Commentary

By now, who doesn’t expect the unexpected from Doug Wilder?

November 7, 2022 12:02 am

Former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder. (Style Weekly)

It amuses new generations of Virginians who see the commonwealth’s Democratic 66th governor, L. Douglas Wilder, get all lovey-dovey with the Republican 74th governor, Glenn Youngkin.

Perhaps also perplexing: As Wilder warms to Youngkin, he has become an unabashed critic of fellow Democrat Levar Stoney, who holds Wilder’s old job as mayor of Richmond and aspires to another of Wilder’s former titles: governor.

We who have followed the nation’s first elected Black governor for decades have seen it all before. Wilder loves to frustrate those who try to predict his actions. He is to politics what Madonna has been to pop culture the past 40 years: ever changing, never boring.

As fellow scribe Jeff Schapiro of the Richmond Times-Dispatch once observed when we were both members of the Capitol press corps: “Doug is chemically dependent on printer’s ink.”

Another well-worn bromide among the political media back in the day: “The only thing more dangerous than being Doug’s enemy is being Doug’s friend.”

I don’t believe that’s always true, but taking his allegiance for granted is always risky. If you’re in Virginia politics and you haven’t at some point found yourself crossways with Wilder, you likely haven’t been at it long or haven’t accomplished much.  

“I don’t look at it as politicians being crossways with me, I look at it as being crossways with the people. People feel like they have no voice,” Wilder said in a conversation last week, his populist streak still vibrant more than a decade removed from his last stint in public office.

Wilder does what he wants when he wants, unbothered by party leaders who long ago gave up trying to persuade him to toe the party line. Consistently contrarian, Wilder – who turns 92 in January – relishes his stature as an elder statesman, a gubernator emeritus who can speak his mind.

Not that he was ever bashful.

Take 1994, for example.

Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb – like Wilder, a former Virginia governor – was seeking a second term with his once-polished reputation badly scuffed by various allegations of conduct unbecoming a governor, including an alleged sexual affair with a former Miss Virginia/USA. He was also brought before a federal grand jury investigating how his office obtained a recording of an illegally intercepted private cell phone call to which Wilder was a party.

Wilder challenged Robb’s bid for reelection to a second Senate term, running as an independent. In a bitter campaign in which Robb at one point faced not only Wilder but Republican Oliver North and conservative independent Marshall Coleman, Wilder at times seemed to revel in doing North’s job for him, needling Robb in televised debates and on the campaign trail.

“Name me three things Chuck Robb has done for Virginia,” Wilder would say to reporters on the campaign trail in the summer of 1994, challenging them to respond.  

Eventually, Wilder withdrew from the race and, late in the campaign, endorsed Robb. Larry O’Dell, an Associated Press colleague of mine, covered the ballyhooed endorsement announcement.

“As everyone was leaving, he saw me and came over and said hello,” O’Dell recalled in a phone call last week. “So, I said, ‘Governor, let me ask you something you’ve been asking us now for several weeks: Name me three things Chuck Robb has done for Virginia.’”

Wilder laughed it off and quickly slid into the back seat of a car that arrived right on cue to whisk him away without answering O’Dell’s question.

Seven years later, Wilder was the star of perhaps the most consequential news conference of the first Virginia governor’s race of the 21st century, one that could have riven the Democratic ticket. He was fed up with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mark Warner’s cozy relations with the National Rifle Association, which Warner had persuaded not to endorse his Republican foe. The NRA had been a tireless adversary of Virginia’s one-handgun-a-month law, a signature policy triumph of Wilder’s term. So one sunny morning, Wilder turned up alongside Democratic lieutenant governor nominee Donald McEachin at a state Capitol news conference and bluntly called out what he considered Warner’s apostasy.

“This reminds me of the tryst between the monkey and the skunk where the monkey says, ‘I have enjoyed as much of this as I can stand!’” Wilder said, his voice indignant and climbing in volume and octaves as he spoke.

Seconds later, the event was upstaged by news bulletins about an attack on the Pentagon 100 miles to the north that morning — Sept. 11, 2001. The press conference dissolved in chaos. If a story was written about the presser, it never saw the light of day.

Partisan boundaries don’t deter Wilder. Over the years, he has found ways to keep political friends and foes alike guessing, often until the dramatic last moment. He could stand with his party one moment, then side with Republicans on another issue the next.

Wilder endorsed Warner’s bid for governor, and Warner, early in his term, appointed Wilder to chair a blue-ribbon commission to recommend ways to make state government more effective and efficient. Two years later, Wilder was reprising GOP talking points in questioning Warner’s proposal to reform state tax laws that left state revenue collections short of their budgeted targets during difficult economic times.

What drives Wilder today? He’s made his last run for elective office. His groundbreaking place in history is secure.

“Today … people feel powerless. And as soon as someone recognizes them and has a platform, then they take these slogans and they run with them. ‘Black lives matter.’ Sure. All lives matter. ‘Defund the police.’ Are you crazy?” he said.

“And then you’ve got Stoney and the (City) Council talking about paying $55,000 to violence interrupters? Now, what is a violence interrupter?” he said with an incredulous laugh. “Is that a new name for a snitch?”

He always comes back to the issue of voice, of being heard. Is he referring to himself being heard? Is he talking about the greater vox populi?

Having known and covered this engaging and enigmatic man for almost 30 years, my best guess is a little of both.

But my guidance for Millennials and Gen Xers now in full adulthood who marvel at the historical, walking paradox that is Doug Wilder is to understand this: Nobody’s ever muzzled him, and nobody ever will.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]

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