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Benny Swings Back

After his disastrous alignment with George Allen, State Sen. Benjamin Lambert III is fighting for his political life.



Sen. Benjamin Lambert III has spent three decades representing the Richmond region in Virginia's state Legislature, but the first time he visited the Capitol, he wasn't even allowed to eat lunch in the building.

In 1954 his junior-year government class took a field trip to the statehouse. Schools were still segregated, so he attended Henrico County's only high school for African-American students, Virginia Randolph Community High School.

The class took a tour and then perched in the second-floor Senate gallery and watched the floor proceedings. None of the cafeterias would serve the black students, so they headed over to Virginia Union University, the historically black college.

When they all finished their hot dogs and milkshakes, the government teacher gathered the students under a tree on the lawn. He had good news.

The U.S. Supreme Court had just announced its decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case making school segregation illegal.

Lambert recalls being pleased with the decision, but his first concern was that he might have to leave his beloved Virginia Randolph just before graduating.

If you are black and grew up in Henrico County in the 1950s, you probably know Lambert or one of his six siblings, or his four children. He went on to graduate from VUU with a degree in mathematics, became a certified optometrist and eventually entered politics, getting elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1978. He became a state senator in 1986.

He worked diligently for the Democratic Party during the Civil Rights era; even serving as L. Douglas Wilder's first campaign manager when he ran for governor in 1989. Now he sits on corporate boards for Sallie Mae and Dominion Virginia Power, and stills sees patients in his Jackson Ward optometry office.

Today, his party and many interest groups are backing his primary opponent, the widely favored Delegate Donald McEachin. It's punishment meted out in the wake of Lambert's decision to endorse former governor and Republican U.S. Sen. George Allen in the November election. Lambert endorsed Allen after his infamous "macaca" comment, which stirred up debate over Allen's attitudes on race. Despite Lambert's help, Allen was narrowly defeated by Democrat Jim Webb.

In the run-up to the June 12 Democratic primary, Lambert is fighting for his political life.

Last week, a day of campaigning started with a strategy session between Lambert and his son, Benjamin Lambert IV, a local investment banker. They meet at the North Side coffee shop Stir Crazy. Both men wear starched pastel dress shirts — father in lilac, son in pale blue.

Lambert is rather hefty. More than once that day he tells constituents that he's lost 55 pounds and his doctor says he'll be in good shape if he drops 45 more.

Out on the street, a man is waiting by Lambert's new black Cadillac. Lambert can't place him at first, but seems happy to see him anyway.

"Milton Brooks!" the man reminds him.

"Milton!" Lambert exclaims, laughing. Brooks' father was one of the original members of the Crusade for Voters, an African-American advocacy group that just endorsed his opponent, McEachin.

Their next stop is the Chickahominy YMCA in Sandston. There, Lambert the incumbent sits on a bench with a dozen other senior citizens near the coffee counter beside a glass wall overlooking the pool. He's friendly, but a little out of his comfort zone. He jokes about losing the 45 pounds. His son introduces him to a former FBI agent with a familiar last name, but the elder Lambert can't place him.

Helen Jefferson has just finished her first day at the YMCA and sits among the seniors delighted to find Lambert paying a visit. Their boys ran track together in high school. It's cordial, but when a reporter asks her about Lambert's decision to endorse Allen, she seems startled and surprised. She brushes off the question and continues praising Lambert and his family.

Many of the seniors at the YMCA may well be Republicans, the senator's son notes. The Democratic Party may shun his father, but the primary is an open election, which means that anyone can vote, not just Democrats. The Republicans are unlikely to run a candidate in the general election, so the Lambert camp is quietly hoping that Allen supporters will vote for Lambert in the upcoming primary.

Back in the car, Lambert navigates his way to the Yahley Mill Grill, a tiny restaurant on Route 5 in rural Varina. Lambert chats with the owner, Tamara Yahley, who shares some local history and extols the fried oyster po' boys.

On a wall near the register is a display shelf of novelty bottles of hot sauce. There's Rebel Rouser and Deep Down in Dixie Habenero Hot Sauce, which features a Confederate flag on the label. The grill illustrates the complexity of Lambert's district, which runs from the rough streets of housing projects such as Gilpin Court to the lush tree-lined lane where the Yahley Mill Grill sits.

Yahley doesn't seem overly invested in politics, but agrees to put a campaign sign out front. When Lambert senior projects a Zen-like certainty that he'll either win for the right reasons or lose with a clear conscience, the son appears frustrated.

"This is the classic example of a politician who's paid his dues, stayed out of trouble, helped people who needed it — and his whole political legacy has come down to an endorsement," Ben IV says, wiping off his hands after planting the sign. "It makes me sick to my stomach."

McEachin's campaign mailers bill him as the "true Democrat." He helped Webb's campaign by using the statewide contacts he'd made during his unsuccessful bid for attorney general in 2001. McEachin held a House of Delegates seat from 1996 to 2001 and won his seat back two years ago. Oddly, perhaps, Lambert's other son, David, is running for the seat McEachin is vacating in the House of Delegates.

Lambert walks into another cozy scene at the Corner Bar & Grill on Leigh Street in Carver. Black-and-white snapshots of patrons decorate the walls, and every seat is taken. He's never been there before, but he seems to know everyone. Someone offers up a bar stool and Lambert slides into his element, that nebulous constellation of acquaintances and distant relations.

He tells a UPS employee that he'll need help in this coming election. The driver seems confused as to why, not necessarily aware that Lambert faces a primary challenge.

For lunch he orders a veggie wrap and a Diet Coke. A staffer from J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College comes over for a chat and bites on a major Lambert talking point: his seniority.

Since Lambert has been in the Senate for so long, his committee assignments are enviable. Lambert ranks among the most senior Democratic senators on many committees, including the all-powerful Senate Finance Committee, which controls the state purse strings. If the Democrats win control of the state Senate in the election, Lambert has a shot at a key chairmanship.

More than anything else, Lambert holds allegiance to the issue of education, higher education for African-Americans in particular. "VUU was the bridge that brought me across," Lambert says. "I made up my mind a long time ago that I was going to support historically black colleges no matter what."

He maintains that's why he endorsed Allen, who pledged to secure $500 million for historically black colleges. And, for his part, it worked. Allen ushered through the appropriation before he left office, even though the House of Representatives nixed it.

"I think Allen has learned good lessons. … I think he'll think a lot before he opens his mouth," Lambert says, referring to the macaca episode. "A person who sticks their neck out to improve a person should get credit for that."

After lunch, father and son sit and talk about what it means to be a good politician. The senator says it's more than just writing policy and cutting deals — it's making a difference in individual lives.

He tells a story about a church member whose adopted son needed money for school, and for whom Lambert helped get scholarship funds. The boy took the money and went to the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

"It's not where I'd choose to go," Lambert says, "but these are the things I'm happy about."

"And they don't make headlines," his son says.

"Maybe they shouldn't," his father responds. S

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