Five women to watch in the 2020 Virginia General Assembly

November 25, 2019 12:01 am

Democratic House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Her time has come.

Never have women enjoyed as much electoral success in Virginia as they achieved in this month’s legislative election.

A record 30 women (six newly elected) will hold seats in the House of Delegates when the 2020 session convenes. And, for the first time in 400 years, a woman will preside as speaker over the oldest continuously-meeting legislative body in the Western Hemisphere.

In the Senate, women will occupy 11 of the 40 seats – also a record – with two of them newcomers.

Their influence goes beyond their numbers. Without victories by women in the blue sweep, Democrats could not have consolidated their hold on political power in Virginia for the first time in 26 years.

And there’s still upward mobility for them. Virginia is one of 20 states never governed by a woman. Ten states or U.S. territories presently have female governors.

The closest any woman has come was in 1993, when Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, a Democrat and still the only woman to win statewide election in Virginia, held a prohibitive lead over a one-term GOP former congressman named George Allen. A conservative wave and Allen’s folksy populism flipped the race and kicked off a Virginia GOP renaissance in the 1990s.

Now, a new crop of diverse female legislators is poised to advance the role of women in government beyond anything Virginia has known.

Here, in alphabetical order, are five female rising stars to watch as the 2020 legislature unfolds.

Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico:

It’s been 10 years since a Republican won a statewide election. Now shut completely out of power, the party’s prospects for a quick rebound are shaded by President Donald Trump’s low popularity in the state’s burgeoning suburbs.

That’s why Dunnavant’s squeaker victory over Del. Debra Rodman in blue-voting suburban Henrico County is relevant.
Her win in one of Virginia’s most expensive legislative races wasn’t enough to save the GOP’s majority, but it allowed her party to exceed bleak expectations. It also means that on a tight partisan floor vote, Democrats can’t prevail if more than one of their senators breaks ranks.

State Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

More important, however, are the insights her election provides a Virginia GOP struggling to compete in blue-tinged suburbs. Dunnavant staked out centrist policy positions in her campaign, even claiming in one campaign ad to support some gun control measures – her generous donations from the National Rifle Association notwithstanding.

Her work as an obstetrician and gynecologist helps make her relatable to women, a key Democratic demographic. She also has a solid GOP pedigree: one brother, Ken Stolle, represented Virginia Beach in the Senate before he was elected the city’s sheriff, and another, Chris Stolle, serves in the House.

Speaker-elect Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax:

Filler-Corn in January becomes the first woman ever to wield the gavel of the House, which, as the colonial House of Burgesses in Jamestown, was enacting legislation 170 years before Congress was established. She is also the first Jewish speaker.

She won her seat representing Fairfax County in 2009. Her first venture into top House leadership came just this year when the House’s 49 Democrats elected her minority leader.

Things got off to a nightmarish start. Less than a month into her role leading the House Democratic minority heading into a pivotal election, Virginia was convulsed by the discovery of a photo on Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page of a man in blackface next to a man in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.

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

Instantly, Democrats at every level howled for Northam’s scalp. Within weeks, the Democrats’ other two statewide elective officeholders – Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring – were dealing with scandals of their own.

Two women accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting them more than a decade ago, and Herring admitted to wearing blackface at a college party.

Under those circumstances, holding House Democrats together for the 2019 legislative session wasn’t easy. Slowly, things slowly simmered down.

The party found its voice after a dozen people died in the May 31 mass shooting in Virginia Beach when it called for a special session to consider gun-control laws. Republicans adjourned the session with no action in less than a day.

House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria:

Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria.

Herring came to the House the same year as Filler-Corn and will occupy the critical role as the strategic leader of the Democrats’ new majority.

She becomes the first woman and the first African-American to be House majority leader.
A lawyer in private practice, she assumes the high-profile position after previously serving as chair of the House Democratic Caucus.

Together with Filler-Corn, they represent the first time since the 1970s that top House leadership has been invested in delegates from Northern Virginia.

She has also said she is “seriously considering” a run for attorney general in 2021.

Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond:

It’s going to be interesting to see how much the Senate’s new Democratic leadership invests into this freshman senator.

Democrat Ghazala Hashmi speaks after winning her senate race against Republican Glen Sturtevant at an election party in downtown Richmond, Va., November 5, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury)

She banked significant political currency by upsetting first-term Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Chesterfield, in a Richmond-area district the GOP had owned for a generation.

She won by 8 percentage points in a bitterly contested race in which the two sides raised more than $4 million the past two years. She is Virginia’s first female Muslim member General Assembly member.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond:

McClellan is the wily veteran of the group. She’s an African-American with strong ties to key Democratic constituencies. And as a corporate lawyer for Verizon, she has respect in Virginia’s business community as well.

State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond.

Holding a Democratic-voting seat that takes in Richmond’s bluest neighborhoods, she’s has a strategic vantage point to survey the larger political landscape, avoid serious challengers, raise money and create allies by helping other Democrats.

Perhaps she sensed a moment last summer when she formed her own political action committee, Virginia United PAC – an action widely interpreted as a precursor to a bid for statewide office, possibly governor.

The announcement came as scandals beset two likely rivals for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination — Fairfax and Herring.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]