Richmond Times-Dispatch

Moves put Wilder’s legacy at stake

- Jschapiro@ timesdispa­

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.

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