Benjamin Lambert’s Party

When I am decrepit on a morphine drip, and the name of my managing editor sounds as foggy and unfamiliar as my first date’s, I will be bursting into wheezing chuckle at there mere whisper of “macaca.” I find its consequences overblown and wonder if anyone is still offended after all this time. It’s not in the Oxford English Dictionary (although, it will soon be); it’s not in the most comprehensive French dictionaries in my local library, but its impact is just as large as the word “fucked.” According to all the polls, Democratic State Senator Benjamin Lambert’s prospects in the upcoming Democratic primary may be just that. Delegate Don McEachin is a serious threat and a potential career ender.

I sign up for a wide variety of excruciating junk mail: Clinton’s frivolous pleas to cast online votes for her campaign’s rally song, ex-governor Romney’s absurd demand that I help continue his “Mitt-mentum.” Somehow, and at this point I can’t really remember how, a lot of the statewide stuff has been making its way to my door in paper form.

A few days ago, direct from McEachin for State Senate, arrived pure political strictnine: a photo of Lambert grinning in the direction of an unseen photographer along with George Allen and George Bush, Susan Allen and Bush’s armored limousine waiting in the background.
Last October, with the spirit of the Halloween in the air and Allen performing plausibly well in the polls, it probably seemed like a half-decent idea for a photo opportunity. Unfortunately for Lambert, to the Democrats voting in the upcoming June 12 primary, those pumpkins bear a perverse resemblance to the fricaseed skulls of Iraqi children. Or perhaps a globe united in contempt. Unions, environmentalists, and the African-American Richmond Crusade For Voters have left the surrounding region’s senator high and dry in his search for organizing, and it probably has little to do with his voting record. McEachin emphasizes his “Democratic Values,” wears his F-rating from the National Rifle Association as a Badge of Honor (the NRA most recently gave Lambert a “D,”) and his pro-choice voting record (although McEachin has scored slightly higher in the past with pro-life lobbyists).

Lambert’s calculation was that he was working for his constituents, for his base. To those who had their eyes of the race, his Allen endorsement was mind-boggling and by that token important to the U.S. Senator. The calculation must have gone something like this: Allen would funnel more money than Webb on the federal scene to historically black colleges, thus making any potential backlash spinnable. Bennie Lambert felt magnanimous enough to believe that just in a matter of weeks, Allen could change his epithet-spouting love for the Confederacy and jingoism into something meaningful for local African-Americans. McEachin would later opine it was facile to think that a Democrat like Webb would not have provided the funding for historically black colleges. I gave him a ring at his law office.

Tyler S. Bass: Have you been getting Senator Lambert’s mailouts?

Aston Donald McEachin: Yes.

TSB: What’s your opinion of some of this stuff? He seems to be emphasizing individual profiles of people locally, and it’s kind of the elephant in the living room: he’s always trying to put himself – I think because of Allen’s reputation of being like, oh, intensely racist – beside black voters, and I don’t know if you had any comments on that. It was just pretty obvious.

ADM: Well, I think you’re on a long assumption. He’s not sending the same mail everywhere. For instance, some of the mail I’ve gotten looks different than maybe some of the mail you’ve gotten. And near as we can figure, he’s not sending every piece everywhere . . .

TSB: Really.

ADM: . . . unlike our mail program where we send the same mail piece to our entire mail universe, his seems to be more –
TSB: Targeted?

ADM: I don’t know what I would call it. You and I are not necessarily getting the same pieces.

McEachin and I would then spent a few moments getting our bearings straight. It turned out he was not in the center of Richmond’s Fan District like me. He was out in the Chamberlain Farms area.

ADM: The last piece you got, I’m guessing, is the one with the African-American boy – young man, rather – who was going to William & Mary?

TSB: Well, actually this one is one gentleman going to [Virginia Commonwealth University] and the other one is going to East Carolina. I received another one that had a young lady who I think needed some medical care. I have not received a single mailout where the person who was with him wasn’t black. [Looking back through a stack of papers containing old mail, this ended up not being true. I had received more than a handful of pieces from Lambert in the previous few weeks. One of them featured the whites, such as the endorser Dianne Seargent, a past PTA president in Henrico County; as well as the company of whites like an older man and a high school student. Across the board, however, the African-American presence was not simple tokenism or even population proportionate. From the fliers I was getting, Lambert was making a clear attempt to reconnect with black voters, or at least everybody else who thought Allen had had, as Style’s Chris Dovi put it, “tourrettes.” Getting back, I said on the phone] And I think this is probably a response to Allen.

ADM: I have seen very few mailouts where the person next to him is African-American, so I guess that’s – not that I haven’t got some, because surely I have, but I’ve got a number where he’s with white people as well.

TSB: He continues to support to say the support for Allen was a good thing, right?

ADM: You’d have to ask him, but that’s the message I’m hearing.

TSB: What would you say is the major policy difference that Lambert has said he is completely different from you on? – in just trying to differentiate. I know your points have been, in staying on message, that he’s endorsed Allen, he’s campaigning with Bush, he has campaigned with the president. And obviously [the president] is not too popular in [Richmond]. I was wondering what policy difference he has asserted that he does disagree with you on, and I guess I should give him a call after this, but [on which] you feel you are intensely differentiated from him.

ADM: I think you are not giving the Allen thing its full weight, because it’s not just campaigning with the president, and it’s not campaigning with George Bush. It’s Senator Allen. When you do that, and you give someone your endorsement, you are endorsing their programs, and that includes the war in Iraq, that includes the so-called No Child Left Behind program. So especially in supporting and endorsing someone like George Allen, who is so lock-step with George Bush, I don’t think that can be overlooked. I said that one of the reasons that I have a [Virginia Educators Association] endorsement is because [Lambert] has supported vouchers in the past, where I have not.

TSB: The Iraq War is all fine and good, but I, for one, and I think most people would probably agree with you that is a bad thing, but how would your role as a State Senator even reflect funding for that? How does really weigh in?

ADM: I’m not suggesting it does. My point was, you’re supporting somebody like George Allen, and your endorsing somebody like George Allen is an endorsement of those programs. That was my only point.

It does not surprise me in the least that Allen was willing to shell out more money for historically black colleges. Even the segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond in his day supported establishing scholarships for blacks in their own colleges. But that’s the real problem here, one people are about to lose track of in what is a Democrat-on-Democrat competition: The historically black state-sponsored colleges, regardless of the investment their students deserve, are by their very nature participants in the token system if they have to scrape for funding with the race card. Guilting white racists into properly funding those institutions would not have made them respect black people more. Making whites feel guilty is not necessarily a demand for real change in behavior.

For as much as politicians expect African-Americans to end up in a monolithic voting block, on his way down, Allen inspired a queasiness irrelevent to black consciousness itself. With more than a 75% chunk of “non-whites” having been altogether uncomfortable with voting for Allen (this according to a CNN poll), whites seemed just as driven behind a one partisan sales pitch. I remember seeing Lambert’s face in person the moment a defeated Allen publically thanked him for the support while subtly prepping his own closest supporters for probable defeat. Lambert was smiling begrudgingly without eye participation. He looked like he had just eaten a ton of inauthentic Mexican food, and washed it down with quite authentic Mexican tap water.
Lambert had to steer the other way. When I approached him last November for his reasons for supporting Allen, he cited his friendship and political relationship with him and his wife. This year at the Richmond Technical Center, an audience member asked Lambert if he would put his political party or his constituents first, and he replied, “”That’s easy. My constituents. That’s why I’m in trouble now, because I looked out for my constituents.” Whether the two candidates want to come out and say it now or not, an even more mail piece from Lambert expressed understated apology with similar terms. “I realize I haven’t always been right,” a clause read preceding an uncanny ellipses, “but I’ve always done what I thought was right for our community.” It seems to me the Senator is speaking in code. Wherever George Allen is right now, he would surely understand Lambert’s overt backpedaling, if it came down to that.

Holding up party loyalty as an ideal has serious drawbacks, especially as it comes to shielding people from independent thought, thinking for themselves, and questioning authority. But around here in Richmond, it looks like Lambert, a 21-year veteran of the Virginia Senate, could very well see his tenure bite the dust come June 12.