WASHINGTON — JESSE JACKSON, meet Governor Wilder of Virginia - your new political competition. The Rev. Mr. Jackson, long unchallenged as the No. 1 black political leader in the United States, no longer is the only contender for that title.
L. Douglas Wilder, the first elected black governor in American history, is making headlines, winning friends, and stirring up Democratic politics. In fact, insiders say Mr. Wilder wants to be president - one of Jackson's longtime goals - in 1996.
``This is the most serious threat Jackson has faced, and I'm not certain he fully realizes it,'' says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.
The governor's policies and speeches are ``beginning to get under Jackson's skin,'' but Dr. Sabato says Jackson apparently still does not realize that Wilder threatens his ``vital interests.''
Recently, Jackson and his political allies have begun taking potshots at the Virginia governor, who practices a form of mainstream politics that appeals strongly to moderate white voters.
At a meeting of black mayors in New Orleans, Jackson last week ridiculed ``all the new talk about the new mainstream.''
Jackson asked rhetorically: ``For those who are not in the mainstream, does that mean backwater? Does that mean cesspool? We want justice to roll down like a mighty stream, not like a narrow mainstream.''
Meanwhile, Delegate Walter Fauntroy (D) of the District of Columbia, who is working with Jackson to achieve statehood for the district, fired a cannonball across Wilder's bow. Mr. Fauntroy was upset that the governor opposes statehood until the district gets its finances in order.
``If the governor had checked his facts,'' Fauntroy says, ``he would have learned that the district, unlike the federal government, consistently over the years has balanced its budget and has steadily reduced its accumulated deficit.''
Lumping Wilder together with President Bush, who opposes statehood for other reasons, Fauntroy says: ``The words of President Bush and Governor Wilder should serve as warnings ... that if we take our rights for granted, others will totally ignore them.''
Such criticism is greeted with good humor by Wilder's aides, who see it generating additional support among moderate voters.
Professor Sabato says that Jackson's attacks are ``playing right into Wilder's hands. ... Wilder's national political future depends on his being portrayed as the alternative to Jesse Jackson, and Jackson is falling into Wilder's trap.''
Wilder gently parries Jackson's verbal jabs: ``We're like fraternity brothers. I think we like and love each other,'' he says. ``But how we view each other politically is another matter.''
Indeed, there is a great deal of difference between these two ambitious politicians, says George Grayson, a Democratic member of the Virginia House of Delegates. Jackson preaches the politics of cultural pluralism, Dr. Grayson explains. He works through ethnic, racial, and religious groups.
``Therefore, you get a `rainbow coalition' where a Jesse Jackson asks blacks to think black first, and then involve themselves in the American political process. Think Asian first, and then join his coalition. Think Hispanic first, and become part of a collection of disparate groups that Jackson hopes will ... lift him to the White House.''
By contrast, Wilder practices what Grayson calls ``pluralistic assimilation.''
He says: ``Doug considers himself to be an American politician first, who also happens to be black. The ethnic group, or religious group, or racial or economic group is secondary. The emphasis is for individuals, whether they are born in this country, or emigrate to this country, to become ... assimilated.''
Grayson argues that Wilder's strategy helps Democrats, but that Jackson's approach loses elections.
``Jackson's formula is one designed to keep Democrats out of the White House for decades, if not generations. Wilder's approach of really encouraging groups to become culturally and socially assimilated into an already diverse American mainstream is a possible formula for Democratic victory.''
Sabato admits that Wilder could lose some black support.
``He faced the same problems in '85 [when he ran for lieutenant governor, and won] and in '89 [when he won the governorship]. Lots of blacks were saying that here's a guy who is compromising away black interests to appeal to whites.
``Well, Wilder will take that trade-off in the blink of an eye.... He picks up three white votes for every one black vote he might lose. It's a great trade-off. He knows from his Virginia experience that he can hold [most of] the black vote even while they grumble. He's going for the ducks who can elect him, and that means white votes. [But] that is out of the realm for Jackson,'' Sabato says.