Wilder Becomes the First Elected Black Governor

Nearly 125 years after the end of the American Civil War, L. Douglas Wilder became the first African American in the United States to be elected to the position of state governor.

Summary of Event

The 1989 contest for the governor’s mansion in Virginia was destined to receive an unusual amount of attention both within the state and around the country. The election offered the possibility of producing the first elected black governor of a U.S. state in the former capital of the Confederacy. In addition, few other election contests of national importance took place in 1989 to attract the interest of the news media. Each of the candidates for the Virginia governorship spent more than $6 million in the general election campaign. History was made when, on November 7, 1989, Democrat L. Douglas Wilder, an African American, was elected governor of Virginia. African Americans;politicians and judges
Elections;Virginia governorship
[kw]Wilder Becomes the First Elected Black Governor (Nov. 7, 1989)
[kw]First Elected Black Governor, Wilder Becomes the (Nov. 7, 1989)
[kw]Elected Black Governor, Wilder Becomes the First (Nov. 7, 1989)
[kw]Black Governor, Wilder Becomes the First Elected (Nov. 7, 1989)
[kw]Governor, Wilder Becomes the First Elected Black (Nov. 7, 1989)
African Americans;politicians and judges
Elections;Virginia governorship
[g]North America;Nov. 7, 1989: Wilder Becomes the First Elected Black Governor[07420]
[g]United States;Nov. 7, 1989: Wilder Becomes the First Elected Black Governor[07420]
[c]Government and politics;Nov. 7, 1989: Wilder Becomes the First Elected Black Governor[07420]
[c]Social issues and reform;Nov. 7, 1989: Wilder Becomes the First Elected Black Governor[07420]
Wilder, L. Douglas
Coleman, J. Marshall
Baliles, Gerald L.
Robb, Charles S.

Wilder, the incumbent lieutenant governor, received the Democratic Party’s nomination without challenge. He had proven his ability to win a statewide election when he became lieutenant governor in 1985, demonstrating that he could attract white voters in a state where the electorate was 80 percent white. Wilder received the full support of the state Democratic Party and of outgoing governor Gerald L. Baliles, who could not run again because of Virginia’s law limiting the governor to a single term. Wilder also received less-than-enthusiastic endorsement from U.S. senator Charles S. Robb, a popular former governor of Virginia. There was friction between Wilder and Robb, but Robb did support Wilder’s candidacy.

J. Marshall Coleman, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, had scored a come-from-behind victory in a hotly contested and often acrimonious three-man race for his party’s nomination. For the first time, state Republicans employed a primary election to choose their candidate, and the Coleman campaign was noteworthy for its strong negative content. Coleman had lost the 1981 gubernatorial election and was denied the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor in 1985, but he was resurrected politically in 1989.

By the 1980’s, the United States had witnessed an increasing number of successful African American candidates at the local and state legislative levels. Many of the nation’s largest cities had elected black mayors, but the number of blacks in statewide office and at the national level remained low. At the time of Wilder’s election, less than 2 percent of the nation’s elective offices were held by African Americans, and most of those were in jurisdictions with a majority of black residents. Wilder’s candidacy thus was seen as extremely important for the cause of civil rights in the United States, and Wilder himself was viewed as a model for other black candidates.

Wilder’s campaign was not based on race; rather, the strategy was to portray Wilder as a moderate alternative to the extremely conservative Coleman. Although his politics were clearly more moderate than the positions favored by former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, Wilder may have benefited from Jackson’s experience. Black candidates, who had often been dismissed by voters on the basis of their race, may have been taken more seriously after Jackson’s campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and, particularly, in 1988. The opponents of black candidates and the news media, however, still struggled with the issues surrounding the candidacies of African Americans. Heavy criticism of a black candidate could lead to charges of racism, and ignoring or emphasizing the race of a black candidate could be viewed as patronizing.

African Americans faced major electoral hurdles in 1989, not the least of which was the misleading nature of the findings of public opinion polls in black-white contests. Although carefully conducted public opinion polling usually returns reliable results, polls in elections in which a black candidate faced a white candidate tended to overestimate the strength of the black candidate by several percentage points. This phenomenon was evident in the Wilder election as well as in the New York City mayoral campaign of David Dinkins Dinkins, David and the unsuccessful California gubernatorial campaign of Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley. Bradley, Tom Experts speculated that these inaccuracies might have been caused by racism, by low turnout among black voters, by poll respondents’ fears that they might appear racist if they endorsed the white candidate, or by respondents’ attempts to offer what might be perceived as the “correct answer.”

Although Wilder faced problems in his campaign related to his race, his candidacy also posed problems for his opponent. The race factor was virtually absent from the campaigns of both candidates. Coleman’s campaign was relatively negative but was careful not even to allude to the question of race. The only exception to this came late in the campaign, when Coleman complained publicly that he was the victim of a media double standard in which Wilder was not seriously questioned regarding several ethics issues raised by Coleman. Coleman, conversely, was frequently questioned about his position on abortion. The implication was that Wilder was getting preferential treatment from the press because he was black.

For his part, Wilder was equally careful not to raise the race issue. He did discuss his background, but he chose to emphasize how far Virginia had come in matters of race. His attempt to run as a moderate also prevented him from running as a “black” candidate. In his television advertisements, Wilder was usually surrounded by whites. His issue emphasis was almost solely on his stand on abortion—he endorsed a woman’s right to choose. His theme was summed up by his campaign slogan, “I trust the women of Virginia.”

One of Wilder’s most popular campaign advertisements used conservative rhetoric to express a pro-choice position. In the advertisement, a narrator claimed that “Doug Wilder believes the government shouldn’t interfere in your right to choose. He wants to keep politicians out of your personal life. Don’t let Marshall Coleman take us back.” This strategy effectively made Wilder look at least moderate, if not conservative, and it may well have been a subtle reference to the overt racism of Virginia’s past.

Wilder avoided some more controversial issues. For example, his campaign included no discussion of funding abortions for the poor. Wilder also chose not to associate himself with Jesse Jackson Jackson, Jesse or Molly Yard, president of the National Organization for Women, emphasizing that he had not requested any help from outside the state.

Wilder’s qualifications and experience were never questioned. The grandson of slaves, Wilder grew up in a middle-class family in segregated Richmond. He excelled in the segregated schools, and he graduated from Virginia Union College in Richmond. After winning a Bronze Star for his actions in the armed services during the Korean War, he attended law school at Howard University. In 1959, Wilder became the only African American to pass the Virginia bar exam, and he soon opened his own law practice.

Wilder rose rapidly within his profession, and in 1969 he entered politics, winning a seat in the Virginia state senate when two white candidates split the white vote, allowing Wilder to win by a narrow margin. He worked diligently and established a reputation as a powerful individual in Virginia politics. Initially a liberal, Wilder moderated his positions and issues over time. By 1985, he was ready to run for the office of lieutenant governor, and some clever political maneuvering placed him on the Democratic ticket with Gerald Baliles. Successful grassroots campaigning enabled him to win that election and position himself for the gubernatorial race in 1989. With his election as lieutenant governor, Wilder became only the second black elected to a major statewide office since Reconstruction. (Republican Edward W. Brooke Brooke, Edward W. of Massachusetts was the first with his election to the U.S. Senate in 1966. P. B. S. Pinchback Pinchback, P. B. S. was acting governor of Louisiana for forty-three days in 1873, but he was not elected to that position.)

On November 7, 1989, Wilder eked out a narrow victory over Coleman, capturing 50.1 percent of the votes cast. Nearly 1.8 million Virginians voted in the gubernatorial contest, which set records both for the total of voters and for the 66.5 percent of registered voters who cast ballots. Although his margin of victory was considerably narrower than those of the Democratic nominees for the Virginia offices of lieutenant governor and attorney general, Wilder had once again fooled the political pundits and accomplished what seemed to be impossible. Many experts attributed his victory to heavy turnout among black voters and his popularity among women, but it should be remembered that Wilder took more than 40 percent of the votes cast by whites and more than 40 percent of the votes cast by men.


The impacts of Wilder’s election were felt in three specific areas: the national stature and reputation of Wilder himself, the nation’s and the state’s view of Virginia, and the long-term effects on black candidates nationwide. Wilder’s election propelled him into the national spotlight. Many came to view him as a national spokesperson for African Americans and as a viable candidate for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination. Wilder welcomed this notoriety and spent much of his time preparing and delivering speeches around the country.

Perceptions of Virginia also changed virtually overnight. The state had changed dramatically in the previous two decades, but the changes had gone largely unnoticed. An urbanized corridor running from northern Virginia through Richmond into Tidewater produced more than 60 percent of the voters. Many of these voters had migrated to Virginia, many from the North, and they voted disproportionately for Wilder. The rural areas of Virginia, which had dominated the state’s politics, now accounted for less than one-third of the state’s votes. These major demographic changes made Virginia politically more like a Middle Atlantic state than a southern state. In comparison with the nation as a whole, Virginia politics would still be considered conservative, but the state’s political leanings had been modified considerably in twenty years.

The lessons of Wilder’s election for other black candidates were mixed. Wilder’s victory showed that a black willing to run as a mainstream, moderate, nonthreatening candidate could win a statewide election. This contrasted sharply with the liberal approach taken by Jesse Jackson. Jackson’s philosophy was successful within the Democratic Party, where liberals wielded considerable power, but Wilder’s strategy seemed much more likely to be successful in general elections.

Another lesson drawn from the election was that the journey for a minority candidate was still a long and difficult one. Wilder had many advantages in the campaign: He was the heir apparent to two popular Democratic administrations, he won the party’s nomination unopposed, and he was supported by a united party. In addition, his campaign was well financed. Wilder ran a strategic campaign, played the issues correctly, and was opposed by a relatively weak opponent. Despite all these advantages, he won by an extremely narrow margin.

Some observers saw Wilder’s win, combined with the election of David Dinkins as the first black mayor of New York City, as the vanguard of more political successes by blacks. Andrew Young’s Young, Andrew losing campaign for the governorship of Georgia the following year caused much of that optimism to disappear, however.

The long-term effects of the Wilder victory on Virginia politics and public policy are difficult to assess. By the beginning of the twenty-first century there were still relatively few black politicians in the state, and state policy making remained largely unchanged. Governor Wilder was prevented from proposing any governmental initiatives by a continuing budget crisis that allowed him to show his fiscal conservative stripes through a steadfast refusal to raise taxes and an insistence on serious budget cuts. The consequences of these actions were a decline in Wilder’s popularity within the state and a rise in his stock nationally. After he completed his term as governor, Wilder remained in the public eye and decided to call himself an independent. He became the mayor of Richmond, Virginia, in 2005, after winning that city’s first ever mayor-at-large election by a landslide. African Americans;politicians and judges
Elections;Virginia governorship

Further Reading

  • Bond, Julian. Black Candidates: Southern Campaign Experiences. Atlanta: Southern Regional Council, 1968. Recounts the experiences of several candidates for state and local office in the American South in the 1960’s. Provides interesting context for the Wilder election decades later and for the changes that have taken place in the South and the rest of the nation with regard to race relations.
  • Broh, C. Anthony. A Horse of a Different Color: Television’s Treatment of Jesse Jackson’s 1984 Presidential Campaign. Washington, D.C.: Joint Center for Political Studies, 1987. Provides a thorough and insightful discussion of how the mass media covered the first serious black presidential candidate. Points out clearly the disadvantages and advantages of being a black candidate.
  • Edds, Margaret. Claiming the Dream: The Victorious Campaign of Douglas Wilder of Virginia. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books, 1990. Presents a chronological journalistic recounting and analysis of the 1989 Virginia gubernatorial campaign.
  • Jeffries, Judson L. Virginia’s Native Son: The Election and Administration of Governor L. Douglas Wilder. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2000. Brief volume examines how Wilder’s campaign was treated in the media, discusses the racism Wilder faced both in the campaign and as governor, and analyzes the legacy of Wilder’s administration.
  • Sabato, Larry J. “Virginia’s National Election for Governor.” In Virginia Government and Politics, edited by Thomas R. Morris and Weldon Cooper. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990. Excellent discussion of the national and state implications of the 1989 gubernatorial election by the leading expert on Virginia state politics. Provides both statistical and anecdotal analyses of the campaign and election.
  • Shapiro, Walter. “Breakthrough in Virginia.” Time, November 20, 1989, 54-57. Emphasizes the moderate politics and personal nature of Wilder’s campaign and victory. Discusses Wilder as a politician, not as a black politician.
  • Steed, Robert P., and Laurence W. Moreland, eds. Writing Southern Politics: Contemporary Interpretations and Future Directions. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006. Collection of essays discusses important research and writings about politics in the American South since World War II. Provides useful context for understanding Wilder’s election. Chapter 11 focuses on southern governors and legislatures.
  • Wilson, Harry L. “Media Treatment of Black Candidates: The 1989 Virginia Gubernatorial Campaign.” Virginia Social Science Journal 26 (Winter, 1991): 82-90. Analyzes newspaper and television coverage of the election in southwestern Virginia. Concludes that although most news stories were neutral, those that were not were likely to be positive if about Wilder and negative if about Coleman.
  • Yancey, Dwayne. When Hell Froze Over: The Story of Doug Wilder. Rev. ed. Dallas: Taylor, 1990. Traces Wilder’s rise to power from his humble beginnings in Richmond to his election to lieutenant governor in 1985. Reveals the political Wilder who seeks and uses power.

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