‘Who knew Nixon was a homeboy?’ A Q&A with lieutenant governor hopeful Winsome Sears
First in a two-part look at the LG candidates
Republican nominee for lieutenant governor Winsome Sears speaks during a GOP rally at Eagles Nest Rockin’ Country Bar in Chesapeake, Va., June 5, 2021. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)
No matter who wins the race for Virginia lieutenant governor, a largely ceremonial job that nevertheless can be a springboard to bigger things, the election will make history. No woman of color has ever held statewide office and there has never been a woman lieutenant governor. This is the first in a two-part Q&A series with the Republican and Democratic candidates.
Winsome Sears is no stranger to making history. In 2001, she became the first Black Republican woman elected from a Black-majority state legislative district in the country, upsetting 20-year incumbent Billy Robinson Jr.
Today, the Jamaican-born Sears is running on education and economic reform, among other issues, alongside attorney general candidate Jason Miyares and gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin. She talked to the Mercury about her political journey, her heritage and her aspirations for the commonwealth. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VM: You were a member of the House of Delegates from 2002 to 2004, running unsuccessfully for Congress in 2004. In what ways do you think the political climate of the commonwealth has changed since you were first elected in 2001?
Sears: When I was in office and Republicans were the majority, we had a supermajority … My freshman class brought that in … So I thought we would go right into our agenda and get things done. With my rookie status they let me know, “No, we have to sing ‘Kumbaya’ and have peace in the valley across the aisle.” I thought I was in church! And even if we were going to vote against the other side we had a thorough vetting, we would ask them questions because you never know if it’s a good bill, you might not understand it.
Now I’m hearing that it’s not like that at all, there’s no civility, bills are just killed … if they’re even brought up at all. And I think you can see that seeping into relationships that they have, which is zero, you can see that in the various bills that they’re passing, they’re passing wholesale one side or the other. And that’s not good, that’s not good for our commonwealth. So what I’m saying, and what I’m going to be focusing on is No.1: I hope to be a representative who really shows true servant leadership, that the power that I will get if I am honored to be elected belongs to the people of the commonwealth, it’s of the people, by the people, for the people. I’ve seen what absolute power looks like, just from my days in Jamaica and it’s not good. You feel like you can’t call anybody if you say something, somebody will be upset or offended, and that’s what we’re seeing here.
I’m focusing on education because education is what lifted my family out of poverty, it’s what has lifted everybody out of poverty.
How does your Jamaican heritage inform your personal politics?
Well I know that Black people can be anything that they want to be. The leaders are Black, the doctors are Black, the lawyers are Black, the prime minister is Black, the Rhodes Scholars are Black, I mean gee whiz, we have Asians and other minorities, we have White people, we have everybody in Jamaica. But Jamaica is mostly Black. So I already know that I can be anything I want to be. I needed political parties to move so I can get it done. I don’t want anyone to think I’m a victim, this is America.
When my father came to America it was Aug. 11 of 1963. Seventeen days later Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. So I said to my father “Why would you apply to come to America at that time? It was the height of the Civil Rights movement.” And you know what he said? He said “Because this is still where the jobs are.” And I said, “Yeah, but it was a bad time for us,” and he said it was still where the opportunities were. So he came over with $1.75, took any job he could find, took that money from the jobs and went through school, started his career and now he’s comfortably retired. So you can either light a candle or you can curse the darkness. His candle was to come to America and get his education. To light a candle is to find a solution, to curse the darkness is to be a victim. My father had succeeded, I had no excuse.
What made you become a Republican? Have you faced backlash for being a Republican?
Well when you’re a minority of minorities there is an issue, and like everybody who looks like me, I grew up a certain way. I was in the Marines, I had just gotten out and had my last child. And he was about three months old. And George Bush Sr. came on with his commercial and what he said was “I’m going to reduce abortion,” and I thought “Well that’s interesting.” I’d just had my last child and I agreed with that. Then he said “And I’m going to reduce your taxes,” and I thought, “Well that’s good because I’m cheap too.” Then he said something that really rocked my world. He said “If all you ever have is welfare, you will never have anything to pass on to your children.” And that made me say “Oh my God, I’m a Republican.” Because I have felt that welfare has kept people that look like me and you too beholden to a system. But if we can get education up then we will have a foothold and will be able to create generational wealth. We won’t have to start at the bottom, our children won’t have to start at the bottom. I have met too many people who are third generation living in public housing, third generation on welfare and enough is enough.
What is your message to Black Virginians? It seems like they consistently vote for Democrats.
Consider the message, consider what’s really happening in your life. And I’m not trying to make this a Democrat vs. Republican thing because I am running to represent everybody. I’m running to represent independents, Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Green Party, everybody. And I don’t want to be part of what’s happening now, which is everybody seems to be at each other’s throats. Black against White, White against Black, Asian against this, its nonsense! And this is no way to run a country, it’s no way to run a commonwealth. We have to come together and live in harmony. There’s a verse I love that was written by King David and he said in Psalm 133: “How good and pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to come together and live in harmony.” That’s what I’m looking for. I want people to be left alone and just get along with each other. You know, like Rodney King, “can’t we just all get along?”
My message is education. Our children must be taught accelerated math. There are those on the other side who say we can’t do accelerated math. Excuse me? I want our children to get advanced diplomas. There are those who think Black people can’t do that, they say we can’t even get an ID. How dare you? How dare you use us for your agenda? I’m saying that our children must not only survive, they must thrive. Failure is not an option. They must succeed, they must have hope for the future and the only way to do that is to create generational wealth to get a good education so that they can get a good job.
What specifically do you think needs to change with the Virginia education system to make that happen?
We’re transitioning from a labor-oriented society to a more technology driven society. That means you’ve got to have the necessary skills in order to get the jobs. The school-to-prison pipeline then has already started because statistics show that they never catch up.
I’m proposing paying the teachers more. Some of them are using their own pocket money to buy supplies for the children. And then the next thing I’m proposing is that we allow parents to choose where they want to send their children. If you want to keep them in public school, fine, if you want to send them to charter schools that’s fine. If you want to send them to a parochial or private school, fine. The only choice that those who are stuck in poor performing schools have is to move. And many people cannot move, whether they’re in urban schools or rural schools or anything in between. And so the children are continually failing. We know what works. Competition works. And we can look at what’s happening in Florida. In Florida they have the lottery system, and what it does is you don’t get the cream of the crop. Everybody gets an opportunity to go to a certain school, and what then happens is that the children who opt out of public schools, by their fourth or fifth year being out, they catch up to or pass grade level. Meanwhile their cohorts who stayed in the public school system are still unable to read and write at grade level. And so something’s got to give, no more experimentation with our children.
What is critical race theory to you, and what do you think about the recent debates surrounding it?
If critical race theory means that telling a child that once you emerge from the womb you are a racist and a colonizer and whatever else, that’s not going to be good. That’s going to create morale problems for everybody. As I said, I’m looking for harmony. Let’s not teach anything remotely like that. Let’s instead teach critical reading comprehension, critical math, critical science theory, critical technology theory, because that’s what will get them a good job and get them on the path to creating a legacy for themselves and their children. We don’t have time for that. If we’re going to teach about African American history, why just keep it to one month? Let’s teach it throughout. Let’s talk about these things, you can’t escape history. Let’s talk about the good, the bad and the ugly. There are ways to teach it, I don’t agree that if you’re going to tell the child the child is a racist that’s not the way to go.
In 2018, you encouraged voters to write in your name instead of GOP U.S. Senate nominee Corey Stewart, citing his support for the Confederate flag and other racially charged critiques. Donald Trump faced much of the same criticism. Why did you serve as chairperson of Black Americans to Re-Elect President Trump?
You know, you can disagree with the personality, but you can agree with the policies, you can agree with the results. And I saw results. Entrepreneurship among Black people under President Trump rose 400 percent, that’s unheard of. (Editor’s note: This commonly circulated claim on Black entrepreneurship Sears cited has been rated as false by Politifact) … Notice that Black males supported him to the tune of 24 percent, that is unheard of in our contemporary history. But then think about other things that he did. He for the first time got HBCUs to the point where they did not need to keep a permanent funding stream, so they didn’t have to keep coming back to the federal government every year begging for money. Furthermore, he forgave $360 million that certain HBCUs owed to the federal government since Katrina days that they were ever able to repay, not at the exorbitant interest rates that they had gotten. (Editor’s note: Per the Washington Post, the figure was $322 million). On top of that, in all the years that they’ve been tracking Black unemployment, it’s the lowest ever under President Trump. The first Black female general ever commissioned in the United States Marine Corps, a woman born in Jamaica! Talk about prison reform, Donald Trump got that through which you know has affected the Black population much more than any other racial group because we were inordinately represented there. … We can look at the personality and disagree, but we can look at the policies and agree. … Actions speak louder than words.
If you win in November, you’d be the first Black female lieutenant governor in the commonwealth’s history. What does that mean to you?
So what? What are you going to do once you’re there? It’s not the first time I’ve made history, it’s not important to me. What’s important to me is ‘What are you going to do now that you have the power to help people?’ And that’s what I want to put across. If history helps me, OK. But it doesn’t mean anything going forward. What are the policies, what are you about? I want the economy to come back, I want to see us create generational wealth. Black business is Black power, no one other than Nixon said that. Who knew Nixon was a homeboy? We’ve just got to stop the nonsense. And if people see someone who looks like me and say ‘Hey! Winsome is there, if she can do it I can do it,’ that’s awesome. If I can be that example then making history will mean something. But other than that I’m about getting to work.
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