No doubt about it, 1989 was a momentous year. With one second left in the game, Michael Jordan hit his jaw-dropping, impossible shot against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a shot heard ’round the world that propelled the Chicago Bulls into the NBA Finals. The Berlin Wall came thundering down two years after President Ronald Reagan told Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”
And in Virginia, L. Douglas Wilder, a grandson of slaves, became the first black American in the 20th century to be elected governor.
Pundits and politicians alike know that Wilder’s victory 25 years ago — and his prequel four years earlier when he was elected lieutenant governor — would have been impossible without his trusted adviser and chief strategist, Paul Goldman.
Goldman was a skinny Jewish guy from New York, armed with nothing but a law degree and a desire to change the world. He decided one way to do that was to get an African-American elected to statewide office in Virginia.
Goldman met Wilder in 1981, when they were involved with Charles S. Robb’s campaign for governor. Robb was elected, and a year later U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. retired. There was a historic showdown between Democrat leaders who proposed party chairman Owen B. Pickett as a replacement for Byrd, and Wilder, who was a state senator and threatened to run as a third-party candidate if Pickett were nominated.
When a reporter asked Goldman’s opinion, he said Wilder would have a better chance running as the Democratic nominee than as a third-party candidate. Wilder took offense.
Goldman recalls that he broke it down, explaining that running as a third-party candidate didn’t mean Wilder needed fewer total votes to win. “It’s counterintuitive,” Goldman says, “but it’s easier to get 50 [percent] than 33.4 [percent].”
Goldman got Wilder to understand that without the party, his campaign would be marginalized. Once they cleared that hurdle, Goldman recalls saying, “If you ever think of running statewide, I’ll come down and help you.”
Two years later, Wilder called. Goldman tossed a few wrinkled clothes into the back seat of his beat-up Honda and headed south to Richmond, the former Capital of the Confederacy and the birthplace of Massive Resistance. Together they made history.
They were “a most unlikely political odd couple,” Roanoke reporter Dwayne Yancey wrote in his book, “When Hell Froze Over.”
Margaret Edds, former editorial page editor of the Virginian-Pilot, noted that Goldman almost single-handedly managed Douglas Wilder’s historic campaign for lieutenant governor.
He came up with one of the greatest dollar-stretching, media-grabbing ideas in the history of Virginia politics: Wilder drove an American station wagon — leaving his white Mercedes-Benz locked in the garage at home — to every city and county in Virginia, asking people for their vote. Goldman arranged meetings, wrote the campaign literature and raised money by telling donors that their dollars would put X number of gallons of gas in the station wagon.
Goldman’s been called “a rebel with a cause,” “a dreamer and a schemer” and a few other words unfit to print. There probably isn’t a single significant political figure in Virginia in the last 30 years who hasn’t had at least one argument with him.
Goldman is an interesting mix of old-school idealism and 21st-century cynicism. Imagine Jimmy Stewart’s character in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” seasoned with the nonfelonious aspects of Kevin Spacey’s character in “House of Cards.”
Goldman is humble and full of hubris. Political reporters know that he’s rarely missed the opportunity to remind listeners of his role getting Wilder elected, first in 1985 and then in 1989. If Wilder had been forthcoming and gracious enough to give proper credit to the people who helped him along the way, then Goldman wouldn’t have needed to remind us.
In the aftermath of Wilder’s 2009 abrupt dismissal of Goldman from Richmond City Hall as his trusted adviser — ostensibly because Wilder was upset that Goldman was doing consultant work to help now Sen. Tim Kaine’s campaign for lieutenant governor — Goldman has reveled in fighting for the underdog.
In addition to providing commentary at NBC-12, Goldman has established himself as a political pundit and editorialist whose pieces run in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and on CNN.
Locally Goldman’s new mission is to improve the health and safety of Richmond Public School students. He’s personally offended that Mayor Dwight Jones would even propose building a ballpark development when at least $200 million is needed for health and safety repairs for the city’s crumbling school buildings.
In a recent opinion piece for the Washington Post, Goldman wrote: “Did the city’s African-American leaders stand-up to the mayor? No. Neither the school board nor the city’s leading black organizations went to the mat for the children. … Instead, African American members of the city council backed the mayor’s plan to build a baseball stadium on land that the African American community wanted to dedicate as a slave memorial.”
He also opposed the lucrative deal that used public funding to bring the Washington Redskins training camp to Richmond, noting that the city’s budget “gives its lowest overall funding percentage to K-12 operations since segregation. …”
“Richmond’s minority children, like millions of others, are victims of a political elite milking the system for pay, perks and special privileges at these youngsters’ expense. Sometimes that political elite is African American.”
“Politics is a team sport, not a boxing match,” he writes, two breaths later noting that he still struggles to have patience with the “process.”
When asked what he hopes his legacy will be, Goldman sidesteps the question, “I’m not dead yet,” he says. "There are still chapters to come.” S
Carol A.O. Wolf served on the Richmond School Board from 2002 to 2008. She has more than 30 years of experience as an investigative journalist, with work appearing in the Washington Post and the former Richmond News Leader. She blogs at saveourschools-getrealrichmond.blogspot.com.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.