Doug Wilder on the eve of his election in 1989 Photo courtesy Valentine Richmond History Center
At first, it seemed ludicrous.
Forty-five minutes into a phone conversation, a source peddles some juicy gossip. There’s a chance of someone crashing the upcoming mayoral race, the source says. Someone unexpected.
L. Douglas Wilder.
Wilder, the nation’s first African-American governor, is a larger-than-life figure in city politics with a well-worn reputation for indulging in political theater. (See: School Board, eviction). Though long removed from office, he’ll occasionally flex his muscles, as he did last year in a Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial that contained preemptive jabs at presumed mayoral candidate Levar Stoney.
“Think about it,” the source says. “From his eyes, he sees a weak field. No big name. No star power.” In other words, a clear path to a second term as the city’s popularly elected mayor.
We end the call. I ping a second source: Just heard this. Crazy, right?
“Heard the same … I’d be shocked,” the source writes back, later shooting me an email to add: "I'd say it’s fanciful, political parlor speculation, but with [Wilder], you just never know.”
Days later, a third source said he’d heard the rumor and made an inquiry to Wilder directly, only to be brushed off.
It’s not unlikely that three people could have heard the rumor from a single person or even each other. But the possibility of a Wilder run, however far-fetched, was too intriguing to ignore.
I made a request to his office: Is there any truth to this?
As fate would have it, Wilder was scheduled to speak at Virginia Union University this past Tuesday and sign copies of his new memoir, “Son of Virginia.” The mid-day event drew a crowd of at least 150 students, faculty and community members.
Wilder, 85, delivered remarks lasting more than 30 minutes, during which his magnetism was on full display. He cracked jokes about his high school classmates in attendance. He reminisced about his early years in the General Assembly, when his colleagues sang the then-state song, which had racially insensitive lyrics, and he mounted an opposition to it. He implored those in attendance to pursue their dreams – as he had – no matter what other people said they could or could not do.
During a question-and-answer session, a young woman asks what his future endeavors will be.
“I’d like to live to see 86,” he says with a chuckle, before launching into a monologue about his highly publicized and, thus far, failed mission to fund the construction of a national slavery museum.
Later, more than 30 people stand in line, some for as long as 45 minutes, to have Wilder sign their copies of his book. Some pose for pictures. One man, an artist, asks him to sign his painting of famous African-American leaders. Wilder's image is among them.
The line dwindles and I move in. At the table, I introduce myself. “I had reached out last week; I’ve heard from a couple of people –”
He cuts me off. “Let me sign these books, though.”
I hover. He convenes with his assistant, and they approach me together.
“I haven’t made any comments about [the mayoral election] as you know, as of yet, and I will, but I think we said we were going to do it next week, didn’t we?” Wilder says, turning to the assistant.
“Yes, I didn’t know you wanted to hold off,” she says to him. To me: “Right now, no comment on it.”
“It’s not a matter of no comment,” he revises. “Comment on what?”
I ask: What do you think it says about the field that your name is being circulated as a potential candidate?
“Because I can hardly walk?” Wilder laughs, then turns and walks away.
Over his shoulder, he adds, “I’ll speak next week.”