Race issues dog Allen
A group of former University of Virginia football teammates of U.S. Sen. George Allen alleges that the former quarterback regularly used the n-word to refer to African-Americans.
A second group of the Republican’s former teammates has stepped up to say that this is not true.
Meanwhile, the state’s leading political pundit – a former classmate of Allen – has put in his two cents worth, in favor of the first group.
It seems so long ago that the slur macaca first entered the Old Dominion political lexicon, doesn’t it?
“I don’t think any campaign, especially an incumbent’s campaign, wants to be dealing with allegations like these allegations. So just in general, in a nominal way, it isn’t good,” said Quentin Kidd, a political-science professor at Christopher Newport University.
The recent allegations referencing Allen’s activities as a student at UVa. in the early 1970s surfaced in a story published on the news Web site Salon.com on Monday. In the story, three former teammates of Allen, including Ken Shelton, a radiologist in North Carolina who played tight end for the Cavaliers at the time when Allen was the signal-caller, said Allen commonly used the n-word to describe African-Americans when he was among white friends.
“Allen said he came to Virginia because he wanted to play football in a place where ‘blacks knew their place.’ He used the n-word on a regular basis back then,” said Shelton, who also told Salon.com that Allen gave him the nickname “Wizard” because he shared the last name of Robert Shelton, a former imperial wizard of the United Klans of America.
The Allen campaign quickly put together a group of former UVa. teammates of Allen and Shelton who offered via a campaign-issued press release a vastly different perspective on the senator’s racial sentiments.
“I was on the University of Virginia football team with George Allen for the 1972 and 1973 seasons. During that time, I never heard George Allen use any racially disparaging word, nor did I ever witness or hear about him acting in a racially insensitive manner,” said Doug Jones, a defensive back at UVa. from 1971-1974 who roomed with Shelton as a second-year student – and is listed as the unit operations co-chair of the Allen campaign in Fairfax County on the Virginia Republican Party Web site.
Another former teammate quoted in the Monday release, Charles Hale, was appointed by Allen during his term as governor of Virginia to the Virginia Board of Mining Examiners. And the wife of a third teammate quoted in the release, Holly Korte, the wife of George Korte, was appointed by then-governor Allen to the Virginia Board of Social Services.
Allen himself addressed the allegations in a news conference in Richmond held after a Monday event in which the senator appeared with a group of African-American pastors to voice his support for a constitutional amendment on the state ballot in the fall banning same-sex marriage.
“Let me say this again very clearly so no one can misunderstand this. These allegations, and this story … are false. I don’t ever remember ever using that word. That word was not a part of my vocabulary, as was asserted in this article. It wasn’t then. It hasn’t been since then. And it is not now. It is not who I was, and is not who I am,” Allen told reporters.
On a Monday-evening appearance on the MSNBC politics show “Hardball,” UVa. political pundit Larry Sabato – a former classmate of Allen when both were undergrads at the university – disputed Allen’s claims to that effect.
“I can’t say how frequently he did it, but I don’t believe him when he denies never having done it,” Sabato told host Chris Matthews – and then, when Matthews pressed him as to how he knows this, he said later, “Well, I’m simply going to say that I’m going to stay with what I know is the case. And the fact is that he did use the n-word, whether he’s denying it now or not.”
To say that this is expected to be at least something in the way of damaging to the Allen campaign would be understating things by quite a bit.
“These kinds of questions, you just can’t win on. It’s like, you know, are you still beating your wife? Some of these things are very difficult – and when you try to explain them, it becomes too complicated for the public to kind of understand or get involved with the story,” said Bob Denton, a political-science professor at Virginia Tech.
“It gets him off-message, off-issues – and it makes (Democratic Party nominee and opponent Jim) Webb more viable, and cuts the campaign shorter. With each day that these issues are talked about, it reduces the amount of time to get refocused and rebound,” Denton said.
“It has impacted his credibility, his character – with this constant questioning about how sincere he is, is he a bully? So it really does define him in a way – because we know that likeability, oftentimes, trumps issues, especially for those who are really not sure one way or the other. Liking a candidate, feeling comfortable with them, is often more important than any issue,” Denton told The Augusta Free Press.
The fact that the story has had any legs at all has rankled more than a few Republicans – but Denton said it is not at all out of the ordinary to see the level of attention on a candidate’s personal life that led to the multiple national-media stories about race issues involving Allen, given Allen’s apparent ambition to test the presidential waters in 2008.
“I will say that seeing where this stuff is dripping, and seeing where it comes from, this is very much opposition research,” Denton said. “I’m not sure that George Allen realized that when your name is being mentioned in terms of the presidential nomination, they go back and just comb every bit of your existence. They’ll even pull your birth certificate and make sure who signed it. Today, these opposition-research people spend literally at the national level millions of dollars.
“This is more about ’08 than the Senate race – and indeed may have taken him out of any consideration, if he happens to win here in Virginia in ’06,” Denton said.
“What’s happening is there’s nothing like the glare of the presidential-level media on you,” Kidd told the AFP. “I don’t think state-level candidates know how intense the heat is of the national media until they run for president. Allen has had that intense heat of media attention turned on him earlier than he would have had it turned on him had he run for president because of his own mistake. That macaca statement caused the national media to focus on him earlier than they were intending to focus on him because they saw blood in the water. They were going to do this if he ran for president. He looked like he damaged himself early, so they smelled blood, and they’re going after him.”
Noticeably silent in all of this is Webb, who has declined requests to offer comment on the macaca story from last month and the allegations that have surfaced in recent days. This has raised the ire of some in the Democratic Party blogosphere who wonder if Webb is perhaps afraid to confront Allen on the race issue head on.
“The first rule is, if your opponent is self-destructing, stay out of the way. Don’t become part of the story,” Denton said. “You don’t need to pile on – because then you may seem a little too self-interested. The Webb people are doing exactly the right thing. Just let them implode. Don’t become part of the story. Don’t react. Because you don’t want to appear yourself as mean or nasty or petty.”
“I wouldn’t stand aside completely,” Kidd said. “I think he’s smart to stand aside and let Allen’s own incompetence undermine his own campaign – and let the media piling on happen. But I think Webb is smart when he has gotten the microphone to shoot the attention to issues – to say, Well, this is really about issues. What that does is let Webb take the high road. I’m not the one beating up on Allen. People have heard these rumors for a while, but Webb’s campaign isn’t orchestrating any of this. This is actually out of their control also.
“He’s smart to shift the attention whenever he can to say, This is about issues, it’s about x, it’s about y, it’s about the war in Iraq. Because that makes him look like he’s above the fray,” Kidd said.
Kidd doesn’t see the n-word story going away anytime soon – “and I think it is possible that we could see this lead to Allen going down.”
“As we’ve seen in the last several gubernatorial elections, those middle-class moderate voters in the suburbs have got to support you for you to win. And I think Allen has to worry about women in the suburbs of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads who are going to be turned off by this, who are not going to be interested in supporting Allen – the soccer moms-slash-security moms-slash-gas price moms. Those are the people that Allen has to worry about – because they will swing the election one way or the other,” Kidd said.
“This will cause those moderate voters who probably would have voted for him because in any other context they liked him to – they may not vote for Webb in great numbers, but they may just not vote,” Kidd said.
Denton said that at the least the media attention on the race story prevents Allen “from running a campaign based on issues.”
“It makes him defensive. Every interview that he does, these issues come up – so it becomes a burden for every stop that he makes, every interview that he does, literally for the rest of the campaign,” Denton said.
“What it does for Webb is it helps him by shortening the race. And it’s my understanding that it’s really helped his fund raising – that within 24 hours of the Russert debate, they got over $100,000 on the Web site. Each of these little episodes nets them over $500,000 in campaign contributions,” Denton said.
“The free media here is negative – and it buys Webb time, because he doesn’t have as much money. And then he can go out with his ads that are more issue-driven. Which allows him to focus on issues and not seem petty – and stay out of it,” Denton said.