Grandson of a slave alters the character of Southern politics

L. Douglas Wilder has just made history, and he's waving the flag. ``I think it speaks eloquently for the American system of politics,'' he says. ``I don't know any other place'' this could have happened.

Mr. Wilder, the grandson of a slave and the son of an insurance salesman, won election this month as the lieutenant governor of Virginia. Here in the heartland of the old Confederacy, politics may never be the same. His election shattered regional traditions and myths:

He became the first black person since Reconstruction to win statewide office in the South, and the first ever in Virginia. (The last in the South was P. B. S. Pinchback, who was elected lieutenant governor of Louisiana in 1871.)

He became the highest elected black official in state government anywhere in the country -- North or South, East or West.

He confounded skeptics by campaigning hard in rural, all-white areas and getting 4 out of 5 of his votes from whites.

He undercut his white opponent by taking away the highly sensitive crime issue in a single stroke with a TV ad featuring an endorsement from a white, rural policeman in southern Virginia.

He set aside old ``excuses,'' as he puts it, and took a get-tough attitude toward immorality and lawlessness in the black community, where he calls the trend toward criminality ``frightening.''

Wilder's win would have been impressive in any state. It's even more so here in Virginia, because of the way he won -- without any outside help. He turned down offers from celebrities and nationally known athletes who volunteered to fly into Virginia to raise money and campaign for him.

``It would have distorted what I was trying to do,'' he explains. ``My election [says] that you can win if you've got the qualifications. Period. . . .

``Even people who were opposing my candidacy, not me personally, have said since then that they feel good about it, and they are glad.''

His victory came in one of the most tradition-bound states. But Virginians, Wilder says, have come to realize that blacks and whites alike want the same things: good schools, nice homes, safe communities.

What impressed Wilder and his two-member campaign staff, led by manager Paul Goldman, was the quick acceptance they won from crusty conservatives as they campaigned month after month in small towns in every corner of Virginia. Wilder delighted in the election returns from conservative strongholds, such as one small island in the Chesapeake Bay:

``Tangier Island has about 900 people . . . traditionally crustacean almost in terms of being hard-shelled, just totally conservative as it relates to change in anything,'' he said. ``And yet we received [many of] their votes.''

The real change in this election took place among the broad masses of Virginia whites, the kind that gather at the country stores to talk over politics and events of the day, Wilder says.

``A guy . . . with a bandana in his pocket, old coveralls, a scowl on his face, rather inscrutable, in terms of determining what he is thinking. . . . Some of those people, after I'd finished talking, chatting, they'd ask questions, and said: `We're going to vote for you.' And once those people tell you that, you can go to sleep on it. . . .''

The inherent politeness of the people of Virginia also showed itself during the campaign. Wilder, who has been a state senator for 15 years, stayed in the homes of both blacks and whites as he traveled. And his reception was universally warm.

As they drove to every one of Virginia's 95 counties, ``we gave very little advance notice. We . . . didn't ask for escorts, [yet] we never had the slightest incident. To be able to campaign like that in Virginia, in 1985, in the South, is amazing.''

Wilder, a Richmond lawyer, sounds much like any other politician when he talks about traditional issues like road-building and better schools. But when he discusses the problems of blacks, he takes on a tougher tone. When a reporter fails to bring up the subject of crime, for example, Wilder does so himself:

``No one is more decrying of the spread of crime now than blacks. In certain communities they dare not sit out on the porch, dare not walk the street after dark. It doesn't have to be old people. And it's not black-on-black crime. It's just crime -- period.''

He says there are ``attitudinal problems in certain areas of the black community that need to be addressed, and I think will be.''

``I'm just greatly alarmed at the disproportionate number of blacks who are arrested and charged for criminal offenses. . . . You can't keep making the excuse that they are being arrested and charged because they are black. Something is wrong.

``We've got to start motivating our young men into other avenues of endeavor -- profitable, but legal.''

One thing that's needed, Wilder says, is ``tougher penalties for people who think that they can commit crimes at young ages and come [right back out on the street]. . . .'' Perhaps even 17-year-olds, he suggests, should get life sentences.

There's a need for the society to exert community pressure on those who commit crimes. There's a need for people to speak out and say it is wrong, he says.

``One of the surest, quickest solutions to get back to some form of disapproval [of crime] is to voice it, and to show it, and to let people know that taking of human life is not something that we like.''

Wilder also decries the breakdown of black family life and the rise of illegitimate births. It's partly the fault of government, he argues.

``You can't reward profligacy, or illegitimacy. And sometimes the reward takes the form of support and welfare payments.

``Sometimes you even hear the horror stories of young girls saying they are going to have a baby so they can draw payments and be relatively independent of their parents. . . . It's just frightening.''

Government payments ``spawn the illegitimacy, and I say spawn it by constantly re-creating it, and never saying there's anything wrong with it.'' The young, unwed mothers say, ``I gotta be taken care of,'' says Wilder, who adds: ``You know, the public is going to get to a point where they're going to say, `If you're going to do this, you're going to take care of your own.' Or, `If we must take care of this child, you won't be the mother.' ''

The whole thing is a ``vicious, vicious cycle . . . and our young people don't see that.''

Illegitimacy is part of a broad problem that also includes crime, the work ethic, and opportunity. They must all be dealt with at once, he says.

Can other blacks follow Wilder into high office? He thinks the answer is yes, because whites have found out that black officials can do a good job -- blacks such as Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles.

``The biggest fear that I think whites have had . . . is that there will be a revisiting of the sins of the fathers on the present generation. I have long believed that the dead past should bury its own. It's over with.''

After all, says Wilder, much of the success of black politicians has come because of ``many whites wanting to see that happen.''

His says his victory in Virginia has caused ``any number of persons to breathe a sigh of relief, saying, `Well, that's over with. Now let's get down to business.' ''

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