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Wilder times
Doug Wilder, a history-making politician, wraps up his career

Date published: 10/30/2008

RICHMOND VOTERS will elect a new mayor Tuesday. And his name will not be Doug Wilder.

Thus will end the groundbreaking and often heartbreaking elective career of the longtime politician who became the first elected black governor in the United States.

Mr. Wilder opted not to run for a second term as mayor, which turns out to have been a wise decision. Having squandered most of his massive voter support from four years ago after a series of high-decibel run-ins with the City Council and School Board, and having overseen the flight of the city's longtime minor league baseball team, the Braves, Mr. Wilder would have had a tough time hanging on to his job.

But what a shame this valedictory lap as mayor, after his history-making term as governor in the 1990s, is ending on a low note. The grandson of slaves, Mr. Wilder has been an inspiring leader for people of all political stripes who have marveled at his intensity in knocking down color barriers in politics.

But that same intensity has fueled Mr. Wilder's propensity for starting feuds, often with former allies, and for turning political disagreements into personal vendettas. At times, the focus of his service as mayor has seemed to be "all about Doug."

The legacy of his mayoralty should have been new and better schools and more efficient government. Instead, images of late-night evictions of the school board from City Hall and moving vans for the baseball team capture the disappointments.

Mr. Wilder is not without his successes as mayor, particularly in the areas of law enforcement and ethics reforms. He remains an eloquent national speaker at a time when another black politician may be about to make history.

But Mr. Wilder's penchant for secrecy and doing things "my way" needlessly burned bridges with potential allies. The all-but-dormant effort to create a U.S. National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg is a painful case in point.

Voters are weary of political gridlock. The do-nothing Congress has lower approval ratings than George W. Bush. Problem-solving and pragmatism are in. Bullying and carping are out.

Perhaps it's a good time for Mr. Wilder to retire to the sidelines after a distinguished political career that achieved much, but fell short of what it might have been.