December 09, 1985 12:00 PM

It’s an affectionate variation on an old joke: “How many Virginians does it take to change a light bulb? Four. One to do the job, and three to talk about how much better the old light bulb was.” Virginia, proud to call itself the Old Dominion, has long been derided as hopelessly hooked on nostalgic memories of its plantation past. But last month the state’s voters shattered that myth by electing black State Sen. Lawrence Douglas Wilder as lieutenant governor. In the same election Wilder’s fellow Democrat, Mary Sue Terry, a 38-year-old state delegate, was elected Virginia’s first female attorney general. But it was Wilder’s victory—in a state in which schools closed down rather than desegregate in the late ’50s—that stunned political observers.

Wilder’s color had been widely considered an insurmountable barrier to his election. “The Republicans thought the people of Virginia were racists and sexists,” notes Washington, D.C. campaign consultant Robert Squier, who worked for Terry. “They catastrophically underestimated Virginia voters.”

At the outset Wilder was clearly the underdog. No major party in Virginia had ever nominated a black for statewide office. “People didn’t think we had a prayer,” Wilder, 54, acknowledges. Eleven white Democratic leaders pleaded with him not to run lest he sink the party ticket, and Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb only swung behind him toward the end of the campaign. “The public was ahead of the pundits,” Wilder says. “The people of Virginia were more concerned with who I was than with what I looked like.”

His Republican opponent, John H. Chichester, a state senator from Stafford County, did not make race an issue. Chichester attacked Wilder by reminding voters that, as an attorney, Wilder had been reprimanded by the State Supreme Court for delay in representing a client in a traffic case, and that he had more than once been late in paying his property tax. “Many people said if Chichester were simply alive on Nov. 5, he’d be elected,” recalls University of Virginia government Professor Larry Sabato, who was among those predicting Wilder could not win.

Wilder ran a tight campaign, employing only two full-time staffers. Almost $500,000 of his $725,000 war chest was spent on hard-hitting TV ads, including one in which a beefy white policeman from a small Virginia town delivered the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police, a law enforcement association. Wilder is known for his tough law-and-order stands.

Ultimately, Wilder grabbed the electorate’s attention by embarking on a 3,719-mile auto tour of the state, hand-pumping his way through 338 cities and towns and all 95 of Virginia’s counties. He took 46 percent of the white vote and squeaked out a 51.8 percent victory.

It wasn’t Wilder’s first groundbreaking electoral triumph. In 1969 he was elected Virginia’s first black state senator since Reconstruction, representing a largely black Richmond district. But roadblocks remained in his political life. In 1970, for example, he was the only senator not invited to the big bash for state legislators at Richmond’s tony Commonwealth Club (where Wilder had once worked as a busboy).

Three years ago, angered by what he considered racial insensitivity on the part of some state Democrats, Wilder threatened to bolt the party. What was to have been a conciliatory lunch with Virginia House Democratic Caucus Chairman Alson Smith turned ugly when Wilder pressed Smith to take him to the grillroom of the Commonwealth Club, whose membership is still all white. “Life is too short for me to be embarrassed by taking you into the Commonwealth Club,” Smith explained. Wilder’s “eyes got watery,” recalls his friend, State Senate Clerk J.T. Shropshire, who was there. Wilder told reporters at the time that he felt “as low as you can get,” but he minimizes the racist rebuff today. “People recognize that what was, was,” he says. “The past is past.”

Wilder’s willingness to forgive, if not to forget, may be one reason for his political rise. “Part of the secret of his success is that he doesn’t try to guilt-trip whites into voting for him as reparation for past injustices,” observes Professor Sabato.

Indeed, Wilder ran as a mainstream candidate and at one point declined the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s offer to campaign for him. “Jesse Jackson ran to strike the conscience of this country,” he explains. “I ran to be elected.”

The ninth of 10 children, Wilder grew up in poverty in Richmond. “There’s the expression, ‘We were poor but we didn’t know it,’ ” he says. “We knew it. We stuffed our shoes with newspaper.” His father, a salesman for a black insurance company, was the son of freed slaves.

Segregation was something that Wilder “never could understand,” he says, but he understood only too well what it meant to live with it. Barred from the University of Virginia because of his color, he worked his way through all-black Virginia Union University waiting tables at Richmond hotels. When he graduated in 1951 with a degree in chemistry and applied for a job with the state health department, he was offered a position as a cook. Wilder joined the Army instead and won a Bronze Star at Pork Chop Hill in Korea.

Returning to Richmond in 1954 he worked at the state medical examiner’s office as a toxicologist, then took advantage of a state stipend to attend Howard University Law School in Washington. The practice he opened in 1960 made him a wealthy man, with a 15-room Georgian home in a well-to-do section of Richmond, and set him up for his 1969 state senate run.

He arrived in the senate with a bushy Afro and, some thought, a chip on his shoulder. He immediately caused a flap by proposing (unsuccessfully) that the state song, Carry Me Back to Old Virginia, be replaced with something that didn’t refer to “a darky’s heart” or to the boundless joy of toiling for “old massa.”

Today Wilder is more subdued. “The biggest thing I had to learn was how to work with people. I also had to learn to keep my mouth shut and listen.” He laughs. “I don’t know if I ever really learned that.”

In January he’ll be presiding over the state senate as lieutenant governor, a part-time post with a $28,000 salary. Then, Wilder says, he’ll be in a position to “be a voice for all Virginians.” Says Senate Clerk Shropshire: “Wilder’s grandparents were slaves. My great-grandparents owned slaves. I work for Wilder. Boy, do things change.”

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