Friday, September 25, 2009

Spurning pleas from the president and the leader of his party, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder refused to endorse Democrat R. Creigh Deeds for Virginia governor, taking issue with the candidate’s willingness to raise taxes in a weak economy.

“That doesn’t show leadership and responsibility to me,” Mr. Wilder told The Washington Times on Thursday after he announced that he would not endorse either Mr. Deeds or Republican candidate Robert F. McDonnell.

Mr. Wilder objected to statements by Mr. Deeds indicating that he would not rule out new taxes if they were part of a bipartisan bill that contained a dedicated funding mechanism for transportation.

“We are in the toughest economic times that we’ve had. I think the most driving thing to do now is to be a part of fiscal sanity and restoring accountability,” Mr. Wilder said in a telephone interview.

“The first thing you do when that situation occurs is to get a handle on spending and to control what you are doing. It is not going out and advocating that the first thing you are going to do is see if you can spend some more money. That doesn’t make it a difficult decision for me to say I can’t embrace this.”

Mr. Wilder also took issue with Mr. Deeds’ stance on guns, specifically his promise to work to repeal Mr. Wilder’s signature one-gun-a-month law that prohibits citizens from purchasing more than one handgun at a time.

In his announcement sent to news outlets and posted on the political Web site Virginia Tomorrow, Mr. Wilder said he would leave it to the voters to make up their own minds as to who the best candidate would be.

“This in no [way] is intended to detract from Mr. Deeds in terms of character or commitment to the task of being governor. I find that he, as well as Mr. McDonnell, are fine and honorable men and well suited to that task. The question before me is whether I support the Democratic candidate’s position in addressing these issues. I have not thus far in the progress of the campaign, and as aforesaid refrain from so doing,” the statement said.

Mr. Wilder told The Times that he sat down on Monday with Mr. Deeds for their first substantive discussion of the issues.

In recent weeks, Mr. Wilder had been courted by both candidates and received telephone calls from President Obama and Gov. Tim Kaine, who also heads the Democratic National Committee, requesting that he back his fellow Democrat.

Mr. Wilder said he sent e-mails to the White House, the governor’s office and both candidates informing them of his decision.

“The requests, made of me, have been to endorse Mr. Deeds, the Democratic candidate, for governor. I refrain from doing so and will leave that choice to the voters,” his statement said.

Deeds campaign spokesman Jared Leopold dispatched his own statement immediately after the announcement.

“We respect Gov. Wilder’s decision,” he said. “While Creigh and he may not agree on every issue, they share a fundamental commitment to keeping Virginia the best managed state in the nation, as Gov. Wilder first made it in 1992. As governor, Creigh intends to seek Gov. Wilder’s counsel often, and looks forward to working with him.”

Mark J. Rozell, a political science professor at George Mason University, said earlier this week that if Mr. Wilder refused to endorse the Democrat it would be a boon for the Republican candidate, who had been actively seeking the former governor’s support.

“Merely to have [the] impression solidified that there is a leading Democrat hesitant or unwilling to endorse the Democratic nominee, that is enough to raise some doubts in the mind of some voters,” Mr. Rozell said.

Bob Holsworth, the former public policy professor who runs Virginia Tomorrow, said Republicans will use Mr. Wilder’s announcement to their advantage because it hits at issues of concern to voters of both parties.

“Wilder’s non-endorsement - particularly the way it came by suggesting that there ought to be no tax increase at this time and getting the state’s economic house in order is the priority - is going to be heavily utilized by Republicans,” he said.

McDonnell spokesman J. Tucker Martin told The Times that the Republican candidate “holds the governor in high regard for his historic achievements and public service, and he looks forward to continuing to work closely with him in the years ahead.”

“They both understand that during these tough economic times public servants have to focus on the real-world situation of working families and small businesses who are struggling to make ends meet. The last thing they need is another tax increase that makes their burdens heavier and dries up job opportunities.”

Mr. Wilder is considered closer to Mr. McDonnell than his fellow Democrat but he has never endorsed a Republican. The two worked together for several years when Mr. Wilder was mayor of Richmond and Mr. McDonnell was attorney general. Since Mr. Wilder left office in 2008, the two have continued to talk frequently and meet.

Mr. Wilder declined to endorse Mr. Deeds once before.

In the 2005 race for attorney general, Mr. Wilder opted not to endorse either candidate but said he was not endorsing Mr. Deeds specifically because he had not voted in favor of the governor’s one-gun-a-month bill.

Mr. Deeds went on to lose that race to Mr. McDonnell.

The former governor has often withheld his endorsement until the weeks leading up to Election Day, but he told The Times earlier this month that he was breaking with tradition in light of the tough economic times.

The endorsement had been important for both candidates because it is thought to carry high value across the state and would have helped Mr. McDonnell to gain black votes, which have been elusive to Republicans.

George Allen captured 20 percent of the black vote in 1993 when he was elected to succeed Mr. Wilder as governor. He won 17 percent of the black vote in his 2000 U.S. Senate race when he unseated Democrat Charles S. Robb.

But in the 2006 Senate race, black voters abandoned the Republican Party in droves after Mr. Allen called a Webb volunteer “macaca” at a campaign event. The term, which Mr. Allen said he made up, is considered a racial slur in some cultures.

Twenty percent of Virginia’s population is black, according to the U.S. census. The Obama campaign registered thousands of new black voters on his way to winning the state in 2008.

Mr. Deeds trailed his two Democratic rivals among black voters in polls conducted before the primary, and a recent Public Policy Polling survey showed 81 percent of black voters said they would vote for Mr. Deeds.

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