Ex-Virginia governor Wilder talks guns, Obama, charter schools and race
In 1993, former Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder scored a major victory for gun-control advocates by pushing through a state law banning the purchase of more than one handgun a month. Today, gun-rights supporters have mounted their most sustained effort to repeal it.
In an interview at his office Friday at the Virginia Commonwealth University's L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, Wilder talked about one of his signature achievements -- and a variety of other topics too. These included President Barack Obama's health care initiative, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell's push for more charter schools, racially skewed polls, and the resistance of some African-American leaders to those schools despite what Wilder says is widespread support for them in the black community.
Q: Why did you push for the gun a month law?
A: We were the gun-running state. Richmond was one of the top five murder cities. Businesses were skittish about locating here. People were leaving the city.
Q: What does it say that the political tide seems to have turned on gun control?
A: It says people are scared of the NRA. And you can't operate in politics that way -- if you do the people's bidding.
It's more involved here than just a gun bill. It's -- what are you willing to stand up for? What you willing to not stand up for? And when you look at polls, particularly ones that come out on a pretty regular basis about the lack of confidence in elected officials, it's not good for us as a nation. And I'm very concerned that we are not respecting the will of the people.
Q: What do you think of the General Assembly's passage of a bill that would allow people with concealed weapons permits to enter bars with guns?
A: Why is it that you'd be able to carry guns in bars? Somebody said to me early this morning, "Well, it's all right, it's okay to bring guns into bars if you're not going there to drink." But what are you going to a bar to do? Knit? Play chess? [Laughter] It's amazing, though.
Q: Other than an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, you seem reluctant to speak out enough in defense of the gun-a-month? Why?
A: I have said very little on this measure, and so little that I was asked to write an op-ed piece by the RTD ... The reason I don't want to get involved in it any more so than I have so far is: Why me? ... I don't want to get into this as a Wilder thing, because it's not...
As a citizen, I'm concerned, yes. But people have put their trust in public officials to do their bidding, and they should continue to exert their pressures on those public officials.
I'm not one of them.
Q: Yet you are a leader of the Democratic Party. Don't people look to you?
A: I am not a leader of the Democratic Party. To the contrary ... if I were a leader of the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party standard-bearer wouldn't have been championing what he was championing. ...
I'm out of this. I have no vote. The people who can stop it, if they want to stop it, can stop it ... I am not involved in summoning the troops ... I've not talked to a single legislator about it.
Q: Why did you fix on the concept of a gun-a-month?
A: You're not trying to rob people of opportunities to have handguns. And yet, you wanted to fix it so that profiting and buying guns in abundance is lessened. I can't come and buy a truckload of guns from you in exchange for drugs if you've got to assemble them one a month. It takes too much time...
I'm not an enemy of gun ownership.
Q: What will this mean for your legacy if the gun-a-month law is repealed?
A: "That's a problem I have in talking about it. There are those obviously who seem to fit the category of thinking it does something to me. It doesn't do anything to me...
Q: What do you say to some scholars who suggest the law has done little to reduce crime?
A: Show me your statistics to make your case. Show me something to back up your case. You can't. ... So the fact that crime did go down -- could that have been a contributing factor?"
Q: Do you have a gun?
A: Yes. I said that back then. That's not new. ... I'm not a hypocrite. I wouldn't say you shouldn't have one ... I have one. I said that then. I hunt. I used to hunt. I don't do it anymore.
Q: Are you disappointed that President Barack Obama has not put gun control on his agenda?
A: I haven't said that. I'm not saying that now.
Q: What are your thoughts on the direction of the country at the moment?
A: I watched the president's health care [summit]. ... It was interesting. I was very caught up watching how the issue of joblessness and unemployment and underemployment -- I don't think it has hit the Congress yet: I don't think they've really understood the public is not saying, "Give us health care."
For God's sake, hold up. Health care is important, very important. But get something to eat first. Get a job first ... [and] then when you look at the thing, it's not even going to be effective for three, four five years. ... How does that change John Doe's lifestyle? ... That's why when you look at the health care debate, you're saying, "Are we in the right place?"
Have you met anybody who has made health care No. 1?
Q: What are your thoughts about Gov. Robert F. McDonnell's efforts to increase charter schools in Virginia?
A: Obama's pushing the charter schools, but not just any kind of charter schools. You've got others pushing for it.
You've got polls showing that African-Americans for the most part, in many places, are saying, "For God's sake give us something." Yet it's being opposed. By whom? Their leaders.
I am opposed to vouchers, and I am opposed to tax credits [for private schools]. I don't believe in elitism. I don't think charter schools that would foster that should be given opportunities to do it. If you don't want to go to public library, I shouldn't pay for you to go to Barnes & Noble and get discounts on your books.
But by the same token, when these people are trapped in these situations ... Petersburg [schools] had to be taken over by the state. Why would [Delegate] Rosalyn Dance [D-Petersburg] put the bill in? She's there. She knows what's going on...
My answer to you on charter schools is, I have seen them operate, I've traveled the country and I have seen what they've done in Colorado, Arizona and D.C. - my goodness, I think you have more charter schools concentrated there per population than anyplace.
Six days a week. Tutoring services. Parents being called in on conferences on a regular basis. Each child furnished with a computer. Are there results shown? Yeah. And who's asking for it more than anyone else? African-Americans. [Yet] the leaders are against them. Are they representing those people -- or are they smarter than those people?
To oppose things just for the sake of opposing them -- I'd say this to the critics of charter schools: Okay you take it over and do whatever you think is necessary to change it. What do you think they would do? What would they say? They would say, "Give us some more money." [Laughter] What else could they say?"
Q: What kind of report card would you give President Obama?
A: I think he has advanced some very nice things ... the question is implementation...
There are so many things on the president's plate, and the economy and jobs obviously has to be number one. Somebody has to be there on a regular basis saying, "Mr. President don't forget: Jobs, jobs, jobs." I think he recognizes it...
It's not too early to give a grade because when you consider that in six months or so you'll be moving into the second half of that term. Once you get past midterm elections in November, you're in campaign mode. So the real question is, what do you want to chalk up as victories, and then what can you pass off to John Doe to say, "Hey, look -- I told you I was going to do this, and this is what I did."
John Doe is waiting to see it. And John Doe usually sees it before other people see it.
People are always ahead of you. They don't always articulate it. They don't have the forum. But trust me, they are there.
Q: How much do you think criticism of President Obama is motivated by real policy differences and how much by race?
A: I think there is considerable criticism of him by race, and I think he's smart to avoid it and pay no attention to it.
I think the confusing part of it is those who swear they don't use race and find other ample ammunition, when you see certain things taking place that are not consistent with the campaign -- "Real Change," "Real Jobs."
I never believed the polls that said people didn't like the American Congress, they didn't like the way the country was going, they didn't like Republicans, they didn't like the Democrats, but they liked the president. I don't believe that. I don't believe that at all ... They don't want to defend it [racist views]...
That's why the president should not believe he's doing as well as polls might suggest, because he is a part of the same establishment that they say they don't like.
They don't like the direction of the country, they don't like the Democrats, they don't like the Republicans, they don't like the Congress - well, why do they like you? [Laughter] Why do they like you so much?
[Imitating a pollster and a person responding to the poll:]
"I don't have a job, I'm mad at these people, I can't get health care, I lost a ton of dough in the stock market, God knows where I'm going to send my child to school to get an education...'
'What do you think about the president?'
'Oh, I love him...'
He's smart enough to know that.
-- Fredrick Kunkle
Christopher Dean Hopkins
March 4, 2010; 10:53 AM ET
Categories: Barack Obama , Creigh Deeds , Fredrick Kunkle , General Assembly 2010 , Robert F. McDonnell
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