RICHMOND – L. Douglas Wilder climbed aboard a downtown city bus, paid his $1.50 and shouted an impromptu campaign pitch over the groaning diesel engine: “These fares are going down when I get in office!”
Fifteen years after he secured his spot in history by becoming America’s first (and still only) black elected governor, Wilder is again making his voice heard in politics, running for mayor of his hometown.
But taking on an increasingly nasty local election was hardly part of a scripted comeback. Since leaving office in 1994, Wilder has been in comfortable semiretirement, living in a home overlooking the James River, piloting his yacht and working stints as a college professor, newspaper columnist, radio host and practicing lawyer.
The way the 73-year-old Wilder tells it, he didn’t choose this campaign, it chose him. Ask him why he’s running and he cites the frustration of watching Richmond’s murder rate climb among the nation’s highest and its underfunded schools score among the state’s lowest.
“I’m not entitled to rest when I look and see little kids being shot up and maimed and crippled, and people are afraid to go on their streets and walk and to be educated in their schools,” Wilder said. “I began to look around and see the reason.”
For years, Wilder complained of businesses fleeing the majority-black city for mostly white suburbs, derelict storefronts in a once-thriving downtown and a city government rife with corruption. A half-dozen city officials, including a former mayor, have been sent to federal prisons in the past decade.
At the root of the problem, Wilder said, was a form of government in which City Council appoints a mayor from its members but gives the position little authority. Such a government, he said, leaves the city of 200,000 slow to act on such critical matters as crime, education and economic development.
A year ago, Wilder, a Democrat, and Republican former U.S. Rep. Thomas J. Bliley campaigned for a referendum to establish citywide elections for a strong mayor. Despite opposition from elected city officeholders and many black leaders, the initiative won with 80 percent of the vote.
But Wilder said he didn’t initially intend on becoming that strong mayor himself. He looked for proteges who, like him, are black and moderate to conservative, particularly on fiscal matters. None came forward.
“I’d go to places like Church Hill, where I was born, and I’d see people in the streets who would tell me I owed it to run. They said it as if it was my responsibility,” Wilder said. “It came down to people saying to me, `Well look, you can’t just keep talking about this. If you’re not going to do something about it, then shut up.'”
Wilder is now one of four candidates, but his primary rival is incumbent Rudy McCollum, an eight-year councilman who has doubled as mayor the past three years. The nearly $180,000 Wilder had raised as of Aug. 30 is more than seven times McCollum’s take, and that may be because of the former governor’s name and star power.
Tinika Baker, 23, beamed as Wilder sat with her and her son, Tai’ Maine, 6, and her daughter, Tai’ Miysha, 4, as the bus lumbered toward Woodville Elementary School. Though she was a child herself when Wilder was elected governor, she understood the meaning of his election and took pride in it.
“Excuse me,” Tai’ Maine asked Wilder as the bus screeched to a stop, “are you the president”?”
It’s tough to compensate for that sort of fame, McCollum said.
“But what he doesn’t have is demonstrated commitment to the city and a track record of accomplishment in this city. When you look at the fact that I became mayor on Sept. 11, 2001, and since then we’ve endured hurricanes, floods, fires and political scandals, but nevertheless I’ve been able to keep us focused on the business of the city,” McCollum said.
Richmond votes Democratic overwhelmingly, and McCollum has questioned Wilder’s commitment to the party. Ever unpredictable, Wilder has often vexed his own party with his alliances to Republicans.
In 1994, Wilder briefly ran as an independent challenging Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb’s quest for a second term before belatedly endorsing Robb. In 1997, Wilder refused to endorse Democrat Donald Beyer for governor and maintained good relations with Republican Jim Gilmore, who defeated Beyer.
This year, Wilder teamed with Sen. George Allen, R-Va., in calling for the General Assembly to block a tax increase and instead let voters decide in a statewide referendum whether to boost taxes, to the chagrin of Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner.
“If we want to talk about an authentic, real Democrat, someone who espouses Democratic ideals and helping the Democratic leadership in this city, you aren’t talking about Doug Wilder,” McCollum said.
Wilder said McCollum is trying to stir up old racial resentments by linking Wilder to white business interests and turn black voters against him. The city is 57 percent black.
“And people wonder why things don’t get better. For years, these same people have asked the black voters of Richmond to vote black. Well, they vote black and they vote black and they vote black and nothing’s gotten better,” Wilder said.
“We have to show the country that African-Americans can govern themselves efficiently,” he said.