Black is a perennial target for Democrats, who have long argued that his vocal opposition to abortion rights is out of step with a changing Virginia.
But it is Black’s more recent focus on Syria that convinced Bell that he should take him on, the delegate said in an interview with The Washington Post. Black traveled to Damascus in 2016 for a meeting with Assad and suggested, in a 20-minute floor speech this year as the Virginia Senate gathered for a special session on the state budget, that the Syrian president might have been framed for a suspected chemical attack.
“We were in dire need of a budget and debating Medicaid expansion — the most important issue Virginia’s faced in many years,” Bell said. “To go off and talk about Syria — which quite frankly, unless it’s a trade issue, I don’t think the General Assembly should be focusing on international issues — that, to me, was the epitome of not focusing on what this district needs.”
Black, 74, who spent eight years in the Virginia House before joining the Senate in 2012, declined to comment.
A decorated Vietnam War veteran and retired Pentagon lawyer, Black avidly follows news from the Middle East. He regards Assad as a protector of Syrian Christians and a buffer against Islamist extremism. The Trump and Obama administrations blamed Assad for chemical weapons attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians in rebel-held areas during Syria’s civil war.
In 2014, Black wrote a letter of praise to Assad, which the Syrian president posted on Facebook. He followed that with a visit to Damascus in 2016.
Bell, 55, who is in his second term in the House, is a retired Air Force officer and former management consultant. Other Democrats vying for the nomination are Suhas Subramanyam, a former technology adviser in the Obama White House; Kyle Green, a former Marine who served in Afghanistan; activist Jasmine Moawad-Barrientos; and Lucero Wiley, who has worked in investment banking.
Black defeated his last Democratic challenger by five points in 2015, despite being outspent by a 2-to-1 margin.
But Democrats see an opportunity in that the district, which covers parts of Loudoun and Prince William counties, has been bluer than the state as a whole in recent election cycles.
In the 2016 presidential race, Democrat Hillary Clinton beat Republican Donald Trump in the district by six points, better than her 5.3 percent margin statewide. In the 2017 race for governor, Democrat Ralph Northam beat Republican Ed Gillespie by 11 points in the district while winning the state as a whole by nine percentage points.