RICHMOND — After Virginia state Sen. Richard H. Black popped up in Damascus this spring, shaking hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the reaction was swift and cutting.
“Dangerously clueless,” Democrats said. “Ignorant” of Assad’s brutality, said the White House. Even fellow Republicans cracked jokes.
In the month since, the Northern Virginia legislator, who regards Assad as a protector of Syrian Christians and a buffer against Islamic extremism, has been on the receiving end of something else: invitations.
Black (R-Loudoun) has been asked to speak, alongside congressmen and a senior State Department official, at a Washington forum on energy and foreign policy. To attend a reception, as the guest of a Jewish constituent, at the Israeli Embassy. To hold Skype sessions with Middle East interest groups. To address a couple of hundred Syrian expats in Boston.
“There’s definitely a lot of interest in hearing what I have to say about Syria,” Black said. “I think it’s pretty clear to people that they’re not getting the straight scoop from their government, and they’re interested in hearing factual information about what’s actually going on.”
Black’s late-April meeting with Assad continues to reverberate, raising and expanding the profile of a man who for years had been known for a single anti-abortion stunt: He was the guy who once mailed tiny plastic fetuses to fellow legislators. Now, he’s the local legislator who had a two-hour sit-down with Assad, a dictator the Obama administration says unleashed chemical weapons on his own people.
Democrats see his trip as a tin-eared political caper, one that reinforces the notion that Black is not just outside the mainstream but also a little nutty.
“If I got on a plane and said to Assad, ‘Attaboy,’ you would absolutely think, ‘Saslaw has lost it,’ ” said state Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). “And by God, you would be right. . . . I like Dick, but we’re moving into weird.”
Black’s support for Assad has earned him other foes; he now has a spot on the Islamic State’s enemies list. But Black, 72, has also drawn praise from left- and right-leaning skeptics of U.S. foreign policy. The decorated Vietnam veteran figures that about half the people who have phoned to express approval are Democrats from the party’s Bernie Sanders wing.
To critics who say Black had no business lending legitimacy to Assad, the senator replies in a way familiar to anyone who has seen him operate in Richmond: with passion and a visceral reference to war. “Show me somebody on the [U.S. Senate] Foreign Relations Committee who has shed more blood for this country, and maybe they can tell me I have no business speaking out,” said Black, who received a Purple Heart for his military service.
Black fought in the jungles of Vietnam, flying helicopters for the Marines, directing the dropping of more than 1,000 bombs and engaging in close ground combat.
A onetime Baptist who converted to Catholicism as an adult, Black feels deeply about war, suffering and life. That drives him whether he is battling abortion or conducting an unlikely tete-a-tete with Assad in the Syrian palace, where the discussion ranged from international politics to chit-chat about family.
Even before Vietnam, Black was drawn to global affairs. He grew up with a father who traveled across Latin America for the IRS and a nanny with a backstory out of an international thriller. After the war, he was stationed in Germany as an Army lawyer. So Black thinks — and acts — globally, sometimes in ways that seem jarring for a state legislator with no role in setting foreign policy.
His April visit with Assad was particularly surprising because Black, one of Virginia’s strongest voices for protecting life at every stage, embraced a man the White House blames for a 2013 sarin gas attack that killed more than 1,400 civilians.
Black feels certain that Turkey and al-Qaeda engineered the attack in hopes of triggering a U.S. strike on Syria. The senator says he believes that by drawing attention to the issue with his visit, he can help set U.S. foreign policy straight.
But Black’s intensity and tactics — whether he’s praising Assad or blasting Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” as “moral sewage” — can make him an easy target, even among kindred spirits.
“I can’t comment on this. But I want to. So much,” Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) tweeted in April along with a photo of Black shaking hands with Assad.
Black drew similar reactions in 2014 when he wrote a letter of praise to Assad. The Syrian president posted it on Facebook, prompting the Islamic State to put Black on its enemies list.
“What’s the matter, Dick?” state Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin) joked at the time. “Kim Jong Un not returning your text messages?”
Black is used to the jabs. He is still mocked — 13 years later — for enclosing tiny pink, plastic fetuses in letters he sent to senators ahead of an abortion vote. And yet, Black’s bill became law.
As a state delegate in 2003, Black wrote a bill requiring minors to get parental consent for abortions. The measure cleared the House but seemed doomed in a Senate committee controlled by moderates. On the eve of the committee vote, Black’s letter landed.
“You can see that by the 11th week of gestation, a child is well-developed and unmistakably human,” it said. “Would you kill this child?”
The little fetus dolls, bought for 17 cents a pop from an anti-abortion group, caused an uproar.
“People were really appalled by this and talked about nothing else for days afterwards,” said Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax). “My receptionist was sobbing. . . . She had had many miscarriages, and she and her husband so much wanted a baby. And here she comes to work, opens my mail — which is her job — and out came a fetus. It just devastated her. And I have never forgiven him for it.”
Black said the outcry helped his cause, drawing attention to the bill and preventing moderates from quashing it in committee. Yet even some pro-life Republicans questioned his strategy.
“You need to shock the conscience, not [cause] the visceral, physical revulsion,” said one Richmond Republican, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending Black.
Bucking conventional political wisdom has often worked for Black, who has beaten better-funded challengers backed by Emily’s List and other abortion rights groups. Black led a revolt against GOP leaders in 2014, when he warned that Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) had a secret plan to circumvent the legislature to pull off his marquee campaign promise: expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
Pure conspiracy theory, GOP leaders said at first. But Black dug in and eventually got changes made to obscure budget language that he said could pave the way for an expansion via executive order.
The McAuliffe administration, which declined to comment for this article, later conceded that the governor was, in fact, pursuing a secret expansion plan — one thwarted by Black.
When he was young and his mother ill, Black had a nanny who told stories of international intrigue and injustice. Born in Germany, she was an acrobatic dancer who, while entertaining troops during World War II, was caught behind enemy lines in Poland and gang-raped.
She resumed dancing after the war and was on tour when her troupe went belly-up, stranding her, penniless, in Havana. There she met Black’s father, an IRS agent dispatched to audit island hotels owned by American mobsters. She moved to Miami to care for Black and a younger sister.
As a painfully shy, pimply teenager in Miami, Black was drawn to nerdy-but-daring pursuits. He hunted poisonous snakes. He nearly blew himself up in a home chemistry lab. He was “unnaturally stubborn” by his own account and refused — even as his nanny beat him with a ruler — to put down his chemistry book and go to bed. That was the last straw for the nanny, who quit.
But her stories of brutality, combined with his tour in Vietnam, formed a potent foundation for his later career as a Pentagon lawyer prosecuting rape cases and as a legislator in the General Assembly.
“When I think about abortion,” Black said in the Senate one day in 2013, on the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, “my mind returns to battlefields in Vietnam.”
He went on to describe, in cinematic detail, the death of an enemy soldier who had lobbed a grenade at the Americans and got a bayonet slashing in return.
“I remember this enemy soldier, this Viet Cong soldier, screaming, screaming with desperation, screaming like an animal,” said Black, who wanted his enemy’s suffering to end. “And all that I could do as the enemy were surging around us was to yell across the field and say: ‘Shoot him! For God’s sake, just shoot him!’ And they did.”
“As we ran by, I recall looking at him, and he was clearly dead,” he said. “No one would doubt that he was dead. And yet his body shook with the adrenaline that had surged from the horror and the terror that he had gone through. Ladies and gentlemen, the children who die in the womb don’t die easily. People do not die easily. People die in a desperate struggle for life.”
Stanley, the Republican who later teased Black about his fan letter to Assad, took in that speech from a corner of the Senate reserved for GOP cut-ups. All opposed to abortion yet inclined to crack wise, they rolled their eyes as Black launched his Vietnam analogy.
“We’re like, ‘What is he talking about?’ ” Stanley said. “And by the end . . . we were all so moved by it that we were in tears.”
But Democrats were outraged that Black had also invoked the Holocaust, as he suggested that people might look back on abortion someday and wonder why ordinary citizens did not do more to stop it.
For such a polarizing figure, Black has forged some unlikely alliances. He has won praise from some women’s groups for separate laws he wrote that made the state address its backlog of untested rape kits and allowed minors to consent to rape exams, even when their parents object.
“He picked up the torch,” said Kristine Hall, policy director for the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance.
Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-Arlington), a vocal abortion rights advocate, worked closely with Black last year to address concerns that colleges were playing down sexual assault. She did not find it easy. Black wanted all campus rapes reported to police. Favola feared that would deter some victims from seeking help. Only after weeks of wrangling did they reach a compromise.
“He’s very well intentioned,” she said. But “he does not see any gray in things.”
Some of Black’s harshest critics suggest something darker. They point to comments he made in 2002, while debating a bill to change Virginia’s definition of spousal rape, which then applied only to cases involving physical injury or couples living apart.
“I do not know how on earth you could validly get a conviction of a husband-wife rape where they’re living together, sleeping in the same bed, she’s in a nightie and so forth, there is no injury, there’s no separation or anything,” he said.
The remark resurfaces every time he runs for office.
“GOP Congressional Candidate: Spousal Rape Shouldn’t Be a Crime,” read a Mother Jones headline in 2014, when Black briefly ran for Congress.
Black said he never doubted the notion of spousal rape; in the 1980s, he prosecuted an Army doctor for raping his estranged wife. He said he only questioned how prosecutors could win convictions without injury or separation. And ultimately, he voted for the bill, which became law.
But to Black’s detractors, such as Progress VA Executive Director Anna Scholl, the “nightie” comment suggested that he blames victims for inviting sexual assault.
“It speaks,” she said, “to a deeper sentiment that men just sometimes can’t help themselves.”
His first stint in politics came after Vietnam, when he was back at the University of Miami and elected to the student senate. Black was in his late 20s, married, with two children. In the Age of Aquarius, his idea of a toe-tapper was “Born Free.” He was the odd man out.
“The antiwar movement was roaring, so the senate spent most of its time — when they weren’t talking about rock concerts — talking about the war and trying to pass antiwar resolutions,” he said.
Decades passed before he joined another deliberative body. In 1997, soon after retiring and moving to Loudoun County with his wife, Barbara, to be near their first grandchild, Black was put on the local library board. He greeted the gig like a jury summons.
“I told myself, ‘Boy, this really sounds boring,’ ” he said.
At his first meeting, Black learned of plans to provide Internet access — something he feared could expose young library patrons to pornography. He persuaded the board to require filters, triggering a civil liberties lawsuit and making national news.
“Maybe if I had done this in Nebraska it would have been one thing, but to do it in Loudoun County, home of AOL, was hugely contentious,” Black said.
Black ran for the House of Delegates the next year and won.
In the Virginia House and later the Senate, Black continued to champion social issues, along with bills related to autism, Lyme disease and many other topics. He also spent the better part of a decade seeking clemency for a black woman who, under the state’s three-strikes law, got a much harsher sentence for robbing banks with a fake grenade than a more affluent white woman who had robbed a string of pharmacies with a toy gun.
That bit of Black’s biography is all but forgotten in Richmond, though his pro bono effort was the subject of a Washington Post article in 2003. The story made note of something else about Black.
“He’s the guy,” it said, “who sent miniature plastic fetuses to his fellow legislators during a debate over an abortion bill this year.”