POLITICS

Virginia Democrats Choose State’s First Female Speaker Amid Progressive Challenge

Moderates won the day in Virginia’s soon-to-be Democratic House as Eileen Filler-Corn beat out the left-leaning Lashrecse Aird.
Eileen Filler-Corn, a Fairfax County Democrat, makes Virginia history as the state's first female speaker.
Eileen Filler-Corn, a Fairfax County Democrat, makes Virginia history as the state's first female speaker.

Virginia Democrats on Saturday chose Eileen Filler-Corn as the first female speaker of the state’s House of Delegates, shutting out a progressive challenger and handing a clean sweep to the party’s moderate wing as it gets ready to take power next year.

Filler-Corn, 55, a white moderate with big-business ties, won out in a secret ballot over Lashrecse Aird, who is younger, more liberal and Black. The speaker-designee nonetheless makes history as the first woman to lead the chamber in the legislature’s 400-year history. She is also the first Jewish person to hold the top post.

In addition to Filler-Corn, Charniele Herring, the outgoing Democratic caucus chairwoman, won the race for House majority leader, and Rip Sullivan prevailed in the contest for caucus chair. Both defeated challengers with more progressive records.

The result is a disappointment to progressives inside and outside of the chamber who hoped Democrats would pick the state’s first Black speaker and bristled at Filler-Corn’s full-time job as managing director of a lobbying firm with major corporate clients. Filler-Corn’s spokesperson has said she would recuse herself from votes on legislation in which her firm, Albers & Company, has a vested interest.

“The firsts are not lost on me ― the first woman and the first Jewish person elected Speaker-designee in our 400 year legislative history ― but it doesn’t define me,” Filler-Corn said in a statement. “When I joined this body less than 10 years ago, I was the only mom serving with school-aged kids. We have come so far since then.

“We have the most diverse House Caucus in our history, which includes cultural, gender and geographic diversity,” she continued. “It also means a diversity of experience and perspectives on issues that affect Virginians, in all regions.”

Virginia Del. Lashrecse Aird, pictured on Feb. 22, 2019, ran to the left of Del. Eileen Filler-Corn in the race for the speak
Virginia Del. Lashrecse Aird, pictured on Feb. 22, 2019, ran to the left of Del. Eileen Filler-Corn in the race for the speakership of the House of Delegates.

Filler-Corn also fended off a bid from Ken Plum, a House veteran and fellow northern Virginian, who has served in the chamber since 1978. Luke Torian, a Black moderate and pastor from northern Virginia, dropped out of the race prior to the vote on Saturday and endorsed Filler-Corn, according to a person familiar with the party’s closed-door deliberations.

The Virginia House Democratic Caucus is not releasing information about Filler-Corn’s margin of victory, to say nothing of how individual members voted. She prevailed, however, on the first ballot, winning an outright majority among her colleagues.

Filler-Corn remains speaker-designee until a broader vote on the House floor, where members from both parties will have their say. The legislative body’s 55 Democrats are expected to remain unified behind Filler-Corn to prevent a Republican from nabbing the speakership.

Her victory, along with those of Herring and Sullivan, ensures that Virginia House Democrats are marching in tandem with Gov. Ralph Northam and the Democratic-controlled state Senate, where business-friendly, four-decade veteran, Dick Saslaw, is in charge.

The ‘Virginia Way’ Marches On

Virginia Democrats swept to power on Tuesday, driving Republicans out of their last strongholds ― the House of Delegates and state Senate ― on the strength of the state’s growing affluent suburbs and their revulsion toward President Donald Trump. Because Northam is a Democrat, the victories provided the party unified control of state government ― a trifecta ― for the first time since 1993.

But more than merely winning power, these Democrats offered the promise of a newer, more diverse and ideologically left-leaning kind of party.

Aird, a 33-year-old Petersburg resident and chief of staff of William & Mary’s junior college, who was first elected in 2015, embodies the state’s shifting demographics and politics. Aird had promised to expand and open up the House’s leadership and committee system, giving greater leeway to the state House’s ascendant group of economic populists. She is backed by hedge fund manager Michael Bills, a leading critic of the state’s famously powerful electric utility monopolies ― Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power. And she claimed that she would allow votes on pro-union bills granting the public sector collective bargaining rights and repealing Virginia’s status as a “right to work” state where unions are forbidden from compelling workers they represent to pay dues.

Observers wondered whether, with her underdog speakership bid, the state’s Democratic Party might reach a point where it was willing to turn its back, at least in one chamber, on the old “Virginia Way” ― a byword for bipartisan gentility that doubles as a description of the state’s clubby, pro-corporate and ethically challenged political culture.

In the end though, Filler-Corn and her allies, many of whom reside in safe seats and can thus spread their campaign cash to embattled colleagues, fended off the insurgency.

Some members disagreed with Aird’s decision to announce her bid the day after Tuesday’s elections, claiming it was too soon. They also lamented the way that Aird had fought her race in the press, according to the person familiar with the deliberations who spoke to HuffPost on the condition of anonymity. It’s a pitfall inherent to running as a gate-crasher in a state where etiquette is something of a civic religion.

Now that they are in power, Democrats in the Virginia legislature are almost certain to move quickly to tighten gun safety regulations, strengthen protections for LGBTQ residents and even raise the state’s minimum wage, which is currently only $7.25 an hour.

But the prospects of more ambitious expansions of the social welfare state and efforts to take on the Old Dominion’s most powerful corporations, including its utility monopolies, have grown considerably dimmer. Efforts to combat climate change, in particular, are likely to be far more accommodating to Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power than antitrust advocates would like. These activists fear not only that the monopolies, which extract fossil fuels and generate electricity in addition to transmitting it, will both try to water down climate legislation and dominate any growth in the state’s renewable energy generation.

What’s more, poll watchers noted that the leadership team consists entirely of Democrats from the Washington-area suburbs of northern Virginia. It has prompted fears that they will not adequately represents Democrats from other regions, such as Hampton Roads, central Virginia and southwest Virginia

“There are 12 House Districts out of 100 that are inside the beltway or on it,” Virginia political consultant Ben Tribbett wrote on Twitter. “The top three positions in the new House will all be filled from there. All by people who underperformed in their first elections by double digits from most recent Presidential. Not a good start.”

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