Wilder: Becoming Govenor

Program Information

Program: Wilder: An American First
Segment Number: 6 (Watch entire program)
Duration: 00:08:25
Year Produced: 2005
Description:

Few Democrats or Republicans felt a black candidate could win a race for Governor in the state of Virginia. History was not on Wilder’s side either. The lone African American to serve as a Governor in the United States was P.B.S. Pinchback of Louisiana, who was appointed to the position and served 36 days in 1872. If a state was to elect the nation’s first African American governor the odds were heavily against Virginia.

When the nation's first elected African-American governor took the oath of office in 1990, American history came full circle. The newly elected governor was L. Douglas Wilder, a grandson of slaves. The state that elected him was Virginia, former home to the capital of the Confederacy. The thrill of this irony swept across the country as proof to all Americans that indeed, we shall overcome.

For more information visit: http://www.ideastations.org/wilder/index.html

Transcript

ARCHIVAL:
Wilder bangs gavel as Lt. Gov.

NARRATOR
In January of 1986 Doug Wilder reported for work as the state's new Lieutenant Governor. But almost before he could put pen to paper controversy was swirling around him.

The Wilder camp had begun feuding with prominent Democrats,
including Chuck Robb, the state's popular former Governor, though they would work together and campaign side by side these high ranking politicians would continue to clash publicly for over a decade.

MARY FRANCIS BERRY
The dissension between Wilder and Robb, and other political figures in the democratic party is part of his maverick persona and part I think of his understanding of how the democratic party has in some cases taken black voters for granted and in many cases not wanted to take seriously people who wanted to run for office.

ARCHIVAL: Wilder at press conference, announces he will run
“So today I stand before you and officially declare that I will seek the governorship of the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1989.”

NARRATOR
Few Democrats or Republicans felt a black candidate could win a race for Governor in the state of Virginia.

History was not on Wilder’s side either. The lone African American to serve as a Governor in the United States was P.B.S. Pinchback of Louisiana, who was appointed to the position and served 36 days in 1872.

If a state was to elect the nation’s first African American governor the odds were heavily against Virginia.

DAN LEBLANC
Here we are in Virginia, an African American running for the governorship, and some people view the governorship, back then especially, as being anointed by still the King of England. It’s just a lot of old history here becoming unraveled

ARCHIVAL: State Democrat Convention

NARRATOR
On June 10th, 1989, forty-five hundred Democrats gathered at the Richmond Civic Center to nominate Mary Sue Terry for Attorney General, Don Beyer for Lieutenant Governor and Doug Wilder for Governor.

ARCHIVAL: State Democrat Convention

GERALD BALILES: “Do I think Doug Wilder is independent!? Yes I do!”

CHARLES ROBB: “I‘m back in Doug Wilders corner in 1989 because it is important to everyone in this convention hall that we elect him the next governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia!”

L. DOUGLAS WILDER: “The people of VA do not want to turn back they know Virginia is moving in the right direction they want to continue our progress and prosperity and that is why I am confident they will elect another Virginia Democrat to serve as their Governor.”[Crowd clapping]

ARCHIVAL: News story about racial concerns for Democrats…

REPORTER: “in the pre-dawn hours democrat Douglas Wilder took off from Richmond Airport. His destination, Martinsville Virginia, the heart of “good ole boy” country, surveys show that black voters overwhelmingly support Douglas Wilder, the question is whether white Virginia voters will elect a black man to be there next governor”.

WILDER: “Virginian’s are one people, we need to stop pitting region versus region and people versus people.”

MAN: “There’s racism everywhere well I would hope that after this breakfast this morning that a signal has gone out that yes white conservative democrats are going to support Doug Wilder.”

REPORTER: “Are you completely behind him?”

PHILPOTT: “Oh yes, he’s running on a democratic ticket isn’t he?”

REPORTER: Wilder knows he needs people like Philpott to win a statewide campaign. Philpott and other conservative Democrats know that if they don’t back Douglas Wilder they’ll give the governor’s mansion to the republicans in November”

NARRATOR
Marshall Coleman, the Republican nominee and former Virginia attorney general, started the race with an early lead and focused his campaign on public safety and criminal justice, including the death penalty. Coleman's staff attacked Wilder's personal problems which they described as 'character issues.

ARCHIVAL: Coleman TV commercial attacking Wilder

NARRATOR
Wilder faced further troubles throughout the summer. A series of letters exposing the rifts between Wilder and Chuck Robb, who was now a US Senator, were publicly released.

On a campaign trip to southwestern Virginia, the Lieutenant Governor ran into a hostile group of striking coal miners that left him dealing more with damage control than rally building.

But the biggest potential blow would again focus on race-- as a wave of racial violence swept the oceanfront of Virginia Beach during the annual Greek Fest.

The violence destroyed much of the perceived improvement in relations between white and blacks in Virginia and hurt Wilder’s efforts to keep issues of race out of the election.

As the summer came to an end, the Wilder campaign had taken a series of blows yet their candidate was still standing. Coleman’s lead in the polls had grown but was not out of reach. And now it was Wilder’s turn to strike.

ARCHIVAL: Abortion rights protest
[Chanting]…Marshall Coleman there’s no doubt we are going to keep you out yeah! Right on!

NARRATOR
During the summer the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that states could restrict abortions beyond the limits set in 1973 by the Roe vs. Wade decision.

LARRY SABATO
You had that Supreme Court decision made in the summer, which gave Wilder a great issue.

ARCHIVAL: Wilder campaign Ad on abortion
On the issue of abortion Marshall Coleman wants to take away your right to choose and give it to the government, he wants to go back to outlawing abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. Doug Wilder believes the interfere with your right to choose, he wants to keep the politicians out of your personal life, don’t let Marshall Coleman take us back.

FRANK ATKINSON
The Coleman campaign tried for a while, to ignore it…And it became very clear, over a period of just a few weeks, that the Wilder message on, on abortion, was resonating with what was in the news media and what was current because of the Supreme Court decision.

ARCHIVAL: President George Bush campaigning for Coleman “4 days away”
George Bush: “ And only 4 short days remain in this campaign for the future of this great state, so talk to your family, your friends, take them to them to the poles with you, make these last days count for Marshall Coleman for Virginia and for the United States of America”

ARCHIVAL: News story about Coleman’s last push and Wilder protesters

REPORTER: It was an angry Marshall Coleman who turned up for late afternoon news conference at the state capitol, trailing in pre-election public opinion polls with time running out, Coleman charged that Virginia news organizations have glossed over what termed Douglas Wilders dishonesty and corruption.

COLEMAN: “ I don’t think it matters how much history Doug Wilder’s election on Tuesday will make, he has to meet the same high standards that Virginian’s have always demanded from their governors and I, for one am not going to stand by and watch a person who is unfit to preserve that tradition, glide into office with a feel good make history message and a cry of negative every time someone dares to tell the truth about him.”

REPORTER: “College republicans don’t buy Wilder's denials, they turned up at a Wilder rally at the College of William and Mary, but they were shouted down by Wilder supporters.”

DOUGLAS WILDER: “Take my word for it I will be the next Governor of Virginia.”