How will Democrats govern? Race for speaker could be an early test.

By: - November 6, 2019 5:43 pm

Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, speaks to supporters at a watch party downtown Richmond, Va., November 5, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury)

At least four Democrats – including two members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus – have said they’re in the running to become the next speaker of the House of Delegates, setting up a debate among the newly empowered majority over who should lead their diverse caucus.

After winning what appears to be a 55-seat majority in Tuesday’s elections, House Democrats plan to meet Saturday to elect a speaker-designee, an early test of the party’s ability to reconcile its moderate and progressive wings to form a governing strategy.

In interviews Wednesday, Dels. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, and Luke Torian, D-Prince William, said they’re interested in the speakership, both of whom would be the first African-American speaker in the House’s 400-year history.

Del. Ken Plum, D-Fairfax, the longest-serving House member, said he’s put himself in the running as a “manager” of the House to tone down partisan bickering.

But all three would have to get past House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, who led the caucus during a successful election year and confirmed Wednesday that she’d like the top job come January.

“My leadership ability speaks for itself. And I’m looking forward to running,” said Filler-Corn, a 55-year-old lawyer with a background in government relations who would be the first woman to serve as speaker. Late last year, Democrats chose Filler-Corn – who has served in the House since 2010 – to replace retiring Minority Leader David Toscano, D-Charlottesville.

House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

On Tuesday, Democrats flipped six House seats, creating a 55-45 majority according to initial, unofficial election results. The addition of more new faces to the caucus who may be unfamiliar with its inner workings and the possibility of a split within the black caucus could add to the intrigue in the runup to Saturday’s vote.

The new speaker will preside over the House’s daily legislative sessions and administrative functions, as well as guide the majority’s political and policy agenda.

Aird, 33, a former legislative aide who now works as chief of staff at Richard Bland College in Prince George County, she’s pitching herself as a leader who can bridge the party’s ideological, racial and generational divides.

“If we are unable to unify as a caucus, it will be very challenging to move our political agenda forward,” Aird said. “Which is the most important component of even having the majority.”

Torian, a 61-year-old pastor who has served in the House since 2010, touted his experience and spots on key House committees.

Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William. (General Assembly photo)

“I think over the years, the body of work that I’ve put in, the committee I’ve had the pleasure of serving on, I think it warrants my consideration,” said Torian, who is also a contender to chair the influential House Appropriations Committee.

Plum, a 78-year-old retired educator who has served in the House since 1982 after an earlier stint in the late 1970s, said he believes he can use that experience to help Democrats get “action” rather than being bogged down by revenge or infighting.

“I’m not running to be the guy who’s going to win the most votes for us in the next election,” Plum said. “I’m going to be the guy who’s going to establish a record for us in how we conduct our business.”

Plum said he wants to reform the committee structure to ensure bills are properly heard. Specifically, he said like the Committee on Privileges and Elections to focus on making voting easier and ensure that labor issues get as much attention as business groups’ needs.

“If we go down there and act in the way that we’ve seen the legislature acting in the last couple of sessions, we’re not going to hold the majority,” Plum said. “People are going to be fed up with us.”

Torian also has a record of putting institutional comity over politics. In 2018, his close relationships with the GOP majority earned him a chairmanship of a budget subcommittee. Earlier in that session, Torian rose on the House floor to second the nomination of Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, who will now be relegated to the minority after a single two-year term.

Torian indicated he doesn’t anticipate trouble arising from a progressive vs. moderate split.

Del. Ken Plum, D-Fairfax. (Wikipedia Commons)

“I think our caucus is very healthy,” Torian said. “We have a healthy regard for people’s varied opinions.”

Aird said she’d bring a strong focus on racial and economic equity as Democrats try to deliver on their campaign promises After the blackface scandals earlier this year involving Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, Aird, said, Democrats must continue the equity conversation and can’t “just ignore what happened.”

“I think there’s also a great desire to see leadership that is more reflective of Virginia,” said Aird, who has served in the House since 2016.

Filler-Corn said she takes pride in the diversity of the caucus and has tried to take an “inclusive” approach to caucus leadership.

“The goal is to bring everybody together,” Filler-Corn said. “And I have a proven record of doing exactly that.”


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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.