RICHMOND — Virginia Democrats on Saturday chose Eileen Filler-Corn to become speaker of the House of Delegates, a pick that managed to be both historic and conventional for a party that flipped both chambers of the General Assembly in elections Tuesday.
The Fairfax Democrat will be the first woman and the first Jew in the House’s 400-year history to serve in that post, one of the most powerful in state politics. Yet as a business-friendly legislator with ties to the existing power structure, Filler-Corn was a more traditional choice than the more progressive delegate who was her chief rival for the job.
“Two words have never been spoken in the 400 year history of the Virginia House of Burgesses and the House of Delegates: ‘Madam Speaker,’” tweeted Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria.
House Democrats met four days after a pivotal election that gives the party — already in possession of the governor’s mansion — full control of state government for the first time in a generation. Democrats picked up six seats in the House, giving them a 55-45 advantage. They flipped two seats in the Senate, resulting in a 21-19 edge.
In a contest for speaker and other leadership posts had potential to split the party along ideological, racial, geographic and gender lines. Filler-Corn, who is white, beat out three other contenders, including a black woman from the struggling city of Petersburg, and two men from Northern Virginia, one white and one black.
The caucus rounded out its leadership team with two other delegates from Northern Virginian — the affluent and solidly Democratic suburbs that now have the largest delegation in Richmond.
Del. Charniele Herring of Alexandria will be the new majority leader, becoming the first woman and the first African-American to serve in that post. Del. Rip Sullivan of Fairfax, a white man, will be caucus chairman.
Members of the House Democratic Caucus, including those who won seats Saturday but will not be sworn in until January, voted for all three slots by secret ballot at a Richmond hotel. Vote totals were not disclosed, but caucus members said there was only one round of balloting.
“To me, everyone’s a leader in that room,” Herring said. “We are unified and ready to get to work.”
Saturday’s vote makes Filler-Corn the party’s “speaker-designee,” but her election will not be official until the full House convenes and votes on it in January.
“We had a historic night on Tuesday and we had a historic day today,” said Filler-Corn, 55, who been in the House since 2010 works for an Arlington lobbying firm. She said she was “looking forward to continuing to stand up for the issues and values that are so important to Virginians.”
House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, issued a statement congratulating the three while also expressing concern that the Democrats’ “entire leadership team” hails from “the deepest parts of Northern Virginia.”
“The House of Delegates represents our entire Commonwealth, and the varying and often conflicting interests of Northern Virginia, metro Richmond, Hampton Roads, and rural Virginia deserve a fair hearing in our legislative process to meet their unique needs and challenges,” Gilbert said in his statement.
Filler-Corn said that other parts of the state will be represented in committee and subcommittee chairmanships.
“I think what’s most important is that we show diversity — geographic diversity as well — throughout various leadership positions,” she said. “And we’ll have ample opportunities to do so.”
The House minority leader since January, Filler-Corn was seen by many as the front-runner to succeed Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights.
But Del. Lashrecse Aird of Petersburg, 33 and a member of the black caucus, mounted an energetic bid. Part of her pitch was that black women, as the party’s most reliable voting bloc, deserved to have one of their own in party leadership.
A delegate since 2016, Aird belongs to the more progressive wing of the party, having publicly sworn off donations from Dominion Energy, a regulated utility that has traditionally been the state’s largest political donor. Filler-Corn has taken Dominion contributions in the past and never joined with Democrats who made a show of publicly rejecting them. But in an interview last week, Filler-Corn said she has not accepted Dominion donations since becoming minority leader.
Aird pressed her bid up until Saturday, releasing a 14-page plan that laid out a plan for her first 60 days. That drew praise from former congressman Tom Perriello, a progressive who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 2017.
“RESPECT! In historic bid to be Virginia’s first AfAm & woman Speaker, @delegateaird raised the bar by posting a detailed 60 day agenda for a Stronger Commonwealth. Never seen that before & hope other great potential Speakers will too,” Perriello tweeted.
Other contenders were Del. Luke Torian of Prince William and Del. Kenneth Plum of Fairfax. A minister and member of the Legislative Black Caucus, Torian is the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee and is likely to assume the chairmanship of that panel. He has been in the House since 2010 and has been chummy with Republicans. Plum, 78, first won election to the House in 1978. He lost his first bid for reelection but came back in 1982 and has been in office since.
Aird declined to speak to reporters immediately after the vote. She later joined the rest of the caucus for a pizza lunch.
Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, one of the more progressive members of the caucus, ran unsuccessfully for majority leader and emerged from the meeting saying that the elections were not particularly divisive.
“There’s so much good work to be done,” he said. “Clearly we have a generation’s worth of progressive ideas and they need to be championed now. And I look forward to fighting for those in the new General Assembly.
At the same time, Rasoul expressed a need to make sure that “special interests are not in control of the agenda.”
“We are a commonwealth that struggles with the influence of money in politics,” he said. “And while money is important — fundraising is important, I understand that’s how you run many of these elections — we do know that people are hurting. I think if you carve out northern Virginia the rest of the Virginia is near one of the poorest states in the nation. And so, to understand those disparities and really appreciate and operate with those inequities in mind is going to be critical for us going forward.”