Lawrence Douglas Wilder is accustomed to being first.
In 1969, he became Virginia’s first black state senator; in 1985, the state’s first black lieutenant governor. Four years later, Wilder was voted in as the nation’s first elective black governor. And in 2004, he became the first popularly elected mayor of Richmond, his hometown, in more than a half-century.
Wilder has always said he is not a black politician; rather, he is a politician who happens to be black.
Unlike many African-American leaders of his generation, Wilder shunned community activism. Others took to the streets, protest sign in hand. A poised trial lawyer with an appetite for prosperity, Wilder preferred the corridors of the state Capitol, where he practiced politics as three-dimensional chess - always keeping score and, when necessary, taking his revenge.
Wilder, the grandson of a slave, was one of eight children of an insurance salesman and homemaker. They raised their sprawling family in a tidy house on Richmond’s Church Hill. Years later, Wilder remembered it as “genteel poverty.”
The Wilder home was a short distance - but a world away - from the Jefferson-designed statehouse and fortresslike City Hall where conservative white males lorded over Virginia and municipal affairs with little or no regard for African-Americans, many of whom didn’t vote because they couldn’t afford the compulsory poll tax.
Wilder broke into politics, standing for the Richmond state Senate seat of J. Sargeant Reynolds, the charismatic aluminum heir who would win the lieutenant governorship in 1969. Wilder served 16 years in the chamber, heading major committees, moving into the Democratic leadership and being ranked by a major Virginia newspaper as one of the five most powerful senators in the state.
In 1982, he threatened an independent candidacy for an open U.S. Senate seat – a move that would guarantee a Democratic defeat by bleeding off critical African-American votes. Wilder’s objective was to force Democrats to dump their consensus candidate, whom he publicly attacked as too conservative, for someone more moderate.
Wilder got his way, cementing his reputation as a skilled politician. And even though Republicans won the seat, Wilder emerged as that season’s biggest winner.
In 1985, he was a candidate for lieutenant governor, running on a ticket that included a white male and white female. Jitters about its novelty notwithstanding, the ticket appealed to a range of voters as reflective of a new Virginia - one shaking its discriminatory past.
Four years later, he won the governorship. His term was marred by a steep recession, forcing him to cut spending to balance the budget. Wilder resisted raising taxes, affirming his credentials as a fiscal hawk. And in response to rising street violence, Wilder won a first-in-the-nation law restricting handgun purchases to one a month. Largely opposed by Republicans, it was repealed two decades later.
Wilder left office deeply unpopular, largely because of his brief bid for the presidency, which left many Virginians believing he put personal ambition ahead of his public responsibility.
Wilder briefly sought a U.S. Senate seat in 1994 as an independent, largely out of spite for longtime rival Charles S. Robb, the governor-turned-senator. Wilder gained little traction and withdrew, endorsing Robb for re-election.
A decade later, having pushed for a charter change to restore direct election of Richmond's mayor, Wilder - then teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University - successfully ran for the post. His single term in City Hall was contentious, with Wilder battling City Council and the School Board.
IN HIS WORDS
From 2015 profiles in The Times-Dispatch
** Of the Church Hill community of his childhood: “People who didn’t have an education would encourage those of us who were in school to stay in school. They’d say, ‘Don’t make the mistake we made. Don’t stop where we stopped. And don’t ever give up believing you can achieve.’ ”
** Of his mother, Beulah: "She would say this to me, she’d say, ‘Once you have determined what you think is right, once you think where you’re heading is the proper direction, don’t let anyone dissuade you or turn you back. Not even me.’ Whew, now when a boy’s mother tells him that!”
** Of race: “I’ve never believed people are inherently racial. I really don’t see people as white or black or colored, and I don’t see myself that way.”
LAWRENCE DOUGLAS WILDER
Position: lawyer and lecturer; former governor and mayor
Born/hometown: Jan. 17, 1931; Richmond
College: Virginia Union University (bachelor's degree), Howard University (law degree)
Family: two daughters, one son