The 2021 governor’s race presents an opportunity for Virginia to join the Good Ol’ Girls Club

November 30, 2020 12:01 am

Virginia just launched its new Office of the Children’s Ombudsman, aimed at overseeing the state’s child welfare system. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

We’re about to see how serious Virginia is when it comes to advancing women in the highest elective offices in the commonwealth, and that’s particularly true for Democrats.

After the briefest respite, Virginia politics revs back up and enters the national spotlight when we elect our 74th governor next year.

Not one of the first 73 — and we’ve been doing this since Patrick Henry in 1776 — has been a woman. It’s one of the longest-running perpetual fraternities in American politics. With female candidates — declared, undeclared and still mulling it over — queueing up for both parties’ nomination sweepstakes, 2021 could be the year when that changes.

A total of 44 women have served as governors in 32 U.S. states and territories dating to 1925 when Wyoming elected Democrat Nellie Tayloe Ross, five years after women won the right to vote. Most of women’s success in governors’ races has come in the 21st century when 30 of those 44 women took office in 23 states, Guam and Puerto Rico, five of which have elected women governors twice during that time.

The closest Virginia has come was 1993 when Mary Sue Terry, a two-term Democratic state attorney general and heavy favorite, lost badly to a Republican insurgency led by George Allen.

With Vice President-elect Kamala Harris due to become the first woman a heartbeat away from the Resolute Desk in just 51 days, is Virginia — the first state to elect an African-American governor 31 years ago — finally ready to join the Good Ol’ Girls Club?

That’s not to diminish achievements by women of both parties in recent elections, particularly Democratic women. In January, a brand-new Democratic majority made Del. Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax the first female speaker of Virginia’s House of Delegates, a legislative body that dates to the Colonial House of Burgesses established in 1619.

Of Virginia’s 140 General Assembly members, 41 of them (30 in the House, 11 in the Senate), or 29%, are women. That’s the same proportion as Iowa’s legislature, tying the two states for 25th place among the 50 states ranked by their share of women lawmakers, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Of those 41 female lawmakers, 31 are Democrats — 24 delegates, seven senators.

But times are changing. Both parties have seen women become more active in seeking and winning elective office. In this year’s class of 18 freshman delegates, one-third were women: four Democrats and two Republicans. Of the five first-term senators elected in 2019, two were women: one Democrat and one Republican.

The three female members of Virginia’s U.S. House delegation — Reps. Abigail Spanberger, Jennifer Wexton and Elaine Luria — are Democrats. 

Wexton first won her seat in 2018 by unseating Rep. Barbara Comstock, a Republican unafraid to call out President Donald Trump. Her résumé and base in Virginia’s Washington, D.C., suburbs positions her well for a potential gubernatorial run within a party that has not won a statewide election since 2009 because of its inability to connect with suburban voters, especially women.

Should Comstock run, her candidacy would contrast sharply with that of another Republican woman and the first candidate to declare for the 2021 GOP nomination – Sen. Amanda Chase, a populist apostle of President Donald Trump whose conduct and rhetoric has earned her rebukes from within her party.

Comstock would have to compete in a formidable field of announced and potential male candidates. Del. Kirk Cox, a conservative retired public school teacher and former speaker of the House of Delegates, has already made his candidacy official. Others generating buzz include Charlottesville businessman Pete Snyder, who lost the nomination for lieutenant governor to E.W. Jackson in 2013; Bill Carrico, a retired state trooper and former state senator from far southwest Virginia, and; state Sen. Mark Obenshain, scion of a venerated Republican name who lost his 2013 race for attorney general to Mark Herring, a Democrat now seeking re-election to a third term. U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman, a distillery owner from Nelson County who lost the GOP nomination for a second term to 5th District Congressman-elect Bob Good, has voiced an interest in running – perhaps as a Republican, perhaps as an independent. All of them would be able to put together significant fundraising operations.

On the Democratic side, two women, both lawyers named Jennifer, have formally entered the race. Jennifer Carroll Foy is a public defender and a newcomer to Richmond’s political cauldron, now in her second two-year term in the House of Delegates representing parts of Prince William and Stafford counties. Jennifer L. McClellan is a Richmond attorney with deep ties in corporate and political Virginia who represented the city for 11 years in the House of Delegates and the past four years in the state Senate. She is also a Democratic National Committee member. Both are savvy women capable of waging powerful campaigns.

They, too, are likely to face a daunting male challenge for the nomination, most notably from former Gov. Terry McAuliffe — a force of nature within the Democratic Party and a proven fundraiser with phenomenal national reach. While McAuliffe has not formally announced his candidacy, he has formed an exploratory committee to lay the groundwork for a bid to become only the second Virginia governor in the modern era to serve non-consecutive terms. His plans for a gubernatorial encore took on added credence earlier this month after reports surfaced that he told a Democratic legislator he had ruled out serving in President-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet.

Another declared male Democrat, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, creates a striking counterpoint for either Jennifer among women voters, a reliable voting bloc for the party. Fairfax begins his campaign vehemently disputing claims by two women that he sexually assaulted them in the early 2000s. Fairfax has not been criminally charged and asked authorities to conduct investigations in the states where the alleged attacks occurred — Massachusetts and North Carolina.

If 2021 is the year that a woman at last shatters the crystalline ceiling of Virginia politics and wins a four-year lease on the Executive Mansion, she won’t get there easily. None of the guys in either party’s intramural scrimmages will step gallantly aside and hold the door for her. That’s as it should be, and these women would have it no other way.

What we are about to see over the next six or seven months is what corporate and business America, the professions and nonprofits have known for more than a generation: On a level playing field, women can compete with and win against men.

They enjoy soft skills rare in men. They’re resourceful and empathetic. They’re patient, tough and restrained. They listen. And they live for the moment when an adversary gets lazy, condescends or underestimates them.

At a minimum, having strong women in this race should elevate its tone and conduct over the disgraceful exercise in electioneering this nation just endured.

Perhaps, by this time next year, Virginia becomes the 33rd state to put a lady in charge.

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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]