After 400 years of misters, Virginia has a Madam Speaker.
On Wednesday, Del. Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax became the first woman ever elected to lead the House of Delegates, taking the gavel as Democrats prepare to use their hard-won majority power to dramatically reshape state policy.
On what is usually a light day filled with organizational formalities, a crowd packed the House chamber to watch Filler-Corn, a 55-year-old government relations consultant, make history as the first woman and the first Jewish person to lead the body.
“A new torch is being passed today, one that ushers in a modern era representing all Virginians,” Filler-Corn said in an opening speech to her colleagues.
In keeping with the usual early-session nods to bipartisanship and collegiality, House Republicans, now relegated to minority status after decades of control, joined with Democrats to elect Filler-Corn as speaker in a 99-0 vote (she didn’t vote for herself). Filler-Corn thanked her Republican predecessor, ex-Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, and jokingly suggested the two had worked out a secret code to make sure she was on top of parliamentary procedure.
But Filler-Corn was direct about what she wants to accomplish over the next before lawmakers leave town in March. Virginia is strong, she said, “but we can’t let that be an excuse to stand still.”
“This House will pass the Equal Rights Amendment. And we will address discrimination in our laws,” Filler-Corn said. “We will take common-sense measures to prevent gun violence and keep Virginians safe. And we will address the threat that climate change poses to the entire Commonwealth, especially our coastal communities.”
She pointed to other firsts happening in the House this week. For the first time ever, several women of color will chair committees, where most of the nitty-gritty policy work gets done. Suzette Denslow, a longtime Democratic hand who previously worked as Gov. Ralph Northam’s deputy chief of staff, was elected as the first female clerk of the House. Filler-Corn also acknowledged her history-making second-in-command, new House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, the first woman of color to hold the job.
As Herring rose on the floor to nominate Filler-Corn, she spoke about the message the action would send to girls across the state.
“After 400 years, they will now see on that dais, a woman leading the way in the most prestigious legislative chamber in the nation,” Herring said. “The political herstory of Virginia is now, and forever will be, changed.”
Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, a senior member of the Republican caucus, seconded Filler-Corn’s nomination. In his speech, he noted that Filler-Corn lost her first bid for office in 1999 and, after deciding to try again in 2010, narrowly won a seat in the House.
“The rest, as they say, is history,” Ware said. “And today I warmly recommend a vote of acclamation for a woman who has well-earned the office that she seeks.”
Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, the longest-serving woman in the House who has served continuously since 1996 after an earlier stint in the 1980s, said she felt a lump in her throat watching the moment come to pass.
“It’s not how far we’ve come,” Watts said. “It’s how far the institution has come to really embrace all people’s potential and not to just see us as one label, one type of person.”
Watts, the newly appointed chair of the House Finance Committee, also said she feels a sense of satisfaction that, after years in the minority, she’ll finally have a chance to shape something she’s passionate about: tax policy.
“I’m as excited about my nerd side as I am about my woman side,” Watts said.
The day wasn’t entirely smooth.
Unlike in past sessions, the new Democratic majority in the House did not pass a first-day rules package dictating how the 2020 session will operate. Instead, they passed a temporary, one-day resolution and said the new rules will be approved tomorrow.
Republicans took issue with the delay, characterizing it as a sign of disorganization and mismanagement.
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, addressed the issue on the floor, asking repeated questions about the holdup.
“Today is the constitutionally mandated beginning of our session,” said Gilbert, suggesting the House had not been properly organized to begin business.
“This is a transition of leadership. It’s been over 20-something years since this side of the aisle has been in power,” Herring said. “We wanted to make sure that what we produce to the other side of the body is the best work product possible.”
The exact reason for the delay was unclear, but the maneuver meant that any coming rules debates — whether on committee representation or the presence of guns at the Capitol — wouldn’t happen on the same day as Filler-Corn’s election.
As the day went on, she eased into her new role. As the House and Senate were bogged down over an obscure procedural issue later in the afternoon, she banged the gavel to get things moving.
“Was that loud enough?” she said.