What sends Doug Wilder

Wiley Hall

November 26, 1991|By Wiley Hall

"By what sends the white kids I ain't sent: I know I can't be President." -- from "Montage of a Dream Deferred" by Langston Hughes (1951).

In the brief decade or two of my adulthood, blacks have made three great tries for the U.S. presidency and they've lost each time.

First, there was Brooklyn, N.Y., congresswoman Shirley Chisholm's campaign during the Democratic primary in 1972. Then, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson tried twice -- in the Democratic primaries of 1984 and 1988.

Of course, there have been other black presidential wannabes as well, although their campaigns existed so far outside the mainstream that their candidacies were all but invisible.

I don't know what motivated any of these people.

I presume they were brought up like me -- brought up from childhood on the bitter "truth" that a black could never be president.

I just know that whatever sent them had to have been different from that which sent their white counterparts, who were nurtured by the belief that any person could grow up to be president, regardless of creed or heritage or economic station.

Now, Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder has decided to run and he says the Maryland primary March 3 will be his first big test.

Of course, he may be crazy.

He may be governor of the Old Dominion, but he is still black and racial tolerance under President Bush seems to have deteriorated since Jesse's run in 1988.

But Wilder seems to be motivated by the same reasons as his opponents: He thinks he is the best man for the job, and he thinks he can win.

"The last several Democratic candidates for president have run against their natural constituency -- blacks, progressive whites, women and the working, middle class," said Wilder during a luncheon interview in his Executive Mansion last week.

"They seem to have bought into the Republican notion that you have to appeal to upper-middle-class whites to win. Well, you can't do that, you can't build a party by weeding people out. My view is that the Democratic Party is big enough, broad enough and diverse enough to make an appeal to all."

Still, he acknowledged that he can't escape the racial factor.

Wilder described the February primaries in New Hampshire and Iowa as "unknown territory," where he will face predominantly white voters who don't know him. He said he will have to raise money and get his message out in a relatively short time in an atmosphere of mounting racial tension nationwide.

Maryland's primary, he said, will be the first state where he will have "all of the pieces of the puzzle."

The state has large, well-educated and politically active concentrations of blacks in metropolitan Washington and Baltimore.

Maryland is a traditionally Democratic state with a strong community of progressive whites, and a middle class that has been hard hit by the recession.

Wilder plans to make his first campaign stop here within the next couple of weeks -- probably at a major black church in Prince George's County.

He plans to bring with him his "unifying message" as a man who would be both "progressive and practical."

"Compassion is an important component of government. Governments have a responsibility to take care of those least able to take care of themselves -- those in the twilight of life and those at the dawn of life. The halt and the lame.

"But," Wilder continued, "you can't do that on the backs of the middle class. I call myself fiscally responsible. My message to the middle class is, 'I want to spend your money like I spend my own.' "

Several of the other Democratic candidates can be expected to express similar views because Bush has proven himself vulnerable on domestic issues.

But as the nation's highest-ranking black elected official, Wilder is trying to position himself as the great black hope of 1992.

As a governor who says he erased a $2.2 billion budget deficit since coming into office without raising taxes or laying off workers, Wilder also is trying to position himself as the great middle class hope of 1992.

That is a unique unifying message -- one Wilder hopes will win here.

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