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From Wilder to Obama, a Changing Virginia

By Peter Baker
He ran a post-racial campaign in his own right, stressing his record rather than his skin color and touting his ability to work across the old lines. But the similarities between L. Douglas Wilder and Barack Obama more or less end there. In the nearly two decades since Wilder's historic victory as the nation's first elected black governor, Virginia has changed, and so has the African American candidate presenting himself to her electorate in today's Democratic presidential primary.

The path from Wilder's trailblazing election in 1989 to Obama's candidacy today has been a long and dramatic one. Wilder was the grandson of slaves running for the highest office in the capital of the Confederacy, a survivor of segregation who had to leave the state to get a law degree. Like Obama, he chose not to emphasize race as he climbed the political ladder and won his campaign for governor in large part on his support for abortion rights in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services permitting restrictions on the procedure.

But the burdens of race in the Virginia of 1989 were still powerful and undeniable, no matter how much Wilder wanted to be judged as any other politician. The gap between pre-election surveys showing him with a comfortable lead and the narrow victory he actually eked out over Republican J. Marshall Coleman was taken as evidence that some voters did not want to admit to pollsters that they would not support a black candidate. His inauguration and four-year term, nonetheless, amounted to a profound moment for Virginia as it tried to overcome its history of racism only a few decades after Massive Resistance to integration closed some schools. And Wilder's ascendance inspired a generation of African Americans in Virginia and elsewhere.

Today's primary plays out against a different backdrop. As high-tech workers and their families flock to Northern Virginia and immigrants create whole new communities within the state, many Virginians were not even around for the 1989 election and have few if any ties to the Old Dominion. The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia reports that fully half of Virginia residents were not born in the state, a seismic culture change for a state -- or rather a commonwealth -- that once prized its FFV, or First Families of Virginia. Virginia today is nearly a quarter more populous than it was when Wilder was elected and far more diverse. Of its 7.7 million residents today, nearly 20 percent are African American, 6 percent are Hispanic and 5 percent Asian. The proportions of Hispanic and Asian residents have more than doubled since the 1990 Census, according to the Weldon Center, and one of every 10 people living in Virginia today was born out of the country.

This change, of course, is being fueled by Northern Virginia, where one in every three residents now lives and where people identify not so much with some idealized vision of a proud Virginia past but with a globalized society and all the advances and tensions that come with that. Take Fairfax County, for example. Its population has exploded from 819,000 people in 1990 to more than 1 million today. Nearly 10 percent are black, 13 percent are Hispanic and 16 percent Asian. As statewide, the proportions of Hispanic and Asian residents in Fairfax have more than doubled since Wilder took office. The hallways of Fairfax schools these days are filled native speakers of not just Spanish but Urdu, Vietnamese and more than 100 other languages.

In that environment, the old black-and-white divide that defined Wilder's Virginia seems increasingly anachronistic. Forget all those ancient arguments about the state song and Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Yet has all that much really changed since Wilder's election? No African American has won statewide in Virginia since then and, for that matter, only one other African American has been elected governor anywhere in the country (Deval Patrick in Massachusetts last year). And today's voting will almost certainly still reveal a racial pattern. If Virginia proves to be anything like South Carolina or Georgia, Obama will win a huge victory among African Americans and then draw a substantial share of whites as well. Pre-election polls suggest that should be enough to win. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is bracing for defeat in all three "Potomac Primary" contests today.

Obama is relying on more than Wilder's historical legacy. Wilder over the years has been able to help candidates in the state's black community, and he is working on Obama's behalf. But it's a pretty stark contrast between these two pioneers of different generations. While Wilder experienced the sting of the South as a younger man, Obama was born to a father who came from Kenya and grew up in places such as Hawaii and Indonesia. While Obama was recently ranked the most liberal senator by National Journal, Wilder governed as a more conservative Democrat, making difficult spending cuts to balance an out-of-whack budget and resisting tax increases. While Obama talks about inclusion and unity, Wilder loves to scrap, even now as mayor of Richmond, where he sent movers unannounced to evict the school board from City Hall one night.

In that vein, Obama has relied on Wilder to take some of the harder shots at the Clintons. At the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Richmond last weekend, Wilder took umbrage at former president Bill Clinton's description of Obama's war opposition as a "fairy tale." Speaking with reporters, Wilder dismissed Clinton as yesterday's news. "A time comes and a times goes," Wilder said. "The president has had his time."

What will be interesting to watch tonight will be how close the polls are to the actual vote. The polls this year have done a pretty good job of forecasting Republican outcomes but have been off the mark in a few of the Democratic contests, most notably in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Analysts have debated whether this was a repeat of the phenomenon Wilder saw in 1989.

"Some people talk about the Wilder Effect in the polls," Wilder himself noted on CNN yesterday. "Sure, I was leading a little more than I did, but I won. And I think Barack Obama's record, his past, is strong enough to stand any of these attack machines that come his way. And moreover, the American people are crying out for change. They want a difference."

By Web Politics Editor  |  February 12, 2008; 3:46 PM ET
Categories:  Morning Cheat Sheet  
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Next: Obama TXTing His Way Forward


Brought to you courtesy of a white 39 year old female who quite likes her bra, thank you very much.

Posted by: JayKay2 | February 12, 2008 10:16 PM | Report abuse

And in breaking news...Exit polls show that Clinton wins Maryland among white females aged 45+, although only by a wide margin in 60+ old style burn ya bra boomers. In all other demographics, including latino, she lost.

Of course this means that Obama was the RESOUNDING WINNER!

Posted by: JayKay2 | February 12, 2008 10:15 PM | Report abuse

As a Fairfax County resident since 1986, I appreciate this informative survey and Mr. Baker's interesting assessment. For the record, I'm a white older woman who 15 minutes ago voted for Obama.

Posted by: jhbyer | February 12, 2008 5:54 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Peter Baker,
I find it more than curious that you are quoting rightwing radicals from the National Journal as to the degree for which Mr. Obama should be considered "liberal." These conservative demagogues first define what liberal means in pejorative terms and then utilize subjective criteria to rank legislators.

And curiously, Mr. Obama suddenly leaps from #14 to #1. Gee, I wonder how that happened from one year to the next? How convenient for Republican haters. How about providing a ranking of the Republican candidates by ?

I guess the name of your column, "Morning Cheat Sheet" explains it all! In the interest of full disclosure I think it's incumbent upon you to explain why you chose to use the National Journal as a "reputable source" for judging Mr. Obama's political standing. If you're member of the board or a stockholder in the National Journal, you should tell us now.

Posted by: fitznew | February 12, 2008 5:47 PM | Report abuse

Way to keep your cool and respond politely to (in my opinion) unreasonable commentators. I like your writing myself, even if I don't always agree with your conclusions.

No need to print this. I just wanted you to know.

Posted by: FleaBailey | February 12, 2008 5:42 PM | Report abuse

Do you believe that John Kerry was both the most liberal senator in 2004, and at the same time, a flip-flopper?

Posted by: boxjam1 | February 12, 2008 5:39 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for your note, but National Journal's not a conservative magazine. (You may be thinking of National Review.) And one obvious explanation for why a Democrat may have a more liberal voting record one year from the next is that he starts to run for president and needs to appeal to the base of his party to win the nomination. Since you raised the point, I checked the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), which is hardly a conservative organization and as it happens released its rankings just today. It gave Senator Obama a 75 percent rating, but only because he missed five out of the 20 votes they used as their criteria. On all the votes he did cast, he voted with the ADA position 100 percent of the time. Only four other senators voted with the ADA position every time they voted -- Democrats Tom Harkin (Iowa), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Bob Casey (Pa.). Thanks again.

-- Peter Baker

Posted by: bakermoscow | February 12, 2008 5:36 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Baker, Please stop buying into the most liberal Senator crap.. Why are you using a conservative magazine the National Journal rankings? Is it a coincidence that in 2004 the year he was running for President John Kerry was named the "most liberal Senator" too.

In 2006 Obama was ranked # 14 this year he is #1.. I wonder why???

Posted by: TennGurl | February 12, 2008 4:24 PM | Report abuse

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