Friday, November 23, 2001

NORFOLK Few people believed that a Republican woman could unseat a 20-year incumbent Democrat legislator whose mostly black district votes Democratic by a 2-to-1 ratio.

It had never been done. Now it has.

Winsome Sears’ 679-vote upset victory this month over state Delegate William P. Robinson Jr. broke political and societal barriers and stunned both Democrats and Republicans. And it made believers out of people who had been skeptical of the political potential of the Jamaican immigrant who became a Marine at age 18.

“In the Marine Corps, I learned that you have to dig your own ditch if you want respect. I had to prove myself to these big, hulking men all the time,” said the soft-spoken, Scripture-quoting Mrs. Sears.

As the Republicans expanded their majority in the 100-member House of Delegates from 52 to 64, Mrs. Sears became the first black Republican woman elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates. Her election was also the first for a foreign-born woman.

“When I set out in this race, I didn’t intend to make history,” Mrs. Sears, an evangelical Christian, said between prayers and hymns at a community interfaith service for the Norfolk area’s fighting force deployed to Afghanistan.

“I just felt that if I could show voters I was sincere from the heart that they would vote Republican,” she said.

In her case, political naivete may have been a blessing, said Stephen Medvic, a political science professor at Norfolk’s Old Dominion University, whose advice Mrs. Sears sought before she embarked on the race.

“I told her she didn’t know what she was getting into lots of hard work, lots of knocking on doors,” Mr. Medvic said. “But she understood what she had to do to be visible in that district, and the people who pay attention knew that Robinson had an opponent.”

The 90th House District, composed mostly of inner city Norfolk, has always been strong Democratic territory and represented by the Robinson family for 31 years. William P. Robinson Sr. had the seat for 11 years before his son succeeded him in 1981.

Even some of her in-laws publicly backed Mr. Robinson, Mrs. Sears said.

The campaign began cordially enough, but turned ugly as Mr. Robinson ran into repeated legal troubles and Mrs. Sears climbed in the polls.

“She was everywhere. I saw how hard she worked,” said John Cosgrove, the Republican Party chairman for the 4th Congressional District and the winner of a House of Delegates seat himself. “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.”

The turning point in the campaign was last month when Mr. Robinson, a criminal defense lawyer, was convicted of contempt of court in Suffolk for failing to show up for a client’s hearing. A night he spent in jail was devastating, he said.

“She was in the right place at the right time,” Mr. Medvic said. “That night in jail was enormously symbolic, and it pushed a lot of voters over the edge. I don’t think they viewed Billy Robinson as a bad representative or was out of step with them, but they decided that one aspect of his behavior was unacceptable.”

Mr. Robinson did not return telephone calls to his Norfolk office Tuesday seeking comment.

Republicans saw the opportunity for an upset, and thousands of dollars poured in from Republican donors. As of Oct. 24, House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr. had given Mrs. Sears’ campaign nearly $14,000, and Gov. James S. Gilmore III’s New Majority Project gave her $5,000. Figures for the final two weeks of the campaign aren’t due until early next month.

U.S. Rep. J. Randy Forbes, Virginia Republican and a former state party chairman, said Mrs. Sears’ victory marks her as a star and gives the party an incalculable boost in its efforts to break the Democrats’ hold on black voters.

“I think people in that district saw her as someone they felt would listen to them,” Mr. Forbes said. “What I see is someone who can stand and speak forcefully in that district on conservative issues.”

Mrs. Sears, 37 and the mother of three teen daughters, found support within a churchgoing segment of the 90th District’s electorate, and her life story resonated with black voters despite her strong opposition to abortion and her support for private school vouchers.

She came to the United States in 1970, when she was 6, and lived in the Bronx with her grandmother. She graduated early and with honors from Adlai Stevenson High School there. At 18, her grandmother’s death devastated her, and her search for discipline and direction led her to the Marine Corps.

Within three years, she had become a corporal and an electrician.

“You could smell me before you saw me. I’d be covered with diesel, but I always had my lipstick on.”

Mrs. Sears also became a single mother before she left the service in 1986 and met her future husband, Terence. Both wanted to make their home on the East Coast, but not New York, so they returned to his hometown of Norfolk.

She earned a degree in English from Old Dominion in 1992. She worked as a literacy volunteer in 1994, and for the regional Chamber of Commerce in Hampton Roads from 1994 to 1996 before going to work in Mr. Forbes’ office.

Republican politics did not come naturally to her, and she was no fan of President Reagan. What changed her, she said, was the liberalism of Democrat Michael Dukakis in his losing 1988 presidential bid against George Bush, father of the current president.

“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, I’m a Republican. How am I going to tell my family?”

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide