A Primary Lesson in Party Loyalty

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 20, 2007

RICHMOND, May 19 -- Remember the bruising campaign between James Webb and George Allen last fall?

It's not quite over.

Six months after he narrowly defeated Allen and handed Democrats control of the U.S. Senate, Webb (D-Va.) has some unfinished business to take care of: unseating state Sen. Benjamin J. Lambert III (D-Richmond).

Lambert, who is black, cut a radio commercial supporting Allen, appeared on stage with him and President Bush and sent out statements defending Allen from allegations that he used racial slurs in college. During a nationally televised debate with Webb, Allen used the Lambert endorsement to show his appeal to minorities after his well-publicized "macaca" remark.

Now, many Webb supporters are out for revenge, and Virginia's junior senator is actively campaigning for Lambert's opponent in the June 12 Democratic primary, Del. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond). Webb has hosted a fundraiser for McEachin and probably will appear in radio and television ads before the primary. The senator had planned to be in Richmond on Saturday to host a second fundraiser but called in by phone after rushing to North Carolina to be with his Marine son, who has returned from Iraq.

"I think that voters realize that if George Allen had won, we would have a very different situation in Congress and in Washington, generally," Webb said this week. "Benny Lambert's decision to endorse George Allen influenced Donald McEachin's decision to pursue a state Senate seat, and I want to be very supportive of my friend."

Lambert, 70, said he thinks voters are ready to move beyond last year's heated election.

"If people look at my record from the time I have been in the General Assembly, they can see a clear pattern" of being a good Democrat, Lambert said.

The race is one of the hardest-fought contests of this year's primary, a prelude to a bitter fall campaign when all 140 Senate and House seats are up for election. McEachin, 45, is taking on an incumbent who has been involved in Richmond politics for decades.

Besides offering an early test of Webb's influence in Virginia politics, the race could show the intensity of Bush's unpopularity among Democrats. The heavily Democratic and black district includes parts of Richmond, Henrico County and Charles City County.

McEachin, one of Webb's earliest supporters last year, is winning support from liberal bloggers and some Northern Virginia Democrats, including former U.S. representative Leslie L. Byrne.

"If it had just been the endorsement of Allen, people may have been able to overlook that," said Del. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond), who is neutral in the race. "It was the showing up with George Bush that made a lot of Democrats wonder how he could be standing next to a man who is the antithesis of everything you have been working for."

But Lambert, an optometrist, is a formidable opponent with deep pockets and significant support within black churches. Lambert has lent his campaign $100,000 -- with more to follow -- and so far has a sizable fundraising advantage over McEachin, despite Webb's help.

Lambert, who was elected to the Senate in 1986 after serving nine years in the House, said the election is about which candidate has the experience and influence to deliver state dollars to Richmond. He has funneled so much money to Richmond area projects over the years that his portrait hangs in the Urban League of Greater Richmond's headquarters.

If he is reelected and Democrats take control of the Senate, Lambert could become the next chairman or vice chairman of the finance committee, a position he said he would use to help Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) further his agenda. Kaine is neutral in the race.

"I have the seniority, and I have the experience," Lambert said. "If Donald wins, he goes to the end of the line."

Undoubtedly, however, the campaign turns back to Lambert's support of Allen.

"I don't understand how you can support a man who was walking in lockstep with George Bush while we have young people dying in Iraq," McEachin said. He recently handed out a campaign flier that said, "Want to make George Allen and George Bush really mad? Help Donald McEachin defeat their best friend."

Earlier this year, some members of the Richmond Democratic Party tried to expel Lambert because of his support for Allen, but the effort fell short by a few votes. Even so, James M. Nachman, chairman of the Richmond Democratic Committee, and Timothy Mitchell, chairman of the Henrico Democratic Party, are backing McEachin.

Lambert is unapologetic for his support for Allen. Having grown up poor in the era of segregation, Lambert got his chance at success by attending Virginia Union University in Richmond in the 1950s.

Lambert said he has been loyal to historically black colleges ever since. He says he endorsed Allen because the senator was pledging to secure $500 million in federal funds for historically black colleges, many of which are financially pinched. As for riding in Bush's limousine and standing on stage with him and Allen, Lambert said he used it as an opportunity to lobby Bush for more funding for black colleges.

"I didn't become a Republican. I just rode with him," Lambert said. "It was all about the schools. They brought me across the line. I was not thinking about national-type politics at the time."

Lambert's political problems might extend beyond the Allen endorsement. Some Democrats are questioning his ties to big business. Lambert sits on the board of directors for Sallie Mae and Dominion Virginia Power, and he owns more than $250,000 in stock in each corporation, according to state records.

"What is wrong with a black person being on a corporate board?" Lambert said. "There should be more."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company