By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 1, 2006
RICHMOND, Aug. 31 -- Virginia Sen. George Allen said Thursday night he will decline an award by the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund after several of the nonprofit group's supporters said they would withhold donations if Allen was honored as planned.
Allen (R) said he was honored to have been chosen to receive the group's Community Leadership Award for his efforts on behalf of historically black colleges and universities. But he said he did not want his presence at the event to hurt the group.
"There are some during this election year who plan to exploit my selection," the senator said in a statement issued Thursday night. "I regret that there are those who would put their personal or political dislike of me ahead of the needs of deserving students and I do not want to be the cause of any controversy."
Allen has been dogged by questions about his sensitivity to ethnicity and race since he was videotaped three weeks ago making comments to a staffer of Indian descent from his opponent James Webb's campaign that many said were racially offensive.
Allen spokesman John Reid said the senator was notified Aug. 3 that he was one of five people to receive the award from the New York-based fund, a national organization that was established in 1987 and has given about $50 million in scholarships to more than 5,000 Thurgood Marshall scholars. The ceremony is to be held Sept. 7.
But Thursday morning, several liberal bloggers caught wind of the fund's decision, describing it as "a travesty" and a "BAD joke." The sites listed phone numbers of the organization's senior executives and urged readers to call the numbers to protest.
That effort was apparently successful, Reid said.
"A number of their supporters and political activists had indicated they were going to protest the senator receiving the award and withhold donations," Reid said. "The way it was expressed to us was that there was enough negative hoopla that it could damage the bottom line for them."
In a statement, the fund said it had decided to honor Allen because of his sponsorship of a bill last year that provided $250 million in federal grants to historically black colleges and universities. It also cited his support for a $50 million National Science Foundation program aimed at encouraging more women and minorities to study math, science and engineering.
Reached Thursday night, the fund's associate director of marketing, Steven A. Claiborne, declined to comment on what pressure the group had received from its donors or how that might have affected the group's finances.
He referred all questions to the organization's statement, which said the ceremony would be held, as planned, at the National Press Club in Washington.
Reid said Allen was dismayed Thursday when he learned about the situation. But Reid said the senator quickly decided to decline the award rather than put the organization in financial difficulty.
"It is a political year," he said. "The political opposition to Senator Allen is going to do everything they can to attack him. It should be no surprise to anyone that something that is supposed to be nice, that is supposed to be helpful to young people, would be exploited by his political opponents."
Kristian Denny-Todd, a spokeswoman for Webb's campaign, said she had not seen the statement from Allen's office and declined to comment.
Allen's abrupt decision highlights the growing power of the Internet in political campaigns and, in particular, the reach of bloggers, many of whom took an early liking this year to Webb.
"Apparently, this is not a joke . . . except that it IS a joke. A BAD joke," wrote Lowell Feld, a blogger for a Virginia site, Raising Kaine, who also is a paid Webb staff member.
Feld provided information for contacting "the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund to let them know what you think of this travesty."