- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 25, 2004

RICHMOND — L. Douglas Wilder climbed aboard a downtown city bus, paid his $1.50 and shouted an impromptu campaign pitch over the groaning diesel engine: “These fares are going down when I get in office.”

Fifteen years after he secured his spot in history as the country’s first, and still only, black elected governor, Mr. Wilder, a Democrat, is again making his voice heard in politics, running for mayor of his hometown.

Taking on an increasingly nasty local election was hardly part of a scripted comeback. Since leaving office in 1994, Mr. Wilder, 73, has been in comfortable semi-retirement, living in a home overlooking the James River, piloting his yacht and working stints as a college professor, newspaper columnist, radio host and practicing lawyer.

The way Mr. Wilder tells it, he didn’t choose this campaign; it chose him. He’s running for election, he said, because he’s frustrated that Richmond’s murder rate is among the country’s highest and because test scores in its underfunded schools are among the state’s lowest.

Mr. Wilder also has complained for years about businesses fleeing the majority-black city for mostly white suburbs, derelict storefronts in a once-thriving downtown and a city government rife with corruption. A half-dozen city officials, including a former mayor, have been sent to federal prisons in the past decade.

At the root of the problem, Mr. Wilder said, was a form of government in which the City Council appoints a mayor from its members but gives the position little authority. Such a government, he said, leaves the city of 200,000 slow to act on such critical matters as crime, education and economic development.

A year ago, Mr. Wilder and former U.S. Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., a Republican, campaigned for a referendum to establish citywide elections for a strong mayor. Despite opposition from elected city officeholders and many black leaders, the initiative won with 80 percent of the vote.

Mr. Wilder said he didn’t initially intend on becoming that strong mayor. He looked for proteges who, like him, are black and moderate to conservative, particularly on fiscal matters. None came forward.

Mr. Wilder is now one of four candidates, but his primary rival is incumbent Rudy McCollum, an eight-year councilman who has doubled as mayor for the past three years. The nearly $180,000 Mr. Wilder had raised as of Aug. 30 is more than seven times Mr. McCollum’s campaign funding, and the former governor’s name and star power may explain the gap.

However, Mr. McCollum doesn’t think Mr. Wilder has “demonstrated commitment to the city and a track record of accomplishment in this city.”

Richmond votes Democratic overwhelmingly, and Mr. McCollum, a Democrat, has questioned Mr. Wilder’s commitment to the party. Ever unpredictable, Mr. Wilder often has vexed his own party with his alliances with Republicans.

Mr. Wilder said Mr. McCollum is trying to stir up old racial resentments by linking him to white business interests and turn black voters against him. The city is 57 percent black.

“And people wonder why things don’t get better,” Mr. Wilder said. “For years, these same people have asked the black voters of Richmond to vote black. Well, they vote black and they vote black and they vote black, and nothing’s gotten better.”

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