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Jewish World Review Nov. 12, 2001 / 26 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

John H. Fund

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A Winsome Politician: She won an election in a majority-black district--and she's a Republican -- OF all the improbable outcomes in this week's elections, two struck me as worthy of a Hollywood movie script. Mike Bloomberg's upset victory for New York City mayor might make a great "Batman" fantasy. It would feature Mr. Bloomberg in the role of "playboy Bruce Wayne," a man who suddenly becomes bored with merely fighting crime in the guise of Batman and instead decides he will find fulfillment as mayor of Gotham City.

But a more inspirational, and almost as implausible, script could be fashioned from the story of Winsome Earle Sears, a 37-year-old Virginia mother of three who has just defeated a 20-year incumbent to become the first black Republican woman elected from a black-majority state legislative district anywhere in the country in recent memory.

Her "Winsome vs. Goliath" story will no doubt make her a fixture on the lecture circuit. Devoutly religious, an aimless Ms. Sears grew up in the Bronx. When she was 18 her Jamaican grandmother died and she took it as a sign she had to make something of herself. She joined the Marines, became an electrician and diesel mechanic, and learned that "you don't get respect there unless you dig your own ditch."

After three years she left with many commendations and then married a Marine first lieutenant, moved back with him to his home town of Norfolk, Va., and began raising three children. After a job in banking, she had another sign that she should help others, and she became director of the Hope Center, a Salvation Army homeless shelter for mothers and their children. After two years, she left to become a graduate student at Regent University. Last summer, Republicans had no candidate to run in a redrawn 58% black House district in Norfolk that was represented by Delegate William P. Robison, an incumbent elected in 1981 to succeed his late father in office.

The party approached her, and she began her campaign on Aug. 21, not fully knowing what was in store .

Mr. Robinson, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, was flush with cash from special interests. On Aug. 31, his campaign had $34,000 in the bank; she had $77. Then Mr. Robinson, a Harvard-educated criminal-defense lawyer, had his own brush with the law. He was found in contempt of court for missing a criminal hearing and sentenced to five days in jail. He served one day and was freed pending appeal. He also faced contempt-of-court hearings in at least two other cases.

Ms. Sears walked much of her district to meet voters, by all accounts more than living up to her first name. But the campaign soon turned ugly. Much was made of a brief bankruptcy, and when that didn't stick the threats and intimidation began. "Because I was a Republican, I was told I wasn't black enough," says the richly dark-skinned Ms. Sears. Phone calls featuring the sound of military boots would be made to her home late at night. She claims that Michael F. Muhammad, head of the New Black Panthers Party, cursed and threatened her.

The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot reported that Mr. Muhammad was "one of Robinson's most visible supporters" and that last week a warrant was issued for his arrest on a stalking charge brought by Ms. Sears. Mr. Muhammad surrendered and was released on $2,500 bail. Mr. Robinson said he disavowed Mr. Muhammad's hateful comments about whites and Jews and that he didn't work for him.

Ms. Sears said she sometimes felt "as if I should call in Jimmy Carter to ensure a free and fair election," but the ex-Marine never stopped walking precincts, and a late infusion of state party money allowed her to spend $50,000, about half of Mr. Robinson's war chest. The result was a stunning upset. Ms. Sears won 53%, sweeping the white precincts of Chesapeake while winning 46% of the vote in the largely black Norfolk portions of the district.

The delegate-elect is a staunch conservative, who says she lost the endorsement of the Virginian-Pilot when she told them she was "a Christian first and a Republican second." Her philosophy is that the "first type of government is self-government. Legislatively, I know that some of my decisions may not be popular. It's called leadership."

Her conservatism will be tempered with a mother's concern that state government not ignore her urban district's crumbling public schools. She is sympathetic to school choice, but believes whatever vouchers or tax credits are made available should pay for the entire cost of a poor child's education.

She credits her conversion to the Republican Party to the candidacy of Michael Dukakis for president. "He would talk about how only government could help the downtrodden lift themselves up and how the right of abortion couldn't be restricted in any way, shape or form," she recalls. "I just knew then that I had been a lazy Democrat and I never looked back. I became a Republican."

While her district remains Democratic, apparently a majority of her constituents have gone through enough rethinking of their own to give the irrepressible Ms. Sears a chance to try a different kind of representation. "Black people always get the shaft when they back only one party," she says. "It's time some of us tried a different philosophy and had a voice in both corridors of power."

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©2001, John H. Fund