By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 6, 2006
RICHMOND -- Democratic Senate candidate James Webb has a childhood memory of relatives living hard lives in southwest Virginia communities with no electricity.
That's why when he started studying affirmative action programs as a law student, he came to a question: Why was preferential treatment given on the job to all kinds of ethnic groups that were considered disadvantaged -- Latinos, Asians, blacks, Native Americans -- but not to working-class whites struggling to overcome poverty?
"The original intent of affirmative action expanded, and a lot of different ethnic groups who never suffered state-sponsored discrimination at all came under the rubric of affirmative action," he said recently. "The assumption that everyone who was white had a benefit and anyone who was not white didn't have a benefit, it was not a fair assumption."
If there was ever proof that Webb, who served as secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, is not a typical candidate for a Democratic Party nomination, it is his nuanced -- and, opponents charge, shifting -- position on affirmative action, which has been endorsed by the party establishment for decades.
Webb, a former Marine who joined the Republican Party after the Vietnam War and has returned to the Democratic Party over the Iraq war, said he has been writing and thinking about the issue for years.
On the one hand, he argues that diversity programs that were once intended to help African Americans have been extended to benefit everyone except whites. On the other, he recently has made a point of singling out hardships faced by African Americans, who he said still experience lingering effects of government-sponsored oppression and discrimination.
So Webb comes to an unusual view among candidates in either major party: He supports affirmative action for blacks but otherwise thinks preferential job and education programs should be awarded based on economic conditions or eliminated altogether.
"I think it's time to either open this thing up to poor white groups or just go back to a level playing field -- while keeping an eye on African Americans," said Webb, who is white. "I'm a strong supporter of affirmative action in its original intent, which is to help African Americans."
His opponent in next Tuesday's primary -- to determine who will face Sen. George Allen (R) in the November general election -- is longtime Democratic operative Harris Miller, a former technology industry lobbyist. Miller has characterized Webb's views as out of step with most party members, using affirmative action as a prime example.
"Webb is a Republican disguised as a Democrat," said Del. Lionell Spruill Sr. (D-Chesapeake), a Miller supporter and one of seven members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus to endorse the former Fairfax Democratic Committee chairman. "Harris Miller and I go way back, and he has always been for affirmative action."
In a low-turnout primary, Webb's position could cost votes in critical black communities. At the same time, his criticism of diversity programs intended to help groups other than blacks could jeopardize support among such constituencies as women and Latinos who also have benefited from diversity initiatives.
"He's essentially articulated a position on affirmative action that almost no one articulates today," said Robert D. Holsworth, a professor of government at Virginia Commonwealth University who has written a book on affirmative action. "It's not an indefensible position, but it's not a position that fits comfortably into the normal debate."
Webb acknowledges his textured stand is not ready-made for a stump speech and hardly a "30-second sound bite."
For opponents, it's not the issue's complexity but Webb's writings on the topic that are problematic. Webb, a journalist and novelist, wrote a highly complimentary book review in 2000 of the autobiography of Ward Connerly, a prominent opponent of affirmative action who was then a University of California regent.
"Affirmative action, which originally sought to repair the state-induced damage to blacks from slavery and its aftermath, has within one generation brought about a permeating state-sponsored racism that is as odious as the Jim Crow laws it sought to countermand," Webb wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
Nowhere in the column did he suggest that he would support continued affirmative action programs for African Americans, as he has on the campaign trail in recent days.
"I'm not sure where the real Jim Webb is," said state Sen. Henry L. Marsh III (D-Richmond), a longtime civil rights leader and the first black mayor of Richmond. "Why doesn't he just do the manly thing and retract his statement, admit he was wrong, rather than trying to come up with these bizarre explanations?"
Webb insists that his position has not changed since he started thinking deeply on the issue as a Georgetown law student -- shortly after the decorated veteran ended the Marine Corps stint that has formed the backbone of his campaign. He said his ultimate goal has always been to ensure an equal shot at success for everybody.
As for the different emphasis in his Wall Street Journal writing, he said he covered as much ground as he could in a short piece: "How much can you do in a book review?" he said. "Give me a break."
Last week, Webb countered the criticism by announcing he has the backing of Del. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond), also a member of the Legislative Black Caucus and the Democratic nominee for attorney general in 2001.
On Monday, Webb added the support of civil rights leader Milton A. Reid, a former chairman of the Virginia unit of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. McEachin said he had discussed the issue fully with Webb and pronounced himself more than satisfied.
"It just doesn't get any better than that from an African Americans perspective on affirmative action," he said.