The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia senator who twice met Syria’s Bashar al-Assad will not seek reelection

Virginia state Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun) will not seek reelection.
Virginia state Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun) will not seek reelection. (Bob Brown/AP)

RICHMOND — State Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun), a staunch conservative and decorated Vietnam veteran who drew international attention for twice visiting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said Wednesday that he will not seek reelection in November.

Black’s decision comes as Virginia Republicans, who have not won statewide since 2009 and control both the state House and Senate by a mere two seats, are looking for ways to avoid continued losses in the suburbs.

Meet the Virginia state senator who sat down with Assad

Although there had been talk that a more moderate Republican might challenge Black for the nomination, the senator said he was retiring for purely personal reasons: At 74, he wants to spend more time with his 16 grandchildren and in the outdoors.

In a speech before the Virginia Senate on April 11, 2018, Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun) said he doubted whether a chemical attack occurred in Syria. (Video: Virginia General Assembly)

He said he came to that conclusion a few months ago, while in the Arizona desert hunting poisonous snakes, a pastime he has enjoyed since his childhood in the Florida Everglades.

“I love the outdoors,” said Black, who has served in the Senate since 2012 and spent eight years in the House before that. “I’m so confined.”

Black’s decision was first reported by the Bull Elephant, a conservative blog. Black confirmed his plans in an interview with The Washington Post and later issued a news release.

Assad received Black in the Syrian capital, Damascus, in April 2016 and September 2018. The Syrian leader has been accused of war crimes for his forces’ assaults on civilians, including with chemical weapons, in the country’s brutal civil war.

Black regards Assad as a protector of Syrian Christians and a buffer against Islamic extremism. He has suggested that the chemical weapons attacks were either staged or perpetrated by Turkey and al-Qaeda with the aim of triggering a U.S. strike on Syria.

Va. senator travels to Syria to shake hands with Bashar al-Assad

During Black’s latest visit, Syria’s state-run news service reported that Black said he “sensed the love of the Syrian people for [Assad’s] army and leadership” and criticized U.S. sanctions against the Assad regime.

Black represents a fast-growing suburban northern Virginia district that has become less friendly to Republicans in recent election cycles. Democrats saw the seat as a prime pickup opportunity before Black’s decision, which could scramble that political calculus.

By bowing out, Black could clear the way for his party to nominate a moderate with more appeal to crucial swing voters. But the GOP will also lose a “canny political survivor” who built a loyal following through attentive constituent service and unyielding social and fiscal conservatism, said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington.

“Senator Black has had a bull’s eye on his back in election cycle after election cycle, and he has consistently managed, through his connection to the district, to survive aggressive Democratic efforts to defeat him,” Farnsworth said.

Following Black’s announcement, former Republican delegate David Ramadan said he was considering a bid. He said two Republican friends were doing the same, Loudoun County Supervisors Matthew Letourneau and Ron Meyer.

At one point last year, five Democrats were vying for the right to take on Black, although the field has shrunk to three: Del. John J. Bell (D-Loudoun); activist Jasmine Moawad-Barrientos; and Lucero Wiley, a financial adviser.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) praised Black for 50 years of public service in a written statement that noted Black’s “substantial” legislative wins and military record.

“As a Marine combat helicopter pilot in Vietnam who holds a Purple Heart, as an Army JAG officer, and as a Delegate and a Senator, Colonel Dick Black has devoted his life to serving our nation and our commonwealth,” Norment wrote.

Reaction was muted among Senate Democrats, who often clashed with Black politically but respect his service.

“Let him go in peace,” said Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax County). “I wish him well in retirement. He fought for his country, which is more than President Trump was willing to do at a time of war.”

Democratic Party spokesman Jake Rubenstein was more pointed.

“Virginians deserve public officials who go to Richmond to improve their lives, not ones that defend murderous foreign dictators, discriminate against the LGBTQ community and attack women’s health-care rights,” he said.

Black got his start in politics in 1997, soon after retiring to Loudoun County and joining the local library board. At his first meeting, he 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 in the county that was home to AOL. Black ran for the House of Delegates the next year and won.

In the House and later in the Senate, Black continued to champion social issues. Before his alliance with Assad, he was best known for sending tiny plastic fetuses to legislators in 2003, on the eve of a vote on one of his bills, to require minors to obtain parental consent for abortions.

The stunt caused an uproar, but Black said it helped his cause, drawing attention that prevented Republican moderates from quietly shelving the bill. It became law, one that is still on the books.

In recent years, he sponsored legislation to address campus sexual assault, ban female genital mutilation, and study the state’s backlog of untested rape kits. 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 robbed a string of pharmacies with a toy gun.

A portrait of injustice in black and white

“Sen Black will always be remembered as a reliable champion and hero for conservatives,” Sen. Amanda F. Chase (R-Chesterfield) said via text message. “I admire his boldness and willingness to face difficult issues head on, yet with such respect. I can’t imagine a General Assembly without Sen Black.”