Virginia Democrats have selected Eileen Filler-Corn as the next speaker of the House of Delegates, putting the the 55-year-old lawmaker from Northern Virginia in position to become the first woman ever to wield the gavel.
At a closed-door meeting Saturday in downtown Richmond, the House Democratic Caucus voted to stick with the minority leader who led the party to victory in Tuesday’s elections. With control of the General Assembly at stake Democrats flipped enough Republican-held seats to win a majority for the first time in a quarter-century.
“It’s a tremendous honor I don’t take lightly. And I’m ready to move forward,” Filler-Corn, who will also be Virginia’s first Jewish House speaker, said after the vote. “We had a historic night on Tuesday. And we had a historic day today.”
Filler-Corn won a majority in the first round of voting, but the caucus did not release an exact tally.
The caucus opted against a leadership shakeup sought by Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, who pitched herself as a more transformational pick for speaker as a young woman of color with more progressive bona fides.
On Twitter, Aird said she was disappointed but “hopeful and optimistic” about what Democrats will be able to do with Filler-Corn at the helm.
“I strongly believe that although I was unsuccessful, I know that for any young, black-woman that one day dreams of rising to leadership the road will be that much easier,” Aird said.
Two other Democrats – Dels. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, and Ken Plum, D-Fairfax – had also put their names in the mix for speaker.
Democrats chose Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, to serve as their majority leader. She will be the first African-American in that role.
“The caucus is unified,” Herring said. “There’s all smiles in there and hugs.”
Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, was selected as caucus chair, creating an all-Northern Virginia leadership team.
Aird had stressed the importance of geographic diversity in the leadership ranks, suggesting one region shouldn’t be seen as dominating others.
In a statement, current House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert,R-Shenandoah, congratulated the Democratic leaders while noting their team was “centered in 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.
Though the meeting began with cheering and ended with a pizza party, some Democrats seemed less-than-thrilled with the outcome.
As he walked out, Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, one of the caucus’s most outspoken progressives said “change is hard.”
“Change doesn’t come because you ask for it nicely,” Carter said. “It comes because you demand it. And you fight. And you make things uncomfortable. I’m going to keep fighting.”
Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, a critic of big-money influence in Richmond who made an unsuccessful bid for majority leader, said it’s important for the new majority to put “the will of the people” over special interests.
“Clearly we have a generation’s worth of progressive ideas,” Rasoul said. “And they need to be championed now. And I look forward to fighting for those in the new General Assembly.”
Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, who works for a government relations firm and has served in the House since 2010, won’t officially become speaker until January. That’s when the House will vote on a replacement for outgoing Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, who lost his GOP majority after a single two-year term.
Democrats selected Filler-Corn as minority leader late last year to replace retiring Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, entrusting her with the job heading into a high-stakes election year.
According to unofficial election results, Democrats appear to have won 55 House seats Tuesday, erasing what had been a 51-seat GOP majority. Some tight contests may go to a recount, but Democrats will have a majority even if those results change.
Given full control of the statehouse for the first time since 1993, Democrats are expected to use their newfound power to take action on progressive priorities like gun control, LGBTQ protections, gender equality and raising the minimum wage.
Though Filler-Corn will continue to shape the House Democrats’ policy agenda, as speaker she will also have significant power over day-to-day legislative functions, such as the committee structure and House rules.
Gov. Ralph Northam issued a statement Saturday congratulating House Democrats’ new leadership team.
“We all share a commitment to serving Virginians and advancing a more progressive and inclusive Commonwealth,” Northam said. “Together, we will defend the rights of women and minority groups, increase access to a world-class education and health care, fight climate change, and pass commonsense gun safety legislation.”