Black Votes for Virginia GOP? BET

BET co-founder, Dem donor Johnson backs McDonnell

RICHMOND, Va. -- A billionaire co-founder of the Black Entertainment Television network and an influential Democratic donor on Monday endorsed Republican Bob McDonnell for governor.

Sheila Johnson, the second-largest individual donor to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and a benefactor of prominent Democrats including Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb, appeared with McDonnell in Richmond.

"I have been a lifelong Democrat and I'm still a Democrat," she said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

Johnson said she favors McDonnell over his Democratic opponent, R. Creigh Deeds, because she thinks the Republican can turn around the state's ailing economy.

"From the beginning, Bob McDonnell has been very concerned about the economy," she said. "He has really laid out a roadmap for solving these problems."

With no limits in Virginia on how much donors can give or candidates can spend in state elections, Johnson's backing potentially puts a rich source of funding at McDonnell's disposal, sending a signal to black voters that was already a concern for Deeds and his backers.

In a surprisingly easy primary victory, the state senator from rural Bath County had his weakest showings in largely black communities. The only congressional district Deeds lost was the majority-black 3rd, that of Rep. Robert C. Scott, Virginia's first elected black member of Congress.

Johnson's endorsement came as Deeds appeared in Roanoke with Warner to unveil his plan for shoring up the economy.

Like McDonnell, Deeds called for strengthening distressed rural economies and providing tax credits for businesses that create jobs.

Johnson said Deeds' ideas weren't original.

"It almost looks like a carbon copy of what Bob McDonnell has been talking about from the very beginning," she said.

McDonnell wants to help both large and small businesses and has valuable experience as an executive with a Fortune 500 company, Johnson said.

Deeds' campaign did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment about Johnson's endorsement.

In Roanoke, Deeds called for creation for green jobs, as well as training to give former factory workers high-tech skills. He called for doubling the Governor's Opportunity Fund and for creation of a fund to provide loans to small businesses in areas of high unemployment.

Johnson accompanied Kaine to last year's Democratic National Convention. She was a member of the convention's rules committee, and gave a speech to the Democratic Women's Caucus.

Johnson has given more than $600,000 to Kaine. She has given the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee $103,000, the Democratic National Committee more than $63,000 since 2000.

Her giving, however, isn't exclusively Democratic. She has given at least $15,000 to Republicans, including Rep. Frank Wolf, former Sen. John Warner and Mark Tate's unsuccessful bid for a House of Delegates seat.

Johnson and her former husband, Robert Johnson, founded BET and sold it in 2000 to Viacom for $3 billion. She was a supporter last year of Barack Obama in the presidential race, as was Kaine.

Another prominent black Virginian, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, said in an interview Monday that political operatives for President Barack Obama are urging him to get behind Deeds.

"I told them, 'You need to tell me why,"' said Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor and author of Virginia's one-gun-a-month law, which Deeds opposed as a legislator.

Johnson has played important roles behind the scenes of the party, particularly with Kaine's appointment by Obama in January to head the Democratic National Committee.

Her support for Kaine in particular has not been just financial.

Kaine was in the final field of potential running mates Obama was considering a year ago. Moments before Johnson, Kaine and his family boarded her private jet in Winchester to depart for the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Kaine got a call from Obama saying he'd picked Sen. Joe Biden as his running mate.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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