Black Governor Gets Close Scrutiny in First Six Months
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) _ After just six months as Virginia’s governor, L. Douglas Wilder is being hailed as a new national leader and hot Democratic presidential prospect.
But at home, the nation’s first black elected governor is coming under criticism for his travels, unpaid bills and social life.
Since becoming governor in January, Wilder has visited 11 states, including the early presidential sweepstakes states of New Hampshire and Iowa, carrying his message of fiscal conservatism and social activism.
He criticizes the failures of the Bush administration and tells audiences the same ″new mainstream″ that elected him governor should put a Democrat in the White House. He describes the qualities of the ideal nominee and says ″I’d like to think I’m one of those persons.″
But Wilder insists he has no plans to run for president.
The governor maintains that his travels and the attention he gets are helping Virginia, which has not been nationally prominent since Colonial times.
″It’s been a long time since Virginia’s ever been considered at the national level,″ he said. ″It’s to Virginia’s credit that the governor has been asked (to travel).″
″I give Virginia about 18 hours a day, and that’s seven days a week,″ Wilder told reporters last month.
But the governor has come under criticism for his busy travel schedule and, most recently, for his use of a state helicopter to take personal trips with Patricia Kluge, estranged wife of America’s richest man, John W. Kluge.
The Kluges, who gave Wilder his biggest campaign contribution of $200,000, separated two months ago. The governor last winter appointed Mrs. Kluge, a former nude model and high school dropout, to the board of visitors of the University of Virginia.
″We’re friends,″ Wilder told reporters last month and refused to elaborate. A spokeswoman for Mrs. Kluge gave a similar response.
Friends and critics of the divorced governor agree his friendship with Mrs. Kluge is a private matter.
″But when the relationship somehow involves his use of state aircraft, then to that extent it is a public matter,″ the Roanoke Times & World-News said in an editorial.
Some blacks say Wilder has been targeted for criticism because of his race. Even whites admit he is being watched closely because of his unique place in American politics.
″By the mere fact of who he is, he’s going to get some scrutiny. That’s acceptable,″ Jack Gravely, state president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said last week.
But he added, ″Many black folk that I’ve spoken to over the holiday have said, ’They’ve got Barry, now they’re going after Doug,‴ referring to the ongoing trial of Washington’s black mayor, Marion Barry, on drug and perjury charges.
″An awful lot of white people are watching Doug Wilder closely. And X percentage of them are hoping he will trip up,″ said a white, longtime observer of Virginia politics who asked not to be identified.
Wilder’s historic Jan. 13 swearing-in ceremony still is making news with disclosures that his inaugural committee has yet to pay a $148,500 bill for printing the invitations.
The governor also has been criticized for refusing to reveal how he will use any profits from his inaugural ball. Lobbyists and corporations contributed an estimated $1 million to pay for the celebration.
Meanwhile, Virginia has been having financial troubles of its own. Wilder has said he will announce spending cuts next month to cope with a projected $300 million budget shortfall over the next two years.
″He’s worked to cut back state services, all the while establishing himself as the most extravagant governor in Virginia’s history,″ said Joe Elton, executive director of the state Republican Party.
The governor also has drawn fire for ordering state agencies and institutions to sell stocks in companies doing substantial business in South Africa. Teachers have worried about how the divestment would affect the state’s $11 billion employee pension fund.
The various criticisms are ″having some impact on his image in-state,″ said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst. ″Eventually, it will be part of the national evaluation of Doug Wilder the candidate for vice president or president.″
While disavowing national ambitions, Wilder has shown no reluctance to address national and foreign policy issues. He has asked President Bush to appoint an independent commission to investigate the savings and loan bailout, has expressed support for Israel and has promised to visit the Jewish state as well as Saudi Arabia next year.
At the same time, he has shied away from some state issues, such as whether tax-supported Virginia Military Institute should be opened to women.
When the governor repeated last month that he has no opinion on VMI’s admissions policy, he was met with groans and hoots from an audience of teen- age girls attending a conference on state government.
His support among other constituents, particularly blacks, remains strong.
″The overwhelmingly majority of the people in the community that I serve feel that the governor is doing a good job,″ said the Rev. Darrel Rollins, pastor of the 31st Street Baptist Church in Richmond.