He knows he has detractors and it doesn’t bother him. He is at ease about his life, what he believes and the causes he has championed over the years.
When asked if he regards himself as the most conservative member of the Virginia General Assembly, he doesn’t hesitate to say yes.
Since his election to the state House of Delegates in 1997, where he spent eight years, and his return to the state legislature as a Senator in 2012, retired Colonel Richard H. “Dick” Black has inspired more ardent supporters and opponents than anyone else in Loudoun County politics.
His record of public service could be a metaphor for his life — reflecting a sense of purpose and fearlessness Black learned as a boy handling snakes, honed as a young man during combat in Vietnam and cemented during 30 years in the military.
As a Virginia state legislator, Black has championed bills to protect Second Amendment rights, promote job creation and fund local transportation initiatives. He’s better known as a pro-life advocate and for the national attention he received for distributing small plastic fetuses to his legislative colleagues before a key vote on an abortion bill in 2003, and for meeting with Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad in 2016.
Black is also one of the few members of the General Assembly who routinely calls for protecting American manufacturing jobs, and is proud of never casting a vote in favor of a tax increase.
To report on Black’s legislative record, while interesting, would be nothing new. Instead, The Tribune met with Black this month to probe for the influences on his life — the experiences that shaped his world view and values, and how he has handled adversity.
It offered up a side of Black that is rarely exposed, but that family and friends attest is the man they know in private.
Growing Up in South Florida
At 72, Black is no longer the young buck who became an expert at handling venomous snakes as a teen. But his approach to life hasn’t changed.
He still relishes the outdoors, climbs boulders and walks high, narrow ledges looking for timber rattlers. Earlier this year he encountered two “very, very large ones, so I was a little more careful,” he said. It gives him personal satisfaction, just as it does to speak out on controversial social and political issues – some of which resonate well beyond Virginia.
Black grew up in South Florida. His mother fell ill when he was four, and he and his younger sister were raised by a father who was an IRS special agent who traveled extensively.
Black had a strong Christian faith as a boy, and was heavily influenced by his conservative father and liberal uncle. He characterized both as smart, magnetic personalities, and he would listen attentively to their animated political conversations.
When Black was 15, his father was transferred to New York to help investigate organized crime. Black didn’t want to go, and was allowed to remain in Coral Gables with his sister, effectively as the head of the household. It was the late 1950’s.
Black’s first job was working with his cousin at the Miami Serpentarium, importing cobras, vipers and other venomous snakes, and preparing them for transport to zoos throughout the world. He also spent a lot of time in the Florida Everglades to enjoy the outdoors and catch water moccasins. His cousin later lost part of his hand from a snake bite and was killed while flying over the Amazon for work. It was another lesson for Black.
After attending the University of Miami for one year, Black ran out of money. At 19, he enlisted in the Marines, pursued flight training and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1965.
Learning to fly was not a natural fit for Black. He didn’t like to fly and worried about getting air sick. He took advantage of an opportunity to volunteer for Vietnam, and served there in 1966 and 1967. It changed his world again.
Lessons of Vietnam
Black was told he would be flying milk runs in Vietnam and doing other non-combat functions at first, but that changed almost immediately. One night during a flurry of activity at the base, he was told to load up his helicopter and prepare for combat. Black remembers the feeling as electrifying.
Once in the air, he recalls seeing Vietcong and South Vietnamese troops on the ground, lots of shooting, and landing to let Marines out to fight. Helicopter gunners supported the battle from the air. It was intense, violent and chaotic.
Black recalls seeing many “horrific” casualties in Vietnam, and flew 269 combat missions with the Ugly Angels squadron.
At Da Nang Air Base, Black was introduced to radio communications and being a forward air controller. Before being trained in a classroom he was directed to go to the front lines to observe. Black’s predecessor tossed maps at him on a jungle trail, and said good luck.
“He told me just remember that if something goes wrong they are going to blame you,” he said.
“I had to learn fast,” Black said. He still has the small piece of paper he was handed with bomb codes and instructions on how to call in an air or artillery strike.
There was a high risk of fire from the air inadvertently hitting U.S. soldiers on the ground in the jungles of Vietnam, but Black relished the challenge of getting his calls right. He was wounded during an attack on enemy positions across the Hoi An River and lost his two radio men, and the man who replaced him was killed in his bunk by a round of artillery fire that accidentally hit the base. More lessons.
Black would rise to the rank of Major in the Marines, but not before going back to finish college at the University of Florida, earning a Bachelor of Science in Accounting. He followed that with a law degree in 1976, though his decision to pursue law was almost inadvertent. It was 1973, and Black was thinking about getting an MBA at Notre Dame. He was in the Florida admissions office one day and asked what was required to get into law school. The woman behind the desk looked at his GPA, did a quick analysis and told him he was admitted. So Black changed course again.
After law school, Black practiced on his own before joining the Army Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG) as a Major. In the career that followed, he would rise to the rank of Colonel and retire in 1994 as Chief of the Criminal Law Division at the Pentagon.
His work in the JAG Corps was diverse, and included everything from managing land acquisitions to prosecuting criminal misconduct, including rape.
Running for Political Office
Black was working at the Pentagon when he took an interest in local politics, first in Fairfax County. He was a protégé of Pat Mullins, then the county’s Republican Party chairman and later Virginia’s Republican state chairman. He moved to Loudoun, got involved with the county’s library board, and considered taking on Sen. Charlie Waddell (D-33rd), then a prominent state Democrat who represented parts of Loudoun and Fairfax counties.
Loudoun County politicians comprise a relatively small world, but their profound impact on state government in recent years is undeniable — as is their connectedness.
When Waddell stepped down to take a state government job in Richmond, local Del. Bill Mims (R-32nd) stepped up to claim the seat in a special election, and Black immediately followed by winning Mims’ House seat in 1998. Mims moved on to serve as Virginia’s Deputy Attorney General, leaving another vacancy, and is now a Justice on the Virginia Supreme Court.
Mims was followed by Democrat Mark Herring — Waddell’s son-in-law — who defeated Black’s son-in-law, Mick Staton, in another special election. Herring moved on to be Virginia’s Attorney General, and the seat is now held by Democrat Jennifer Wexton.
Black served four terms in the House of Delegates, then lost to Democrat David Poisson in 2005. The loss was in part a reflection of the changing politics of the district. Poisson in turn was defeated by Republican Tag Greason in 2009, and Greason holds Black’s former seat today.
“I was less disappointed than anyone else when I lost my Delegate race,” Black said. “I felt this enormous sense of relief that I wouldn’t have to be leading the charge every day. It was odd.”
Black has won 12 out of 13 primary and general elections, but doesn’t see himself as a career politician.
“You don’t own an elected position,” he said. “When the people get tired of you, they get somebody else. I accept that, and I never said a bad word about my Democrat successor the whole time he was in office.”
After the 2010 census and redistricting, Black was again intrigued with serving in the state legislature. He credits Doug Satterwhite, a Republican activist and friend, for helping him make the decision to run in a new Senate district. Boundary lines were not yet final, but it was certain that part of Loudoun County would be included.
Black went everywhere, even introducing himself to people in Clarke County and western Loudoun, not knowing if they would ultimately be in the district. “I would tell people I’m here to meet you, but I don’t know yet if you’ll be able to vote for me,” he said.
Once the lines were finalized, Black moved to have a physical residence in the new district. He still had to overcome stiff opposition to return to Richmond, including that from then Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell.
“I like Bob a lot, but he didn’t support me for the Republican nomination and made two last minute changes that allowed another candidate to get into the race. There was a hotly contested primary election, and I won,” he said.
Black went on to win the general election in 2011 and was re-elected in 2015. His 13th Senate district includes most of northwestern Loudoun, including Purcellville, as well as South Riding and part of Ashburn. He also represents part of central Prince William County, including Gainesville.
“I love the district, and every week I attend at least three events,” Black said. He especially likes the give and take of talking with high school audiences.
On Syria and Russia
Black’s trip to Syria in April 2016 to meet with President Assad drew national attention. Some critics challenged his point of view, while others questioned why a state government official would involve himself in controversial international and military affairs.
The visit didn’t happen in a vacuum, and followed a letter Black wrote to Assad in 2014, praising him for “treating with respect all Christians and the small community of Jews,” and asserting that the rebels opposing Assad were “vicious war criminals linked to Al Qaeda.” The following year, Black made the ISIS enemies list, and was nicknamed “The American Crusader.”
What many critics missed was that Black had an interest in Middle Eastern affairs that dated back to his years as a military prosecutor. And speaking out on a controversial international issue was no more intimidating to Black than picking up a venomous snake or dodging machine gun fire.
“When we were about to invade Syria, I wrote to every Congressman. I had a fight with [then Virginia Republican and former House Minority Leader] Eric Cantor that went on forever. He finally asked what can we do to get you on board and I said get out of Syria. We agreed to disagree,” Black said.
“Of all the people who sent me back a coherent, insightful letter that showed me they really understood what was going on, it was Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic congresswoman and combat veteran from Hawaii,” Black said. “I was stunned, and I wrote back to thank her for the response and her enormous insight into what is really happening. Since then she has introduced the Stop Arming Terrorists Act,” an effort Black supports.
Asked what he would advise president-elect Donald Trump about U.S. policy toward Syria, Black said Assad cannot be allowed to fall.
“Or the nation will be taken over by ISIS and Al-Qaeda, and there will be a massive slaughter of Christians and Alawites,” he said. “We’re talking about four million people who will be butchered.”
“The U.S. trains terrorist in Jordan, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and we’ve being doing it since 2012,” Black said. He believes that U.S. foreign policy is misguided in its belief that we should arm and train rebels who want to overthrow the government of Syria but aren’t necessarily friends of the West, and in some cases are terrorists themselves.
“There are no moderate rebels,” Black said.
He suggested that a collapse in Syria will lead to the same kind chaos as what happened in Libya.
“First, the president should shut down the training camps in those countries, then issue an order telling all agencies that the U.S. will not supply any rebels without a specific exception ordered by the president, perhaps through the national security advisor,” he said. Exceptions would include situations such the battle for Mosul in Iraq, where he sees a clear and more urgent reason for U.S. assistance.
He also wants the U.S. to refrain from military flights over Syria or from putting troops there in violation of international law.
When asked if the U.S. should do all of this unilaterally, without concurrent understandings with the Syrian government, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and others, Black didn’t offer a direct answer but thought it would be welcomed and that the U.S. ought to forge a new strategic relationship with Russia.
“Communism is dead in Russia,” Black said. “They are not a threat to the United States, and I envision us working together to put an end to the war in Syria.”
He also foresees the U.S. and Russia working together to roll back territorial advances by Turkey.
“President Erdoğan [of Turkey] is the most dangerous man in the world,” Black said. He compares Erdogan’s domestic crackdown to Nazi Germany and the Bolshevik Revolution.
News, Fake News and the Spousal Rape Bill
Black expressed concern about the proliferation of fake news stories on the internet, and referred to a news story during his 2011 Senate campaign. Black said his opponents put out the word that he supports spousal rape, and that this was picked up by national media outlets, including Mother Jones.
He cited a bill in the General Assembly that addressed spousal rape, something of interest to Black because he had prosecuted spousal abuse cases while in the JAG Corps.
“Virginia has a spousal rape law, and that bill included changing the elements of proof,” he said. “These things are always swearing matches and it helps to have some kind of proof, so I asked the question of how are we going to prove spousal rape if the two are laying in the same bed.”
Black said he voted for the bill, and that he has never cast a vote to weaken spousal rape laws in Virginia, nor ever made a statement questioning whether it should be an offense.
He recalled a case about a high ranking military surgeon accused of spousal rape in Europe. “I was a Lt. Colonel prosecuting the case and got a lot of pressure to let this guy off the hook in some way, and I said no,” Black said. He said that the surgeon was held responsible, forced out and lost his benefits.
Black also presented a 1984 article from the Fort Gateway [Missouri] Daily Guide, which cited him as saying that DWI, spousal abuse and child abuse aren’t just a special concern to the Army, but also concerns for him personally.
“I have a record of speaking out on assaults on spouses since the early eighties, before most of my critics were born, and I’ve never changed,” he said.
Black said he took a personal interest in prosecuting rape cases while in the military, and said that sentences doubled during the years he ran legal affairs for the 21st Support Command. At that time he was responsible for offices in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, and for military justice in North Africa and the Middle East.
“Of all things, this really bothers me. It’s a burr under my saddle,” Black said. “Here I am trying to defend the law in the General Assembly by making sure we don’t undermine the elements of proof, and my opponents turn it into saying I favor spousal rape.”
Black said Donald Trump is the living public figure he admires most, but he reserves his most heartfelt esteem for his daughter, Michelle. She’s also his principal political advisor.
“Michelle has the brightest political mind in Virginia. She’s smarter at politics than anyone I’ve ever met, and she and I have been extremely close since she was a little girl,” he said. “I love her to death.”
He has been married for 48 years, has two other children — Ron and Richard — and 14 grandchildren.
“I’ve done a lot of stuff, I have a lot of stories,” he said. “I’ve been in a knife fight with a burglar. I’ve dropped bombs. I’ve crashed landed after taking machine gun fire. I’ve done reptile stuff, and politics.”
“There are some people who are much more articulate than I am,” Black said. “But when I speak, I speak from the heart and try to represent ordinary people. And I’ve never lost the idealism of my youth.”