Moves put Wilder’s legacy at stake
Time can remake a political legacy, erasing some features, exaggerating others. Such is the case with Democrat Doug Wilder, whose one-handgun-a-month law is about to be scrapped after 19 years by the Republican he tacitly endorsed for governor in 2009.
Predictably, Wilder is irate. Predictably, his rage is aimed at fellow Democrats; in particular, those strong on gun rights. Their votes helped repeal over its final hurdle in the state Senate. Predictably, Wilder’s fury is a distraction; this time, from some of his other historic accomplishments reversed by the GOP legislature.
The casualties — on abortion rights and voting rights — are substantive and symbolic. They represent further erosion of a Wilder record already diminished by his habitual gamesmanship. On both, Wilder has been virtually silent.
Running for governor in 1989, Wilder took a strong stand in support of abortion rights. They were threatened by a U.S. Supreme Court decision that year in a Missouri case that allowed states to begin what had been considered off-limits: regulating abortion.
Even against a Republican, Marshall Coleman, who had recast himself as an absolutist in his opposition to abortion, Wilder initially was wobbly on the issue. He signaled a willingness to consider restrictions on teens seeking abortion. Wilder soon struck a libertarian stance.
He said keeping bureaucrats out of the most personal of decisions was consistent with Virginia’s limited-government tradition. The point was driven home in a powerful television commercial by consultant Frank Greer that juxtaposed Wilder with iconic images: Thomas Jefferson; his home, Monticello, and the American flag.
As governor, Wilder continued his tricky balancing act on abortion, sometimes angering both sides. In 1992, he vetoed a measure requiring teens to tell a parent or a judge before having an abortion. He had demanded the General Assembly tweak the so-called parental-notification bill. When the legislature refused, Wilder vetoed it.
It wasn’t pretty and it was a reminder to critics of his sayone-thing, do-another tendencies. But Wilder kept at bay those in both parties assaulting abortion rights. It wasn’t until 1997, the final year of Repub-
lican George Allen’s governorship, that parental notification became Virginia law.
Fifteen years later, having imposed hospital-like regulations that abortion clinics say could put them out of business, Virginia is poised to adopt a panoply of anti-abortion laws. Among them: mandatory ultrasound examinations before a woman has an abortion and a ban on state-paid abortions for impoverished women expecting badly deformed or mentally deficient children.
This is the handiwork of a Republican government installed with the consent of a Democrat whose campaign a generation earlier was a referendum on abortion rights — and whose son is now on the GOP payroll.
As the nation’s first elected black governor, Wilder was — and remains — a sterling emblem of democracy, one that might have been forgotten were it not for an expanded, changing electorate. That more people can vote in a state where the powerful remained that way by keeping the electorate small and malleable means there’s a greater chance there’ll be another Wilder, another pioneer.
But will he — She? Perhaps an Asian or Hispanic? — have the opportunity Wilder had to harness the power of the always-new electorate? Republicans have passed legislation under which the votes of Virginians who don’t show a valid ID, don’t count — at least not until officials have proof those voters really are who they claim to be.
Demos, a liberal research group, estimates 552,000 seniors, AfricanAmericans and young adults could be disenfranchised by the pending law, the South Carolina version of which has been blocked by the U.S. Justice Department as discriminatory. Put another way: It could prevent Barack Obama, who carried Virginia by 234,000 votes in 2008, from winning again.
And had there been such a law in 1989, Doug Wilder, who won by 6,700 votes, probably wouldn’t be governor.