Monday, December 27, 2010

25 Years: Reflection no. 2 on my quarter century as a columnist

The following Q and A with the nation's first black elected governor ran in USA TODAY on January 11, 1990.

L. Douglas Wilder, 58, is governor-elect of Virginia. On Saturday, Wilder will take the oath of office to become the first black elected governor in the nation's history. Wilder, a Democrat, has held elected office in Virginia for 20 years, the last four as lieutenant governor. Wilder was interviewed by DeWayne Wickham, USA TODAY and Gannett News Service columnist.

USA TODAY: Is your election as the first black governor a sign that race is playing less of a role in politics?
WILDER: I think to put it in that context is a disservice to the seriousness of racism. Working to thwart, to defeat and to eliminate racism has been something fair-minded people have always tried to do. So it's never dead, it's never killed. It's a question of constantly working to overcome. I think my election is another instance of overcoming.

USA TODAY: There are many who point to you as the political opposite of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Does that make you uncomfortable?
WILDER: No, it doesn't make me uncomfortable, but it's not a factual appraisal. I have been in elected office for 20 years. I have chosen to hold elected office. I have chosen to effectuate compromises. I have tried to work to build coalitions to get things done. For the most part, Jesse, prior to 1984, has been an activist. There's plenty of room for the two kinds of thoughts, the two kinds of actions, to exist. I regard him as a friend.

USA TODAY: Your name is on the short list of blacks being mentioned as possible vice-presidential candidates in 1992. Do you discourage such speculation?
WILDER: Well, you've seen short lists develop before. It's always a speculation that people like to engage in. I don't discourage it or become upset by it. But I can tell you, I've got more to say prayers and grace over with reference to the issues confronting Virginia today and the leadership that's required to continue our momentum and to make sure that progress and prosperity aren't thwarted.

USA TODAY: Are there lessons to be learned by the national Democratic Party from your election?
WILDER: Oh, I think so. I think national Democrats have got to be more concerned with the perceptions. And the per-ception is that Democrats are soft on crime and weak on defense and will tax at the drop of a hat, and will spend quicker than that. I think Democrats will have to make that mainstream appeal. In the process of doing that, you might run the risk of losing some voters. You might have to lose an election in order to win one.

USA TODAY: Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who intends to run for governor of Georgia, points to your elec-tion as a model for his campaign. Is there a Virginia model?
WILDER: I don't know that there's a Virginia model. I've discussed with Andy a couple of times the race he's involved with, and I think you'll see him going out into rural areas. As I've said to him, Atlanta isn't Georgia. He must, of neces-sity, make an appeal to voters of every description and not be seen as the black candidate.

USA TODAY: Can black candidates successfully appeal to white voters without abandoning those issues most im-portant to their black constituents?
WILDER: Oh yes, without question. You can't be a black candidate and put limitations on yourself. Blacks have an obligation to be the best we can in what fields we choose. And, in that regard, we would become more sensitized to is-sues affecting African-Americans and should reflect that. This doesn't mean, however, that our thoughts are so colored that we would be other than objective.

USA TODAY: Was there ever a time during your campaign when you thought you might not win?
WILDER: Never. Absolutely never. From the time I announced, I never had any question as to whether I would win. I never thought it would be easy, I never thought it would be a cakewalk. But I never had any doubt.

USA TODAY: After your narrow victory in November, there were some who complained that you were slow to make appointments. Were you distracted at all by the recount?
WILDER: Not at all. What I was doing was getting the best possible people I could to serve.

USA TODAY: You come into office at a time when there are demands in Virginia for road construction and higher teacher salaries, but voters also expect you to hold the line on taxes. How will you juggle that?
WILDER: By making certain that we spend what we need to spend, and only that. I believe in fiscal responsibility. We're not in a crisis, we're in a crunch, and I intend for it to be a temporary, short-lived crunch.

USA TODAY: What will be your major priorities?
WILDER: I've dedicated my administration to youth and family. We've lost some family values, we've lost opportuni-ties for seeing young people develop. I will be attacking drugs. I want help in terms of education, reaching out to young people at risk. I want more opportunities for affordable housing, which will strengthen family ties. And I intend to broaden our economic expansion.

USA TODAY: What do you want historians to say about you?
WILDER: That I was governor at a time when I could make a difference, and I did.

USA TODAY: And what do you want historians to say about the people of Virginia who elected you to office?
WILDER: I think that to the extent that the reputation of a state precedes it by so many generations, the people of Virginia have been maligned. It's so fittingly ironic that the same state to which a Dutch frigate came with some 20 black slaves, could, 380 years later, elect a descendant of one of those slaves to be in a position of leading the state. A state that preached nullification and interposition, a state that seceded from the union, the capital of the Confederacy, known then as the mother of presidents, might very well be known as that again.
To see Reflection no. 1, visit my Facebook page.

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