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Virginia's Wilder challenges US system to work. Black lieutenant governor's winning political style combines grit, patience

A tempest of criticism is raging around Virginia Lt. Gov. L.Douglas Wilder. But the grandson of a slave says adversity rolls off his back like water. Mr. Wilder made history in 1985 when the Old Dominion, the seat of the Confederacy, elected him the first black to serve in a state executive post since Reconstruction. It also made him the nation's highest-ranking black elected state official.

The outspoken Wilder was unlikely to play the conventional lieutenant governor's role - staying in the background and quietly working for the opportunity to run for governor or another higher office.

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Recently he was accused by southwestern Virginia political powerbroker Edgar Bacon of forgetting who helped him get elected.

Then, former Gov. Charles Robb wrote two stinging, public letters criticizing Wilder for jockeying for higher office at the expense of his Democratic comrades.

The issue dividing Wilder and his party colleagues was the imposition of a half-cent sales tax to help finance public transportation. The lieutenant governor maintains that the tax adversely affects the state's poor, who in many cases ``don't even use the roads.''

Wilder and the other Democratic leaders also disagree on prison reform and how to use increased state revenue anticipated from the effect of federal tax reform on the Virginia income tax.

The lieutenant governor insists his stands are not motivated by political ambition: ``We're going to have differences. I'm not posturing. I'm doing what I said I would do: be an honest voice for the people of Virginia.''

In a Monitor interview, Wilder said his honesty was the only wealth passed on from his forbears. His father's legacy of a ``name'' puzzled him as a child in a family of 10 that used newspaper to insulate holes in their shoes. ``My father was an insurance salesman who never made more than $50 a week, but he gave me a name that, nowhere, could ever be besmirched.''

Wilder says he was ``shocked'' at the Robb letters. ``I wouldn't even have them copied and distributed to my staff. Public office doesn't mean that much to me that I have to reduce myself to personal attacks. I don't call people names or impugn motives. I think more of me and more of the office. The people of Virginia expect more. A lot of times in politics, people say things that on reflection, well - they think again.''

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In politics, ``subduing passion is an art form,'' the lieutenant governor says. He cites ``patience'' as the key to his progress. But this attribute was learned, not inherited.

``My father's parents were slaves in Richmond. My grandfather was sold to a man who lived 20 miles from here. Grandfather had to walk on the weekends to see his three children. If he was late walking back, he was beaten.''

Wilder said the very thought of this injustice ``made me mad.'' He ``internalized'' the history of his grandparent's hardship and became bitter.

Joining the United States Army during the Korean war, Wilder was awarded a Bronze Star for actions in the conflict. After returning to civilian life, he contemplated how his fighting skills could be adapted to warfare against segregation.

Wilder notes wryly that his plans were to create ``unrest that was anything but civil.'' But, he says, the 1954 US Supreme Court decision against racial segregation in America's schools turned his life around.

``Nine white men said segregation was wrong. I said if this could happen, then there was hope. I decided to go to law school. I couldn't go to the University of Virginia - blacks couldn't go - so I went to Howard [University in Washington, D.C.]''

Wilder opened the first law office in his poor Richmond neighborhood of Church Hill. Popular opinion said the practice would never succeed, but the doubters were wrong. ``It was a very successful practice,'' Wilder recalls, ``and now many lawyers have established practices in that part of town.''

As a young attorney his philosophy moved from violence to ``agitation'' within the system. ``I reasoned to myself: Government was started here in Virginia and the first slaves came in 1619. We [blacks] had been here as long as anybody. Why couldn't I be the first state senator since Reconstruction?''

The more people told him he couldn't do it, says Wilder, the more ``I wanted to do it.''

In 1969 he ran for the state Senate and won, serving until assuming his current post.

The lieutenant governor says he never ran for office as a black. Passionately, he declares: ``Hunger isn't black, homelessness isn't black. I have always addressed myself to the issues.''

Wilder recalls that at one stop in the 1985 election campaign a burly, tobacco-chewing white man pulled the wary candidate aside. The man gave him $200 for his campaign and called over a group of friends to introduce the ``next lieutenant governor.''

``Times haven't changed in Virginia, people have changed, and they've changed all over the country,'' Wilder says.

Though he insists he did not enter politics for ``glamour,'' but rather to do ``service which is rent for my room here on Earth,'' Wilder admits to an appetite for higher office which doesn't ``rule out'' a bid for the US Senate or a presidential Cabinet post.

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