In an article yesterday about Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III's overtures to African Americans, the city of Chesapeake was incorrectly identified as a county. (Published 01/24/2000)

Lionell Spruill Sr. is African American and a lifelong Democrat--not the typical demographic to support a Republican. But the instant a white Republican governor proposed a holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., it was Spruill who leaned forward in his seat on the floor of Virginia's House of Delegates and exclaimed, "Bless your heart!"

Gov. James S. Gilmore III's overtures to African Americans have transformed Spruill, a delegate from Chesapeake County in southern Virginia, into a strong supporter. Spruill even refers to the governor as Lord Gilmore, out of reverence.

During the past two weeks alone, Gilmore has focused heavily on issues affecting African Americans. He declared that the state's Standards of Learning needed to include more on black history. He also called for a separate King holiday, more money for historically black colleges, funding for a national slavery museum in Jamestown and an investigation into allegations of racial discrimination in the Virginia National Guard.

Although many Democrats dismiss Gilmore's proposals as little more than tokens, the moves have helped win over Spruill--an achievement the governor hopes to replicate as the state's GOP seeks to expand its support among African Americans, who vote overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates.

"He's helping us," Spruill said of Gilmore and African Americans. "If it's helping him to get black votes, then more power to him."

Courting African Americans and other minorities is a strategy that Republicans are trying to employ nationally, as the number of minorities increases. Earlier this month, Republican leaders gathered in California and brainstormed about how to broaden their appeal to African Americans and other minorities.

Black voters have been critical to Democratic victories, and Republicans are trying to erode that base of support.

African Americans generally have identified more closely with Democrats during the last 35 years, as they championed civil rights and voting rights legislation.

Gilmore advisers said Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) has set a good example by reaching out to minority voters. In presidential campaign speeches, Bush regularly proclaims his success at improving test scores for black and Hispanic children.

He also assiduously courts minority voters, an effort other presidential candidates have been making as well.

In Virginia, other Republicans are starting to follow Gilmore's lead. Former governor George Allen (R), who is challenging Charles S. Robb (D) for the U.S. Senate, announced his support for the King holiday--a reversal of the position he took when he was a member of the House of Delegates.

And Del. S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R-Amherst), who took over as House speaker after Republicans won a majority in November's elections, said he made a point of assigning members of the Black Caucus to powerful legislative committees.

African Americans make up about 15 percent of the state's nearly 3.7 million registered voters, who do not register by party. And in recent Virginia elections, no statewide Republican candidate has cracked 20 percent of the black vote, said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, a nonpartisan firm.

Dick Leggitt, a senior adviser to Gilmore, said the governor's initiatives dealing with African Americans spring from a natural empathy for people who are less well off and from suggestions made by former governor L. Douglas Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor. Leggitt said Gilmore has long expressed such concerns.

"The governor . . . feels we have a lot to say to black voters, that we have a good story to tell about how our policies can improve their lives," Leggitt said.

"If we reach out and include them, we have a substantial chance of pulling them away from the Democratic Party," Leggitt said. "You don't just want to say to any block of voters that they can go to the Democrats."

Gilmore's efforts to appeal to black voters stumbled in November, when he was criticized for borrowing a line from King's soaring "I Have a Dream" speech to express his delight that Republicans had gained a majority in the state House. "Free at last!" the governor shouted at the GOP victory party.

Many Democrats scoff at what the Republicans dub "outreach" to blacks. They said the GOP has failed to support measures Democrats said would improve the lives of many African Americans--from putting more money into public schools to providing more funding for child health care.

"They are political ploys meant to appeal . . . to get some greater support in that community," said Del. Marian Van Landingham (D-Alexandria). "What it is is a publicity effort. He's done a few things that don't cost him very much and that he publicizes very highly."

Whatever the party's motivation, Del. Jerrauld C. Jones (D-Norfolk), chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said he was pleased with the initiatives. Jones, however, said that most of the Republican efforts did not "fall down like manna from heaven" and instead came in response to requests from the Black Caucus.

"There is so much more to do than set aside a holiday," Jones said. "Let's not just take these little, easy something here and there. . . . So far, Republicans have not addressed issues that affect the vast majority of African Americans."

Republicans said that their positions on issues such as taxes, crime, business and welfare all benefit African Americans. At the recent Republican meeting in California, GOP leaders said they needed to do a better job marketing their message to make it more appealing to minority voters.

In Gilmore's State of the Commonwealth speech at the opening of the 60-day legislative session, he called for separating the holiday honoring King from the one for Confederate heroes Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

The proposal pleased many African American leaders who have long complained that it was a dishonor to King to lump the holidays together.

Gilmore's proposal for funding historically black colleges calls for $13.7 million in new funding for Virginia State University and $12.6 million for Norfolk State University.

Last year, Gilmore also called for giving those campuses more money, which Spruill said was a significant indication of Gilmore's commitment and helped bring him into the governor's corner. Spruill and other black lawmakers said the state has long shortchanged those universities.

By appealing to minority voters, Republicans become more palatable to middle-of-the road white voters who are leery of voting for GOP candidates because they view the party's record on race as negative, said David Bositis, a political analyst for the nonpartisan Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Virginia Republican leaders said their outreach efforts will intensify. They said such advances may seem more prominent now because the party has more power as a result of the November elections.

"This is the first time we've had the power in the numbers to express our core principles concerning racial equality," said Del. Paul C. Harris (Charlottesville), the only black Republican in Virginia's General Assembly. "We've never had the platform before that we now have, and we intend to take advantage of this platform to make clear what the Republican agenda is."