Who Will Be the First Black Elected Governor? Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's Campaign Raises Hopes in Virginia

By Poinsett, Alex | Ebony, November 1989 | Go to article overview

Who Will Be the First Black Elected Governor? Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's Campaign Raises Hopes in Virginia


Poinsett, Alex, Ebony


Who Will Be The First Black Elected Governor?

IT'S the first time in history that a politician has bothered to solicit votes in tiny (pop: 1,500) Ivanhoe, Va.

Two dozen or so mostly White townspeople mill about in the main hall of an ancient, wood frame "education building." They offer sandwiches and soft drinks to Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and the staffers from his five-car motorcade. Then, after much friendly chatter, Wilder mounts an ankle-high stage, dons an "I-love-Ivanhoe" cap, and launches into folksy remarks about his plans for reviving Ivanhoe and other economically depressed towns in rural virginia after the November 7 gubernatorial election.

The White voters applaud enthusiastically and gather around afterward to pump the candidate's hands. Nobody mentions the fact that the Democratic nominee for governor of the state of Virginia, the state of Jefferson and Washington and Robert E. Lee, is a 58-year-old grandson of slaves.

Making history is a habit for Wilder. When he was elected to the Virginia Senate in 1969, he became its first Black since Reconstruction. His 1985 election as lieutenant governor--with 97 percent of the Black vote and 46 percent of the White vote--made him the first post-Reconstruction Black to win a statewide office in Virginia. And when Virginia's Democratic Party nominated him this year to become the nation's first Black elected governor, that, too, was historic.

"I have no illusions about what I'm doing" he said recently during his grueling 3,750-mile campaign trek over back roads, into country stores and churches, coal mines and corporate board rooms around the state. "I'm not running to come in close or to make it look good. I'm running to win and then to serve. If I didn't think I could win, I wouldn't run."

Political observers give Wilder the best chance for a Black gubernatorial win since Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's 1982 and 1986 defeats in California. "He has not sacrificed himself or his commitment to the disadvantaged, including Black people," reports Eddie N. Williams, president of the Washington-based Joint Center for Political Studies. "But he has reached out to deal with a larger constituency."

By mid-August, Wilder had raised $3.5 million--about 20 percent from corporations--for his campaign and had sought an additional $3 million to mount a media blitz against Republican opponent Marshall Coleman, Virginia's former attorney general.

Wilder's unprecedented success in wooing White voters has fueled speculation about who will be the first Black elected governor. Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young will probably enter the Georgia governor's race before the Democratic Primary next spring, and other candidates and potential candidates are waiting in the wings. The problem all of these candidates face is what political scientist Hanes Walton calls the "run-off factor." For in past elections, particularly in the Deep South, conservative Democrats, Dr. Walton says, have switched to the Republican candidate to keep from voting for the Black Democratic candidate.

Early on there were indications that Wilder was overcoming some of these problems. The question remains "What is it Black candidates must do in order to win statewide elections? …

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