The month before Sen. George Allen's now infamous "macaca" comments became a national punch line in mid-August, the Republican senator found himself in the back room of an African-American church in Chesterfield County.
It was a Saturday in July. Allen was there to meet with Bishop Gerald Glenn, the church's senior pastor. By mid-summer, the popular, folksy former governor would watch his near shoo-in re-election bid and potential presidential hopes turn into a fight for survival. His affinity for Confederate flags had raised questions about racial insensitivity in the national media long before "macaca" and his alleged use of the "n-word" surfaced.
Glenn, a self-described former "card-carrying-Huey-Newton-Black-Panther-loving-militant," leads the 3,000-member New Deliverance Evangelistic Church, one of the largest black congregations in metro Richmond.
He's also been known to challenge Chesterfield's Republican political structure, which has its share of racial overtones. Particularly, Glenn denounced former School Superintendent Billy Cannaday's decision not to close schools on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday three years ago.
The meeting had been arranged after a political operative working for Allen's re-election campaign contacted Glenn. At noon on a Saturday, the two men, along with the political operative, met in a private room at the church, located just off Turner Road on the eastern edge of the county.
Things got off to a rocky start.
"The first thing I said … 'You and I don't really know each other, but let me just tell you: You have an image problem,'" Glenn recalls telling the senator.
The room fell silent. Glenn says he went on to tell Allen that he looked like a "snuff-dippin'-cowboy-boot-wearing-good-old-boy-redneck," and that if Allen wanted to stay viable, he needed "some black folks around that can tell you truth, whether you like it or not."
Glenn says that after a few minutes of silence Allen said, "'Well, Bishop, the one thing I probably cannot change is the dippin' snuff.'"
That broke the ice and the two men wound up hitting it off. Glenn recounts Allen saying things that have since become talking points on the campaign trail:
"'I only wish now that I had known in detail how insulting this was to African-Americans,' 'I've learned so many things,' 'It was my way of rebelling,'" Glenn recalls Allen saying at their church meeting.
Which is when, according to Glenn, it all clicked for him.
"I thought, 'I hope this man doesn't ask me to explain why I wore a black glove, because that was my way of rebelling.' I used all of those things — honky, cracker, whitey — in my youth," Glenn says. "If somebody like me who thought all whiteys were green-eyed devils, if I can change, why couldn't someone like George Allen change?"
Then it struck Glenn: "I really don't care if George Allen used the n-word 30 years ago," he says.
In what's become a key Senate race in the November elections, you'd think Allen's campaign would spell disaster for Republicans' long-suffering credibility with African-American voters in Virginia. But Glenn sees opportunity.
Ditto for state Sen. Benjamin Lambert, a longtime Democrat, who two weeks ago announced his support for Allen in the Richmond Free Press and wrote a Back Page essay about his endorsement in Style Sept. 27.
"If we have a role in returning Allen to the Senate, they can no longer dismiss us," Glenn says.
These endorsements seem to indicate that after years of being thought of as sure-fire Democrats, black leaders are less interested in Confederate flags and the n-word and are willing to listen to what the GOP has to offer.
It also may offer insight into how Republicans can court the black vote, which observers say has slowly shifted in alignment with the Republican agenda.
Lambert insists that supporting Allen secures funding for historically black colleges, a cause dear to his heart. He won't budge even after a Richmond Free Press headline announced last month that he was being "used" by Allen, and he assured The Washington Post last Thursday that he has "a strategy."
For Glenn, Allen's opposition to gay marriage made the difference.
"Two important black people did this, but they got to the same place for totally different reasons," says David Hicks, Richmond's former commonwealth's attorney.
He argues that in the past, black citizens united to oppose Jim Crow laws that discriminated against them as a group. Without a common enemy the voice of the black community has begun to appear less monolithic.
"What do black people think? We [used to know] the box you had to think out of, because the law kept you in it," Hicks says. "Once you removed legal barriers, that question became more and more meaningless."
Others say it's wrong to read too much into the endorsements of two people. There are reasons spectators don't often think of the GOP as the natural political home for African-Americans.
"The Republican Party over the last 50 years has not had anything of value to offer to the African-American community," says Avon Drake, associate professor of African American politics at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government at Virginia Commonwealth University.
"Going back to '64, Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill and in '65 the Voting Rights Act," Drake says. "Blacks are not stupid — that's the best thing going for them. Blacks used to vote Republican because of Lincoln, but since '64, blacks vote Democrat." Sen. Allen also has more than party identification to overcome when reaching out to black voters, Drake says.
But Jennifer McClellan, who serves as vice chair of the state Democratic Party and is a first-term member in the House of Delegates, agrees with Hicks. Post-Jim Crow, African-Americans have developed a variety of political priorities, she says, some nucleating around class rather than racial issues.
She's also seen Republicans showing more interest in reaching out to black voters.
"It used to be that Democrats were the only ones who were talking," McClellan says. She worries about candidates who think just saying "I'm a Democrat" is enough to keep voters loyal and argues that the old strategy of sticking to "black issues" like civil rights and affirmative action won't hold the public's attention, especially younger voters.
"The economy, working wages, jobs and security affect everybody," she says. "I was basing my decision [for Senate endorsement] on Iraq, tax cuts for the middle class, stem-cell research, choice," McClellan, 33, says. (She's endorsed Allen's opponent, Jim Webb.) For other black voters the GOP's social agenda might have begun to eclipse the Democrats' political platform.
"I don't think black churchgoers are ready to go as far as the Christian right," McClellan says, "but Republicans are talking to them."
Hicks agrees, saying, "People forget that African-Americans are very conservative and church-going. What some people dismissed as right-wing Christian issues resonate in the community."
Still, Hicks questions Allen's sincerity and points out that even if Allen stays in office and his party remains in control of the House, it is likely to maintain such a slim majority that Allen will not be in a position to do too many favors.
"Given the tightness in the polls and the other 'heredity' discoveries," Hicks says, referring to Allen's recent revelation that his mother is Jewish, "I think there's good probability that we're going to find out he's part black by Election Day. Anyway, then their endorsements aren't going to be that controversial."
Hicks' snarkiness aside, Glenn comes to a similar conclusion.
"He's been through the fire, and when you go through the fire and survive, you still have the smell of smoke on your clothes," Glenn says. "If we send him back to Washington, he cannot go back the same man." S