Wilder laughs but positions himself for run


Richmond, Va.--Gov. L. Douglas Wilder tosses his head back and lets out a hearty laugh that spans several octaves.

He is tickled by the far-fetched notion that he would be the first to know when the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson hatches his 1992 political plans.

"No," he says, still chuckling. "No, I don't think so."

Mr. Wilder, after all, is rapidly eclipsing Mr. Jackson as the nation's leading black politician, and there is a tacit rivalry between them. Democratic politicians are increasingly convinced that if a black candidate is on their national ticket next time, it will be Mr. Wilder, not Mr. Jackson.

A vice-presidential possibility is how most would classify the 59-year-old Virginia governor. But as he lounges comfortably in his high-backed leather office chair, talking politics, it's evident that second place is not what he has in mind.

"Why should the field be cleared for anyone? Let's just have a healthy debate on the issues," he says of the nomination contest. Democrats "don't want to see an anointment process."

Gov. Mario M. Cuomo is the anointee most party leaders have in mind. Without mentioning his name, Mr. Wilder compares the gush of prose about the New Yorker's national prospects to "the media hype for a Heisman Trophy winner that starts way before the guy even puts on his helmet for the first game."

Then he laughs again. After all, things don't always pan out for preseason favorites.

His unrestrained delight in the game of politics seems out of place, somehow, in this elegantly furnished office in the Statehouse that Thomas Jefferson designed. But had he not been a shrewd and venturesome politician, he would never have written his name into American history last year as the nation's first elected black governor.

Since taking office in January, he's enjoyed the best of two worlds, politically speaking.

As a governor, he's been free to criticize the federal government from the outside. "Our two-party system," he declares, "is becoming a competition between the party inside Washington and that new party, the vast majority of Americans who live outside who see the need to unite to protect their interest."

At the same time, state-of-the-art police helicopters can speed him from Richmond to Washington in half an hour, providing instant access to the capital's media horde.

The level of news media attention has increased of late, after he became the first Democrat to authorize formation of a political action committee that could be the forerunner of a 1992 presidential campaign organization. But it is what Mr. Wilder is saying that has really raised eyebrows.

Things like: "Government doesn't have to tax and tax to meet its responsibilities." Or: "One of the most progressive actions a chief executive can undertake is to root out and to prevent wasteful and unnecessary spending." And, finally, "The size of government must and will decrease."

He dodges the label conservative, preferring "fiscally responsible", but there is no Democratic official in a comparable position today who has taken a tougher line against higher taxes. Confronted by a $1.4 billion state budget shortfall, he has slashed spending, laid off state workers and kept his no-new-taxes pledge.

He wants to cut taxes, if possible, he says, and streamline the regulatory process. He has proposed eliminating all state aid to private arts organizations. He regards economic development, not government, as "the greatest social equalizer."

Once a vigorous opponent of capital punishment, he could sign more death warrants for murderers than any governor in Virginia history by the time his term ends. He strongly supports anti-union "right to work laws," which forbid labor organizations from making union membership a condition of getting a job.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Wilder, who a few years back criticized some fellow Democrats as "me-tooists who put on Reagan masks," is being called a Reaganite himself. One Cuomo aide referred to him obliquely as a "read-my-lips Democrat."

But the Virginian differs as much from conservative Republicans as he does from liberal Democrats. His tax cuts, for example, aren't targeted at the wealthy; he has removed the sales tax on non-prescription drugs, a progressive tax break.

He strongly supports abortion rights, a key to his election as governor. He is careful, though, to couch his position in &r; conservative terms, as a defense of individual freedom from government interference -- the same language he uses in opposing gun control.

Call him a conservative populist, perhaps, but don't call him a candidate. Not yet. Though he made three dozen out-of-state trips in his first six months in office, though he's been to the key early states of Iowa and New Hampshire (and has plans to return), he insists he's not running for anything -- then guffaws when his disclaimers aren't believed. When he recently came out in favor of admitting women to all-male Virginia Military Institute, it was incontrovertible proof to most Virginians of his national ambitions.

He already has a campaign slogan: The New Mainstream (which he contrasts to the Bush adminstration's "new extremism"). He's developing pithy catch phrases, just right for the sound bite age ("We must put necessities before niceties, priorities before pork"). And he's about to begin fund-raising for his new national PAC, The Committee for Fiscal Responsibility in 1992.

He's begun speaking out on foreign policy, calling for a negotiated settlement of the Persian Gulf crisis. He would not object to a deal that gave Iraq an outlet on the Gulf. "You've got to allow them an opportunity at all costs to save some degree of face," he said in an interview last week.

And he recently launched a pre-emptive strike on Republican plans to use affirmative action as a political weapon in 1992. Attacking President Bush's veto of the 1990 Civil Rights Act, he wrote: "When you attended Yale University, when you applied for your first job, you encountered no racial quotas. But I did.".

He's taking potshots at other Democrats, like national Chairman Ronald H. Brown ("With whom did you speak before you put the Democratic Party on record in favor of a back-room tax deal which puts the biggest burden on the middle class and those with moderate means?" the governor demanded in an October letter).

He's also going out of his way to answer those who claim that race disqualifies him from serious consideration as a national candidate. He raised the issue recently by quoting Claiborne Darden, a white Atlanta pollster who has said Mr. Wilder can't win because he is black. Calling that suggestion "abhorrent," Mr. Wilder recalled that he frequently heard the same thing during his campaign for governor.

A related, and potentially more serious, political problem, in view of his efforts to woo moderate-to-conservative Democrats, is the divorced governor's purported socializing with a wealthy white woman, Patricia Kluge. Mr. Wilder says that he and Mrs. Kluge, estranged wife of John W. Kluge, called by Forbes magazine the richest man in America, are "just friends;" they are reported to have spent weekends together last summer in Nantucket, Mass. and Charlottesville, Va.

These days, however, the governor is doing nothing more controversial than reaching out to groups more accustomed to hearing from Republican presidential hopefuls than Democrats. He addressed a forum last month sponsored by the conservative National Review and a breakfast meeting last week of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Introducing him to the breakfast crowd, a Chamber official remarked that state governors have seldom addressed the group. The last to do so was Ronald Reagan. The comparison drew considerable laughter from the audience, and a face-splitting grin from Mr. Wilder.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad