Virginia's most visible Republican and Democrat paid political calls on nearly 200 black leaders today, with Gov. James S. Gilmore III pledging support for minority businesses and U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb urging his longtime allies to stand with him in the Nov. 2 legislative elections.
Appearing before the 64th annual convention of the state NAACP, Robb and Gilmore avoided overt political appeals but suggested that their respective parties offer African Americans opportunity for new political power, especially as Virginia prepares to elect candidates to all 140 General Assembly seats.
Both men reminded members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that they had dedicated millions of dollars in federal and state grants to improve historically black communities such as Bayview on the Eastern Shore.
Gilmore said that when he visited Bayview last year, "I saw a people rich in kinship and determination but a community deprived of hope and opportunity." Similarly, Robb said he had helped secure federal funds to send Bayview the basics of any neighborhood: paved roads, running water, indoor plumbing and safe housing.
Gilmore used his address to unveil a variety of initiatives geared expressly toward African Americans, including another attempt to win $1 million for a business fund dedicated to disadvantaged businesses; $500,000 for a marketing program designed to move Virginia up from its ranking as the nation's fourth most popular tourist destination for blacks; and the country's first Minority Technology Council to close a "digital divide" between African Americans and whites.
Later, speaking to reporters, Gilmore said his economic message was designed in part to reassure black leaders about his party's commitment to their issues.
"That's one reason why I'm here--to reach out the hand of friendship and to make sure that we understand that the Republican Party is reaching out to African American voters as well as every other voter in Virginia," Gilmore said.
In the day's keynote speech, Robb said: "On a bipartisan basis, all of us would agree that elections have consequences. What happens on Election Day determines whether we . . . build schools or build prisons, whether we import jobs or whether we import trash, whether we grow the economy or grow the debt."
Robb said he supported Gilmore on at least one thing. "I agree wholeheartedly with the governor that we can't afford a digital divide" that prevents some Virginians from gaining access to the Internet, he said.
Robb said later that his message was an implicitly Democratic call to arms. "Most of the people in this room will fare better under Democratic leadership than they will under Republican," Robb said.
L. Cardell Wells, president of an NAACP chapter in suburban Richmond, said she was impressed by both speeches, adding, "I'm nonpartisan right now."
But Emmitt H. Carlton Jr. of Alexandria, president of the statewide group that claims as many as 30,000 members in 70 different chapters, said the crowd probably leaned Robb's way. The senator "has been around longer and has resonated with the NAACP for years," he said.
Yet Gilmore's policy of outreach to black voters has been a refreshing break with his GOP predecessor, George Allen, who will challenge Robb next year, Carlton said.
"It was like night and day," Carlton said.
CAPTION: U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb talks with Gov. James S. Gilmore as the Rev. Hattie Morris listens during the state convention of the NAACP in Richmond.