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Then & Now: Douglas Wilder

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Then: Douglas Wilder becomes the nation's first black governor in 1990.

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(CNN) -- Douglas Wilder rose from what he describes as "gentle poverty" in his youth to become the first elected black governor in Virginia -- and the nation. Fifteen years later, the outspoken Democrat is still in Virginia politics, serving as Richmond's mayor.

Winning the four-year term as governor in 1990, Wilder not only stamped his name in history books, but he also reached a very personal milestone: Leading his native Virginia, a state where his grandparents had been enslaved, and where he had been barred from attending school because of the color of his skin.

"I am here to claim to be the next governor of Virginia," he said at his inaugural, taking his oath of office outside the state's Capitol, a building that had served as the Confederate Capitol during the Civil War.

"The force I represent is Virginia's New Mainstream," he said in his speech. "It looks forward, not backwards. It tries to unify people, not divide them."

He'd waged a hard gubernatorial campaign against Republican Marshall Coleman, who, after a bruising primary in which the GOP candidate was labeled a hard-line conservative, was left vulnerable to Wilder's more moderate rhetoric, according to Margaret Edds, author of "Claiming the Dream: The Victorious Campaign of Douglas Wilder of Virginia."

He squeaked out the watershed victory by less than four tenths of 1 percent, a margin of 6,741 votes.

But Wilder is used to winning in the face of stacked odds.

He was born into a family with eight children. They lived in a rundown section of Richmond not far from the place where patriot Patrick Henry gave his stirring speech in St. John's Church saying, "Give me liberty or give me death."

Wilder recalls in Edds' book that his family was poor, but he says, "We had music, the vase had flowers from the yard."

Douglas Wilder also had ambition.

The path to success

He graduated in 1951 from Virginia Union University with a degree in chemistry, and served in the U.S. Army in Korea, where he received a Bronze Star.

After returning home to Virginia, he worked as a chemist in the state medical examiner's office, but soon decided to use his GI Bill to attend law school.

Wilder packed his bags for Washington and enrolled at Howard University after being turned away from all-white schools in his native Virginia.

He graduated in 1959 and returned to Virginia to establish the law firm that would eventually become known as Wilder, Gregory and Associates. It was one of a handful of minority-owned businesses in the state at that time.

Wilder gained a reputation as a skillful trial lawyer, but in 1969 he focused his ambitions on politics, winning a seat in the state Senate. In 1985, Wilder was elected lieutenant governor of Virginia by a slim margin, and four years later, he won Virginia's gubernatorial contest.

Fiscal belt-tightening and anti-crime programs, including gun control initiatives, marked Wilder's tenure as Virginia's 66th governor. He also worked to fund Virginia's transportation system, effectively lobbying Congress to reallocate transportation monies to those states with the greatest needs.

But Wilder has weathered criticism from those who say he may be a Democrat, but his policies cater more to Republicans. They point to his unflagging support for the death penalty and deep cuts he made to higher education budgets while governor.

Because of a mandatory term limit for Virginia, Wilder could not seek the governor's seat again and left the office in 1994.

Ten years later, in November 2004, Wilder made a political comeback. Following a historic change in the Richmond, Virginia, charter where the public -- not the city council -- would elect the city's leader, Wilder became the first mayor elected by the people since the 1940s in his hometown of Richmond.

"I am here today as the instrument chosen by the people, the people of Richmond, for a single overriding purpose, and that is to give them a government that serves the people, not itself," Wilder told nearly 600 well-wishers assembled in the Richmond Convention Center to hear his inaugural speech in January.

His goals for his hometown are no less lofty than the aims he had when he led Virginia as its governor. They include cutting crime, confronting corruption in the city's government and bringing accountability to Richmond city schools.

"It won't be accomplished in 90 days, maybe even in four years," he said to the crowd. "But I did not leave the ease of retirement to succumb to the fatigue of failure."

In a November 2004 interview with CNN, Wilder said he was just hitting his stride.

"You don't ever earn a right to stop doing anything if you feel there is an obligation to move in terms of public service," he said.

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