Black GOP Woman Stuns Va. Politics

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — For 31 years, no one came close to breaking the hold that Democrats William P. Robinson Sr. and William P. Robinson Jr. had on a House of Delegates seat in their predominantly black Norfolk district.

Then Winsome Sears came along. Sears, a black Republican who is a former Marine and Scripture-quoting mother of three, denied the younger Robinson an 11th consecutive term last month — a stunning victory in a district that consistently votes Democratic by a 2-to-1 ratio.

Sears, who was 6 when she moved to the United States from Jamaica, is the first foreign-born woman and the first female veteran elected to Virginia's House.

``When I set out in this race, I didn't intend to make history,'' Sears, 37, said between prayers and hymns at a regional prayer service last month for the large fighting force deployed to Afghanistan from Norfolk, home to the world's largest Navy base.

Her improbable 679-vote victory on Nov. 6 came as Republicans increased their majority in the 100-member House to 64 seats despite Democrat Mark Warner's victory in the governor's race.

The dozen extra seats, with help from two conservative independents, boosts the GOP to an almost veto-proof edge just two years after the party ended more than a century of Democratic legislative control. Republicans hold 22 of the 40 Senate seats.

Sears' new seat remained in the Robinson family for more than three decades. Robinson took over the seat that was vacated in 1981 when his father died midway through his sixth two-year term.

The younger Robinson easily won re-election for two decades, but was done in by a series of legal problems. A criminal-defense lawyer, he was often scrutinized for his lavish use of legislative privilege to delay court proceedings.

And he was convicted of contempt of court for failing to show up for a client's hearing and spent one night in jail in the closing days of a bitter campaign against Sears. He is appealing the conviction.

``She was in the right place at the right time,'' said Stephen Medvic, a political science professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. ``That night in jail was enormously symbolic, and it pushed a lot of voters over the edge.''

Telephone calls to Robinson's office seeking comment were not returned.

Republicans now find themselves with a candidate whose tireless campaigning, church ties and Marine Corps past put her in a position to win a district that was written off as hopelessly Democratic turf during this year's Republican-led redistricting.

``She went house-to-house, talking to people and holding babies. She was out there, in the housing projects, campaigning. The Marine came out in Winsome Sears in this race,'' said John Cosgrove, winner of a House of Delegates seat himself.

Even then, she had to battle for each vote. Sears said many of her Democratic in-laws openly backed Robinson and were never at ease with her 1988 disclosure that she was a Republican — a realization that came from watching Democrat Michael Dukakis' failed presidential race that year.

``I had always considered myself a Democrat, but as I was listening to what he was saying — all the government programs he was proposing — I was thinking, 'I don't believe that,''' she said. ``And then it hit me: Oh, my God, I'm a Republican! How am I going to tell my family?''

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