Thirty Years

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Demanding what is right, and criticizing what is wrong comes with a price, and we should always be willing to pay it. Being elected is an expression of trust given by the people; we should always show leadership with transparency, action, and gratitude.

Editorial: 30 Year Since Wilder’s Election – November 7, 2019 – The Roanoke Times

Thirty years ago today, Virginia voters did something no one in the country had ever done: They elected an African American governor.

At the time, it seemed as if Virginia had knocked down a big racial barrier in American politics.

After all, California had twice seen Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley run for governor. And twice he had lost. If California — hip, trendy, liberal California — either couldn’t or wouldn’t elect a black governor, could anyone? Yet here was Virginia — seemingly sleepy Virginia, home to the capital of the Confederacy — doing what not even California could do.

Three decades later, though, Doug Wilder’s election remains very much an outlier in American politics. Wilder’s election in 1989 opened the door to other African Americans running statewide in other states — sometimes for governor, sometimes for U.S. Senate. But few of them have won.

The Senate has proved easier than the statehouse — or even the White House (more on that to come). In the 1960s, Massachusetts elected Edward Brooke to the Senate. Since Wilder’s election, Illinois has elected two African American senators —Carol Moseley Braun and later Barack Obama. At present there are three African Americans in the U.S. Senate — Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California and Tim Scott of South Carolina.

On a percentage basis, that’s still not a lot when compared against the nation’s increasingly diverse demographics. Still, that’s five states that have elected black senators— yet only two have elected black governors, Virginia in 1989 and later Massachusetts in 2006 and 2010 with Deval Patrick.

Others have tried — two of the headline races last year involved Stacey Adams seeking the governorship of Georgia and Andrew Gillum the governorship of Florida. Both also lost.

Why have there been so few black governors? Framed another way, three decades on, what can we still learn from Wilder’s election? Before we answer those questions, let’s address a historical footnote that some of you might be wondering about: Wilder was the first African American elected governor, but he was not the first African American governor. The difference? During Reconstruction, Pinckney B.S. Pinchback served about a year as governor of Louisiana when the governor was impeached and suspended from office. In 2008, David Paterson became governor of New York when the incumbent resigned due to a scandal. We don’t mean to discount Pinchback and Paterson, but our focus here is on elections, and how to win them.

There’s one school of thought in the political science community that says it’s easier for a black candidate to be elected senator than governor —on the theory that some white voters are OK with an African American as one of 100 senators but not as chief executive. That may be true. We also may simply not have enough data points to draw firm conclusions. American voters obviously had no problem giving majorities to Obama — twice — for president. Does his election — and re-election— negate all other theories? Or was Obama simply an exceptional candidate? Again, we likely don’t have enough evidence to draw a properly scientific conclusion.

What we can say with more certainty is this: One reason Adams and Gillum lost their races last year is that they were running in Republican-leaning states where it’s hard even for white Democrats to win. Both also ran very much to the left — which is something Wilder definitely didn’t do. Nor did Patrick. And neither did Obama, really. Yes, yes, conservatives certainly don’t think of Obama as a centrist, but he was a lot closer to the political center than, say, Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders are today. Therein lies one of the keys to how Wilder won in 1989: He tried to run close to the center. If there are lessons there, they are ones that many Democrats today — be they black or white — would like to wish away.

Wilder also ran on a platform of continuity, not change. Virginia had two popular Democratic governors in a row — Charles Robb and Gerald Baliles. Wilder ran as their natural successor. Whether he really was or not is a different matter, but the political argument at the time was one of “keep a good thing going.” No other African American candidate seeking an executive post has ever been in such a position.

History is full of ironies: You’d think that Wilder today would be regarded as a heroic figure in Democratic circles. He is not. Wilder, as governor, often delighted Republicans more than Democrats. His term was marked by a national economic downturn. Virginia was one of just two states that made it through those times without raising taxes.

Wilder seemed to enjoy cutting budgets. He also seemed to enjoy picking fights with political allies. When he left office, The Washington Post assessed his governorship this way: “Politics and personal battles consumed much of his time. He consistently failed to organize his administration around clear themes, instead lurching from one controversy to the next. One day would bring a furor over his attack on doctors and hospitals; the next, an uproar over his secret plan to build a Washington Redskins stadium in Alexandria. Wilder the statesman — a leader capable of courage and charm — was forever at war with Wilder the schemer — a political operator who treasured his resentments, flouted propriety, used his office to settle scores and left people who counted themselves friends feeling used and embittered.” (That description seems oddly familiar, doesn’t it?) Democrats today keep their distance from Wilder, except when it’s convenient for them.

There’s a difference, though, between electioneering and governance and the fact remains that, whatever history thinks of his governorship, Wilder’s election was an historic achievement. Wilder managed to win in a state that was much more conservative then than it is now. He also won in places that boggle the mind today. He took 62% of the vote in Dickenson County, 59% in Buchanan and Wise counties; today, Democrats can barely top 20% in some coalfield counties. The times have changed: Wilder couldn’t replicate those numbers today. Still, as the scrappy underdog who clearly wasn’t the favorite of the state’s political establishment, an establishment that had to embrace him anyway out of political necessity, he spoke to certain voters in a way that Democrats today have often forgotten how to. That’s a lesson from Wilder’s election they may still want to learn.

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