Black Democrat Says He Will Back Allen, Not Webb

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

RICHMOND, Sept. 12 -- A senior Democratic state lawmaker endorsed Republican Sen. George Allen's bid for reelection Tuesday, after having earlier criticized Democrat James Webb's position on affirmative action.

State Sen. Benjamin J. Lambert III (Richmond), who is black, praised Allen in a letter on his senate stationery released yesterday by the Allen campaign.

"Because we have worked well together over the years on many issues, and especially because you have delivered on your promises to support Virginia's Historically Black Colleges and Universities, I am pleased to support you in your re-election to the U.S. Senate," Lambert wrote. "I hope to be working with you in Washington long after November to continue fighting on behalf of all educational institutions for higher education."

Lambert's endorsement comes at a critical time for Allen, as his standing in public polls has fallen after comments he made to a Webb volunteer. In August, Allen was caught on video calling S.R. Sidarth "macaca" and welcoming him to "the real world of Virginia." Macaca literally means a genus of monkey and is considered a slur in some cultures.

An independent poll conducted by Mason-Dixon on behalf of several news organizations reported this week that Allen leads Webb by 4 percentage points, down from 16 at the end of July.

Allen campaign manager Dick Wadhams called Lambert's surprise announcement "a huge endorsement for Senator Allen, but it's also a very damaging blow to the Webb campaign."

In April, Lambert endorsed Webb's Democratic primary opponent, Harris Miller, and joined several other leading black lawmakers in questioning Webb's support for diversity programs for African Americans.

Since he became a candidate for the Senate, Webb said that he supports affirmative action for blacks but not as a broader program aimed at helping other minorities. "I'm a strong supporter of affirmative action in its original intent, which is to help African Americans," Webb said in June.

Webb spokeswoman Kristian Denny Todd said that it was "quite a surprise" to learn of Lambert's endorsement of Allen. "Not too long ago, Jim had a very productive meeting with Senator Lambert, where his concerns were addressed," she said. "We feel confident that we will move ahead in unity with African Americans to win in Virginia."

Asked if Allen supports affirmative action, Wadhams said he "supports affirmative recruitment, actively seeking out opportunities for minorities. He does not support quotas."

Lambert, who has served in the state Senate since 1986, said in an interview that he remains concerned about Webb's position.

"Affirmative action was one of the things that helped the black students and black people, period," he said. "When you start talking about not being for affirmative action, it really turns people off."

Lambert said he was not aware that Allen does not expressly support affirmative action. "I hope that I can get him to change his mind on that," he said.

Webb had difficulty appealing to the black community during the primary against Miller, and political observers have cited that as a weakness in his race against Allen. African Americans have traditionally been key to Democratic victories in Virginia.

Webb's problems stem from articles he wrote as a freelance journalist during the last two decades.

"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 a Wall Street Journal book review in 2000.

Those comments drew sharp criticism this year from Miller and several black lawmakers, including Lambert.

Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) expressed dismay over Lambert's decision to break rank with the party and endorse Allen's reelection bid.

"Are you kidding me?" Saslaw asked when told of the endorsement. "It's unfortunate. I don't see why he would have done that, but certainly it's a free country."

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