comment, though several said the oddity of it all was the subject of gossip at a House Democratic Caucus fundraiser at the Homestead resort last week.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said he invited Wilder because the former governor led the commission on government reform and is "an independent-minded fellow."
Paul Goldman, Wilder's chief strategist, dismissed any Democratic criticism of Wilder's attendance at the event as a "petty power thing." He said Wilder has every intention of continuing to work with anyone, regardless of party.
"I suppose some people would prefer that everybody would agree on everything all of the time," Goldman said. "I would think you would want to reach out; you would want to talk to people."
Butting heads with Democrats is nothing new for Wilder, who has strained relationships with many of the state's most successful statewide Democrats.
Wilder's feuds with Democrat Charles S. Robb, a former governor and U.S. senator, are legend in Virginia. In 1988, Wilder's cell phone conversation about Robb, which was taped and later distributed to reporters, helped to destroy Robb's chances for higher office.
In the late 1980s, Wilder opposed efforts by then-Gov. Gerald L. Baliles (D) to raise taxes for transportation. And when Wilder became governor in 1989, he was sued by Democrat Mary Sue Terry, his own attorney general.
In 1997, Wilder refused to endorse Democratic Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer in his run against Republican Attorney General James S. Gilmore III. Gilmore won, and Beyer went back to his Volvo dealership in Falls Church.
And Wilder has a rocky relationship with Warner, who served as Wilder's campaign chairman during his bid for governor.
"He's as fearless a politician or a public official as I've ever encountered," Milliken said of Wilder, his former boss. "That rubs a lot of people the wrong way. But it has also gotten him where he is."
In that respect, Wilder's recent pattern of associating publicly with Republicans fits well the pattern of his political life.
"You develop a maverick reputation, and once you become part of the establishment, how do you demonstrate your maverick streak?" said one former Wilder aide who spoke on condition of anonymity. "You have to scratch that maverick itch."
Now, the state capitol is buzzing with the possibility that Wilder could endorse Republican Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore in the race for governor in 2005. Kilgore is running against Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat and the former mayor of Richmond.
"One of the joys of watching Doug Wilder is the constant reinvention," said Steve Haner, the chief lobbyist for the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and a former GOP strategist. "Everything old is new again. That's what makes it so much fun to watch."