Honoring the legacy of L. Douglas Wilder

Hundreds, including state and national leaders and former governors, turn out for symposium, gala 25 years after his historic election

Share this story

During the opening session of a daylong symposium to reflect on the legacy of L. Douglas Wilder, former reporters who covered his historic run to become the nation’s first popularly elected African-American governor and his years in office described him as “wild and wily,” “a walking news machine” and someone with “extreme self-confidence” who delighted in the theater of politics.

And as Wilder looked on, audience members knew they were in for a memorable day, which also included speakers who were a part of Wilder’s 1990-94 administration and two of the Republican governors who succeeded him in office.

The symposium was organized by Wilder’s namesake L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs to reflect on his historic election and the continuing impact of decisions made during his term in office.

“His name on our school is a reminder of the work we do and the communities we reach,” said Niraj Verma, Ph.D., dean of the Wilder School. “Governor Wilder is both a legend and a leader, but, most of all for our school, he is a highly respected friend and distinguished faculty colleague.”

In his opening remarks, VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., said Wilder’s election made history but also has profound meaning for the future.

“It is about what all of our people can achieve in the face of any obstacle, how they can contribute and make a difference that matters, how they can do what no one else has ever done and how they can inspire others. Governor, you are a stunning role model for all of us, particularly our students.”

Political analyst Bob Holsworth, Ph.D., who is a member of the VCU Board of Visitors and former dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, said Virginia in the middle of the 20th century was in a period of transition as the South confronted race and segregation. Wilder, who became the first African-American state senator since Reconstruction when he was elected in 1969 to represent Richmond, helped to shape the change.

“Think about Virginia 50-60 years ago. It was uncertain where Virginia was going to go, particularly regarding race,” Holsworth said. “And fortunately, because of Governor Wilder and others, Virginia moved in a good direction, entering the modern world.”

The first panel, “The Wilder Election: How it Happened, What it Meant,” was moderated by former WDBJ–TV political reporter Ellen Qualls and included former WWBT-TV political reporter Jim Babb, former Virginian-Pilot reporter and editorial writer Margaret Edds, former Richmond Times-Dispatch political reporter Michael Hardy and Wilder’s longtime adviser Paul Goldman.

Babb and Hardy agreed that Wilder’s enduring legacy was the ability to manage the budget deficit he inherited without raising taxes and through minimal layoffs.

“Some proposed raising taxes as a solution,” Hardy said. “But he said ‘No, I’m not going to raise taxes. I’m a fiscal conservative.’ And that became the story over the next four years.”  

“The Wilder Administration: Challenges and Accomplishments” panel was moderated by Glenn Davidson, Wilder’s former press secretary and later chief of staff. The session featured James W. Dyke Jr., former secretary of education; May Fox, former deputy secretary of health and human resources; Walter “Mac” McFarlane, former policy director and chief attorney to the governor, and Goldman. The administration members agreed that fiscal responsibility defined Wilder.

“His shining star was that, as a Democrat, he could handle this shortfall without raising taxes,” Fox said.

“We had gotten rid of programs that should have been eliminated years before but money had been flowing like water then. And it was during that same time that we created the ‘rainy day’ fund,” Dyke added.

Other accomplishments of the Wilder Administration included successfully challenging Virginia Military Institute to admit women, tackling school disparity and guiding the passage of legislation limiting gun purchases in Virginia to one per month, which has since been repealed.

McFarlane said Wilder was not comfortable being asked to grant clemency for death row inmates, wanting to make sure every stone was turned in death penalty cases. There was a misconception that governors ordered executions, which were actually ordered by judges.  

“And it was Governor Wilder who used the phrase ‘We will not intervene’ for the first time,” McFarlane said. “Governors here and elsewhere continue to use that today.”  

The former administration leaders said they learned from the governor about leadership and tenacity.

“He has a saying ‘If the thing is right, the time is always right,’” Goldman said. “It has been a guiding principle.”

The two Republican governors who succeeded Wilder, George F. Allen and James S. Gilmore III, participated in the afternoon’s final panel “Virginia Leaders: The Meaning of Wilder’s Election – Then and Now.”  

“I admire Doug Wilder because he believes in himself,” Allen said. “He showed us with his wit, guile and belief that you can win.”

The symposium was followed by an evening gala at the Richmond Marriott, which attracted 470 people.  

Wilder, who seemed to be overwhelmed by the day’s experiences, said it was crucial to remember that the governor belongs to the people – all of the people. And the honor of electing the nation’s first African-American governor rests with them.

“I always considered it a tribute to the people of Virginia, not an honor of mine,” Wilder said. “When I became lieutenant governor, I concluded my acceptance speech by saying that I am proud to be a Virginian. I meant that then and I mean that now.”


Feature image above: Sen. Mark Warner, former Gov. James S. Gilmore III, former Gov. George F. Allen, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, former Gov. Chuck S. Robb, Gov. Terry R. McAuliffe and Sen Tim Kaine pause for a photo before the gala began.


Subscribe for free to the weekly VCU News email newsletter at http://newsletter.news.vcu.edu/ and receive a selection of stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings in your inbox every Thursday. VCU students, faculty and staff automatically receive the newsletter.