Virginia voters haven't elected an African-American to state-wide office since Gov. Douglas Wilder (D) in 1989. Meanwhile, race has been a central issue in the final weeks of the 2017 governor's race. Both campaigns have been accused of dog-whistle politicking, and the Confederate monument debate continues to dominate.
With the tightening race less than a week away, former Gov. Wilder joined Chuck Todd in the latest episode of 1947: The Meet the Press Podcast for a wide-ranging discussion about the state of Virginia politics. He continued to decline to endorse either candidate for governor this year, as he did in 2009 when he withheld his endorsement from Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, (D-Bath).
But Wilder did conspicuously heap praise on Justin Fairfax, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor.
"You can tell from the way I'm talking that I feel very good about Justin Fairfax. I think that he's someone who's highly qualified," he said. "You don't elect people like him, then who are you going to have?"
But Fairfax, who is African-American, has struggled to gain the favor of Democratic insiders in the state. Wilder said, "You can't eliminate race" as a reason for the distance between Fairfax and his party.
It's an issue that Wilder had to navigate during his campaigns nearly 30 years ago.
"I never spoke of race. I never spoke of entitlement. I never spoke of where I came from, with humble beginnings. I spoke of the things that I could do as a result of my record," he said.
He advised a pragmatic tack for Democrats in the age of President Donald Trump, highlighting the generational divide among African-American leaders, some of whom want to confront race head-on.
As a distinguished professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's public affairs school, which bears his name, Wilder says he meets a lot of young adults who feel disconnected from Civil Rights Era struggles.
"If the Civil Rights organizations that had existed through the years been relevant to those young people," Wilder said. "There would have been no need for the organization of Black Lives Matter."
He added that that sentiment should be a wake-up call to advocacy organizations and schools, alike.
The Virginia gubernatorial election takes place on Nov. 7.