RICHMOND — Former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder is confounding enemies and allies alike in the opening anecdote of his new autobiography. Which is to say, it’s just another day in the life of this political maverick.
In this particular instance, it is 1970 and Wilder is a newly elected state senator, the first African American to serve in the chamber since Reconstruction. He did not run as a firebrand, but after attending a series of public events where the state song was played, he finds himself using his very first floor speech to condemn “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” as a racist ode romanticizing slavery.
His critics are aghast; his allies are convinced he is committing political suicide. Wilder, certain that it is time to dethrone the old minstrel tune with “massa” and “darkey” in the lyrics, presses ahead.
That dynamic has played out many times during Wilder’s nearly 85 years, continuing even now, when he is out of public office but by no means through with politics. A quarter-century after he became the first African American in the nation to be elected governor, and nearly seven years after he left the Richmond mayor’s office, Wilder still commands attention and wields influence — at times to the chagrin of fellow Democrats.
“The fact that I haven’t gone off into the sunset rankles some people,” Wilder said in a recent interview, chuckling. “ ‘Move on, man. You’ve been here long enough.’ ”
The autobiography — “Son of Virginia: A Life in America’s Political Arena” — is by no means a swan song. It looks at the current political landscape and toward the future as much as it reflects on Wilder’s adventures growing up in segregated Richmond, as a soldier on the front lines in Korea and as a politician breaking down racial barriers in the onetime capital of the Confederacy. And it’s full of the contrarian observations and positions that have made Wilder Wilder for nearly a half-century in politics.
“This was not the ‘hope and change’ president we had expected,” Wilder writes of President Obama at one point. “This administration too often turned its back on core supporters in favor of holding hands with its enemies.”
Wilder enthusiastically backed Obama in 2008 but withheld his endorsement four years later.
Indeed, Wilder is not your father’s elder statesman. The grandson of slaves is active on Twitter, and when he pipes up about politics, he is not afraid to zing members of his own party.
“Who in the hell was advising the governor?” Wilder asked this summer, taking issue with how Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) handled a state Supreme Court nomination.
When the father of a slain Roanoke TV reporter blasted gun-rights Republicans at a rally in the fall, Wilder wanted to know why a gun-rights Democrat did not get the same treatment.
“Why was Edwards not named? Was this politically motivated?” he tweeted, referring to state Sen. John S. Edwards (D-Roanoke).
Then as now, McAuliffe and Edwards opted not to respond.
Some of those skewered by Wilder dismiss him as someone whose time has come and gone. But when people run for governor or for mayor of Richmond, they seek him out for advice and endorsements.
When former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) faced the prospect of a long prison term for corruption this year, Wilder was his star character witness, helping McDonnell win an unexpectedly lenient sentence. At the time, McDonnell defense attorney John Brownlee said Wilder was “probably one of the best defense witnesses I have ever seen in my 20-plus years in court.”
Amid a national debate in the summer over Confederate symbols, Wilder looked past the statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and the like along Richmond’s Monument Avenue. His attention was drawn instead to the statue of tennis legend Arthur Ashe, the only one on the street dedicated to an African American and the only one with landscaping instead of stone around it.
“What is more bothersome is the seeming neglect by city caretakers,” he tweeted. “Of all of the monuments there, the Ashe memorial is the only one surrounded with weeds and undergrowth.”
A Richmond Public Works Department crew was on it that very day.
“I certainly think he remains both a very powerful symbol and a voice that commands attention,” said Frank B. Atkinson, author of two books on modern Virginia politics.
Still mentally sharp and physically fit, thanks to an Army calisthenics regimen he has maintained since the Korean War, Wilder works at least three days a week at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he gives guest lectures at the school of government and public affairs named in his honor. He also is working with VCU to turn a long-delayed slavery museum project into a reality, with the goal of opening it by 2019, to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of slaves at Jamestown.
In his new book, Wilder revisits his many conflicts with former governor Charles S. Robb, also a Democrat. Wilder writes that when he sought the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in 1985, Robb bought into the fear that Virginia was not ready for a black statewide official.
“Robb always assured me he was pulling strings for me behind the scenes but explained that, as governor, he had to stay publicly neutral,” Wilder writes. “I didn’t buy it.”
In an interview, Robb said he had not finished reading Wilder’s book and did not want to comment on the contents. He assumed that whatever Wilder wrote about him “probably won’t be what I want to chisel in marble.”
“Although we did have a complicated relationship, for the most part we remained friends,” Robb said.
Wilder sent him a copy of the book with this inscription: “With recognition and appreciation of the things you and I have been able to contribute to the commonwealth’s progress . . . together.” Wilder twice underlined “together.”
Bob Holsworth, a former VCU political scientist who counts Wilder as a personal friend, said the former governor is “one of the more remarkable individuals that you’ll ever meet because of that combination of fearlessness and intelligence and independence.” And, Holsworth noted, an uncanny “capacity to make news at any time.”
One potential candidate to be mayor of Richmond who has sought Wilder’s counsel is Levar Stoney, McAuliffe’s secretary of the commonwealth, who served as the current governor’s deputy campaign manager and worked on Sen. R. Creigh Deeds’s campaign for governor in 2009.
Stoney accompanied Deeds (D-Bath) and later McAuliffe when they asked for Wilder’s blessing for their bids. Deeds came away empty-handed; Wilder endorsed McAuliffe after a period of public uncertainty.
“I still remember when I was a kid watching his inauguration on the living room floor, when I should have been watching cartoons,” said Stoney, 34. “He’s inspired a lot of people like myself.”
Flattery will get an aspiring candidate nowhere with Wilder. He said he is concerned that Stoney’s bid would be perceived as an effort by McAuliffe and his close friend, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, to meddle in city affairs.
“The governor, he should not involve himself in this local race,” Wilder said. “I don’t think Hillary will want to be seen as choosing who the next mayor will be. She doesn’t need reasons for people not to turn out for her.”
Stoney did not respond directly to those concerns but praised Wilder as an “independent thinker.”
“At the end of the day, you know the governor simply cares about people and cares about the commonwealth and he believes in Virginia,” Stoney said. “It’s Virginia blood that runs through those veins.”