- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2007

RICHMOND — Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder says Sen. Barack Obama’s strategy of relying less on the black leaders of the civil rights era and more on a message of unity gives him the best chance of becoming the first Democrat in 44 years to win the state’s electoral votes in a presidential election.

“The civil rights movement was over 50-something years ago,” Mr. Wilder, a Democrat and the country’s first elected black governor, told The Washington Times. “Many people know nothing of it other than a recitation [during Black History] month. People are tired of that. They want to see more relatively.

“The worst mistake one can make, in my judgment, is to try to tailor a message to a group and to say: ‘I am the person for your group.’ He should be the person for the American people,” he said.

As a result, Mr. Obama, an Illinois Democrat who is black, has “received an audience the likes of which have never been seen by any African-American seeking an elective office in this country, period,” Mr. Wilder said. “Even at [former Secretary of State] Colin Powell’s height, he did not get these kinds of crowds, and Colin was not chopped liver.”

The mayor’s comments come less than a week after Mr. Obama addressed nearly 4,000 people at the annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Richmond and received Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s early endorsement.

The endorsement was the first by any governor outside of a candidate’s home state. It also takes on additional significance in a state that has not voted for a Democrat in a presidential election since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, but where voters had elected Democrats in the past two gubernatorial races and last year’s U.S. Senate race.

After his speech in Richmond on Saturday, Mr. Obama was thronged by supporters, who toppled a metal railing and knocked plates of half-eaten food off tables to get a peak of the senator before he slipped out a back door.

“It is a new day,” Delegate Dwight Clinton Jones, a black Richmond Democrat, said after he watched Mr. Obama court voters and political leaders in Virginia on Saturday. “I believe that America is ready for things that in past times they may not have considered.”

Although most black political leaders have been careful about what they say about Mr. Obama, there is evidence that civil rights leaders are concerned that Mr. Obama is not overly interested in appeasing them.

For example, earlier this month, Mr. Obama opted to announce his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in front of nearly 15,000 people, most of whom were white, at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill. — the same day thousands of black leaders gathered at Hampton University in Virginia for the State of the Black Union, an annual traveling town hall.

The timing and location of Mr. Obama’s announcement drew some cutting responses from State of the Black Union panelists, even though the former civil rights lawyer and community organizer in Chicago apologized beforehand for not attending the event.

Without singling out Mr. Obama, one of the panelists, the Rev. Al Sharpton, told attendees, “Just because you’re our color doesn’t make you our kind.”

The remarks from Mr. Sharpton helped open the floodgates for pundits eager to question Mr. Obama’s so-called “blackness” and left some local black leaders bewildered.

When asked about the remarks, Delegate A. Donald McEachin, a black Richmond Democrat, said it is wrong to question Mr. Obama’s “integrity or commitment” to the black community “in the absence of any evidence to the contrary.”

“We all have our roles in history to play,” Mr. McEachin said. “[The civil rights leaders] have, and continue to play their roles, and he is playing his.’

Mr. Wilder, a State of the Black Union panelist, said Mr. Obama is too smart to get bogged down in such comments.

“That wasn’t from the people,” he said. “That wasn’t from that audience, that wasn’t from attendees. I really do believe he is past that level, but he is not dismissive of it.”

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