Va. Gov. Wilder says he won't run for Senate

January 13, 1994|By Newport News Daily Press

RICHMOND, Va. -- Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, bringing his historic term to a close with a characteristic bang, has announced that he will leave politics and not run for the seat of U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb.

Mr. Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor, has long hinted that he would take on his fellow Democrat and political arch-rival in a primary election this June.

As recently as Monday, the governor was denying rumors that he would back away from challenging Mr. Robb, whom he has called "unfit for public office."

Mr. Wilder offered no words of support for Mr. Robb in his speech, nor did he say why or when he decided to back away from the primary. Declining to take questions after the speech, Mr. Wilder promised more details at a news conference today.

But in his speech last night before a joint session of the General Assembly and a statewide television audience, Mr. Wilder said he has decided that he needs to explore unspecified "new directions" in his life after a quarter-century in public office.

Mr. Wilder's unexpected announcement was reminiscent of his decision two years ago to use his State of the Commonwealth address to announce that he was dropping out of the race for president.

Mr. Wilder's withdrawal comes as a major break for Mr. Robb, who Democrats say now is virtually assured of his party's nomination. Many had feared that a Wilder-Robb showdown would have divided the party and handed Mr. Robb's seat to Iran-contra figure Oliver L. North, who is considered the favorite for the Republican nomination.

"There may still be a primary, but I believe most Democrats will line up tonight behind Senator Robb," said Democratic Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr.

Mr. Robb, through a campaign spokeswoman, said: "Governor Wilder made a very personal decision and one which I believe will promote Democratic Party unity and a renewed sense of purpose for Virginia Democrats.

In his speech, Mr. Wilder said he felt confident that he would have won had he challenged Mr. Robb.

Mr. Wilder, who ran a short-lived campaign for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination, indicated that he would not abandon the public arena and might seek elected office again in the future.

"I have not retired from seeking the answers to the problems that confront us," he said.

Mr. Wilder's announcement elated many Democratic legislators, who were dreading the prospect of a nasty primary campaign.

But black lawmakers treated the news with a mixture of relief and disappointment. Much of the black community may be disheartened that Mr. Wilder will not be on the ballot this year, said Del. William P. Robinson Jr., chairman of the General Assembly's all-Democrat black caucus. "But in the context of his remarks tonight, African-Americans will understand it."

Mr. Wilder thanked the black community -- those "long taken for granted by some and distanced by others" -- whom he called "the wind beneath my wings."

"I have been guided by destiny," Mr. Wilder said. "And that destiny has been the hand of God."

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