Doug Wilder, the grandson of slaves, who in 1989 became the first African-American governor elected in the U.S., in Virginia, is a longtime student of politics. Since ending his post-gubernatorial term as Richmond mayor in 2009, Wilder has become an outspoken political commentator, offering President Barack Obama and Republicans advice, as well as criticism, often in the pages of Politico.
Wilder talked about Tuesday’s Virginia primary, whose result is a foregone conclusion, since only former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul qualified. He said that regardless, Romney has the institutional support of Virginia Republicans, including the governor, Bob McDonnell, the lieutenant governor, and House Majority Whip Eric Cantor, who endorsed Romney this week. Wilder has been critical of President Barack Obama, and he believes the Republican Party is not without strength for November, and not without its own political star. Here are Wilder’s takes:
On Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has been mentioned as a potential vice presidential nominee for the eventual GOP nominee: I think he got hurt very badly in the last [legislative] session … and the current session for that matter. And Eric Cantor brought in Marco Rubio to a breakfast a week or so ago, and he was resoundingly received, I’m told. And I’m told that there was not a person in that room who did not believe that Rubio should be the first choice [for] Romney if that is the situation, with him getting the nomination.
On what McDonnell and Rubio bring to the table as potential vice presidential running-mates I’ve always thought that if McDonnell were to have a chance, Romney would have to be running strong, to show the need for pulling in a southern state. But Rubio is a different take. He’s more communicative. He speaks pretty much of and for the people he represents in that regard. He’s clearly conservative; clearly far right. But he gives a different take, something that Romney is going to need, Romney being a bit too robotic. I think McDonnell needed to have something going for him. [But] the ultrasound piece the gun piece .. and just today, you’ve got SWAT teams out there after the people who were supposedly camping in [protesting the state’s sonogram law] … it hasn’t been a good 30 days for the governor.
On the upcoming Senate race between former governor and ex Democratic National Committee chair Tom Kaine and former GOP Senator George Allen: My take on that is that it’s dead even. I know the polls that came out here recently had Kaine up about eight or nine points. I wouldn’t take that poll too seriously. That poll was taken with the matrix where 50 percent of the people polled were Democrats, so what would you expect? … I think what you see out there [is that] it’s neck and neck as it relates to the Senate race.
On whether the general election race for president will be close: I do think so. The unfortunate thing for the Democrats, and particularly for the president, is there’s a strong anti-Obama sentiment in the nation, and it’s very strong in Virginia. And I’m not suggesting at all that Republicans haven’t fueled that … but it’s strong. It isn’t something that the Democrats can take for granted. That’s why I said a about a week or so ago that the best thing that could happen for the Democrats, and particularly for Obama, is for Santorum to win [the GOP nomination]. I don’t see any way that Santorum could reach the majority of the American people to be elected the president of the United States. [But] since I don’t believe that’s going to happen — I don’t think he’s going to get the nomination — if Romney wins … I think there’ll be people saying, ‘well, I think he’s the only person left. He might have the best chance to beat Barack Obama.’ And I predict there’ll be a sizable coalescence behind his candidacy. Virginia is going to be very tough. Virginia’s pivotal. I advised the president the last time around, [that] if he campaigned in Virginia — if he committed to Virginia, he could win Virginia. He campaigned, he committed and he won Virginia with 53 percent of the vote, [versus] only 51 percent in Ohio and by only a 25,000 vote difference in North Carolina.
On whether Obama is in a position to take advantage of Republicans’ declining popularity: I’m not suggesting that he can’t [win], I’m suggesting that he’s going to have to work it. I’m not suggesting that he isn’t, or doesn’t plan to. But the fact that the Republicans are killing and tearing each other asunder now isn’t something you can depend on. And with gas prices being what they are [and] escalating, even though they wouldn’t be the president’s fault, that doesn’t matter. People look to who’s in charge; who’s heading the government. And so that’s not a good sign; not a good thing at all. So even if the economy is coming around, gas prices and the economy are almost on equitable terms as far as many people are concerned.
On whether he still thinks former national security adviser and secretary of state under President George W. Bush, Condolleezza Rice, would make a good Republican vice presidential pick, as he wrote in Politico: Yeah, I still think that. I think it would be wonderful for the election. Now let’s be real, and let’s be honest. I don’t think [Romney would] do that. I think there are any number of people who would not accept her as the nominee, and wouldn’t come out directly and say so, but would say, ‘hey wait a minute, you’re going a little too far.’ There are people who already question Romney’s bona fides as it relates to how conservative he is. As a matter of fact, that’s the be all and end all of Santorum’s campaign: ‘I am the true conservative in this race, I’m the only real conservative in this race.’ And so, that being the case, I think it would be a stretch for Romney to do that. Would it be a winning thing? It possibly could be, but could he get away with it, I don’t know. Now having said that, the next best thing to do is to pick somebody who you think could win. And I’m not suggesting [Senator Marco] Rubio would accept it, [but] he’s sharp, he’s smart, he’s young, he’s gifted. He could wait for years and say ‘I’ll wait til there’s no incumbent out there, and I’ll run on my own for the presidency,’ rather than to take what some might say would be a failed opportunity — not suggesting that it will be failed, because I think this will be a close election. And not just in Virginia. It’ll be a close election nationwide.
On whether Obama’s election exacerbated racial tensions in the U.S. No, I don’t think it has exacerbated racial tensions, to the extent that it might hurt him. By the same token, his election didn’t eradicate racism in America. Some would have said ‘we live in a post racial society now.’ We don’t. Just as my election as governor didn’t change racism’s ugly head in Virginia. There are episodes. There are things that take place that cause change to happen, and cause people to recognize what can happen. But you have to maintain it. That’s why when you get that foot in the door, you have to keep it open. One of the things that has happened is the lessening of the intensity, the lessening of the excitement, the lessening of the “yes we can” or hope and “change we can believe in.”
On his criticisms of the president Can I cut right to it? I had desperately wanted to see somebody put on the Supreme Court that could articulate our needs and our desires, as would a Thurgood Marshall. That hasn’t happened with two opportunities to do so. Jimmy Carter never had a shot at naming anyone to the supreme court, but Jimmy Carter named more African-Americans to the federal bench than any American president. Now having said that, do I criticize the president for picking people who obviously might be good? But when you consider we now have coming up before the Supreme Court the possible turning back of the clock on affirmative action — now I’m not suggesting his nominees that he’s put there might not vote as we would hope they would vote, but are they in a position to really articulate like a Marshall could? You can predict what Clarence Thomas’ position is going to be. Related: White House pushes back regarding President Obama’s federal appointments Now put that criticism on the side. My other thing was, that, when you put people in the pipeline, that is, when you put people in cabinet positions, they have independent budgets from your own. Consequently, you are in a position then to burrow people into public policy positions and government to effect it, long after the president is gone. They’ve been my criticisms. I don’t back down from them. This doesn’t say to anyone that I would not still support the president, but if I can’t criticize what I see is wrong, then I have no business being in a position of asking anyone to do anything when it’s right.
On whether he has taken his critiques and advice directly to the president: No, we’ve not talked in that regard. The last conversation I had with him was brief, when he was here in Richmond campaigning. And I told him that I still thought he could win. And I told him … that I thought Virginia would be dispositive of his election. If he wins Virginia this time, I think he wins the nation. I think he agreed with that.
On whether he will participate in the upcoming campaigns in Virginia I’ve always voted (laughs) That’s in November. We’ve got a long time to go before we talk about campaigning. Why don’t we just see what’s going to take place, and then we’ll move in that regard. The alternatives are so bad in many instances; that one is almost impelled if not compelled — to do that. But go back to what I said: it is not going to be a piece of cake, and I am not at all unaware of the fact that the president knows that, too.
On the late Rep. Donald Payne, who died this week: Oh I saw that and I was just torn to pieces by it, because he and I were good friends. I liked him. I liked his approach. I liked his style. He was a low key guy; he didn’t look for headlines, he wasn’t trying to impress anybody. He was a hard worker. He did a great deal to bring attention to Africa. He worked assiduously, relative to the problems of our cities in this country, and he’ll be missed. With his years of experience, and having come from where he’ s come from, as the first African American congressman from New Jersey, it’s a great loss to the nation, and obviously a great loss to the constituents that he represented.
On what he hopes will be his legacy in Virginia: I appointed more women to positions than had ever been in the history of the Commonwealth. I appointed more minorities to positions that had ever been before. I made certain that every board, every commission, every entity had minority representation, and in so doing, I never was criticized for doing it because I wasn’t advertising that I’m putting in this black person or this woman — because they were qualified.
On whether he’s troubled that his legacy doesn’t include more than one other elected black governor (the other being Deval Patrick in Massachusetts: Oh it troubles me, so much so that I’ve said being number one means nothing if there’s not a number two.
On whether there’s a next Doug Wilder, Deval Patrick or Barack Obama out there: Oh yeah, there are some bright guys out there … the only thing they need is for some light to shine on them. Like Marco Rubio is a perfect example: came from nowhere literally … legislatively … but look, he’s on the national scene now, or Bobby Jindal of Louisiana…
On why he seems to be such a fan of Rubio’s: No, I’m not a fan of his, let’s be clear. But I’m a realist. And I’m saying, when you take a sharp young guy like that around, his star will rise. It’s inescapable that it must rise, because he’ s not gonna stand still. And that’s the same type of adrenaline flow that’s necessary in the minority community. That young person. They’re out there. What we need to do is to not plow them under, and not tell them that the time is not right. Look, there wasn’t any groundswell for Doug Wilder to run for any office, ever. State senate, lieutenant governor or governor; each time I’ve ever sought to run for any of those offices I was told it’s not right. It’s not your time.
On the legendary “Bradley effect” when he ran for governor in 1988, that showed polls overestimated the percentage of white Virginians who would vote for him: I knew, my polls were showing [it]! I was never anywhere but in the plus or minus [two] arena. So it was a dead even race. It came out just like I thought it would – I never thought I would lose it, but 15, 16 points are you crazy? No way in the world!
On why that experience has made him skeptical of Obama’s rebound in the polls, including in Virginia: Oh yes, but it’s not a Bradley effect there. [It]’s because people haven’t focused on the election. Polls are snapshots. Look what’s happening on a regular basis now. When you see a poll today that tells you something, and you take that same question being asked just three days later, and it tells you something completely different. It’s like a shutter of a lens, the clicking of a camera. It’s not dependable. So consequently, I am convinced that the White House knows that it is going to be a tough fight, and they are preparing for that, and I commend them for that.