‘We, not me’: Hala Ayala focuses on ‘collective work’ in run for lieutenant governor
Second in a two-part look at the candidates for LG
Del. Hala Ayala, D-Prince William, applauds on the floor of the House during the opening day of the 2020 legislative session. (Ned Oliver/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, since no woman of color has ever held statewide office and there has never been a woman lieutenant governor. Last in a two-part Q&A series with the Republican and Democratic candidates.
Del. Hala Ayala, D-Prince William, is in just her second term in the House of Delegates. But with the backing of major party figures like Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn and Gov. Ralph Northam, she rose to the top of the Democratic primary in a crowded field to win the lieutenant governor primary. In an interview with the Mercury, Ayala, daughter of a Salvadorian and North African immigrant father and an Irish and Lebanese mother who spent 20 years as a cybersecurity specialist, stressed the importance of keeping a Democratic majority to deliver policy wins like Medicaid expansion.
VM: What is your vision for the lieutenant governor’s office given the limits of the role?
Ayala: We’ve done worthy work in the House of Delegates, as I’ve done with my colleagues in the Democratic majority — raising teacher pay, making sure that we passed Medicaid expansion for over 500,000 Virginians, we worked for gun safety reform and also passed the ERA. This is the great work Democrats have done. My work in the Democratic majority has been so inspiring and has encouraged me to continue that great work, and that’s what I’ll do as lieutenant governor.
You’ve just finished your second term in the House. What made you want to run for lieutenant governor?
The biggest part of it is service. When you see the work being done in the Democratic majority, just recently passing the budget, this work is inspiring. Our focus is uplifting every Virginian to make sure they feel and are included in every policy decision that we make. For instance, when we passed Medicaid expansion for 500,000 Virginians. That is something that when I pushed that button, I broke down in tears because I know what it’s like not to have access to affordable health care when I almost died having my son and he almost died after childbirth. I know what it’s like to lose a father at an early age, and so at the heart of everything that I do is not only bringing my lived experience to the office, but bringing the voices of Virginians and their lived experiences with me.
What do you think it was that convinced the Democratic establishment to support you in the primary?
I think it’s about the work that we’ve done — “we” not me — in the Democratic majority. Again, passing Medicaid expansion, I’m in leadership, I’m the chief deputy whip. The work that I’ve done has not only reached across the aisle, but helped move this commonwealth forward. And I couldn’t have done it without my fellow colleagues. I think the focus is the collective work and the leadership I’ll bring as LG.
You’d be the first woman of color to hold statewide office if you win in November, what does that mean to you?
It is historic no doubt, but it’s bigger than me, it’s bigger than an individual. It’s a “we,” it’s an “us,” it’s about planning for the future, for representation on all levels of government, but more importantly going back to those policies we’ve done in the Democratic majority under Gov. Northam, under leader (Charniele) Herring and Speaker (Eileen) Filler-Corn: Medicaid, gun safety reform, passing the equal rights amendment … We’re still in a pandemic and we’re navigating these waters while passing the historic budget, this is about continuing that work as lieutenant governor.
Do you think you’ll run for governor in 2024?
Right now I am focused on the task at hand, which is winning this November. So I encourage every Virginian to vote like democracy depends on it, vote like Medicaid expansion is on the line, vote as if teacher pay and student resources are on the line, vote as if gun safety reform is on the line, because it all is.
The entirety of the Democratic ticket is from NOVA, do you think that’s something of an issue?
If Virginians know me, they know how I govern, and that is with all Virginians in mind. No matter your ZIP code, your economic status, who you love, who you pray to, I’m going to represent you all.
Democrats have been winning a lot in Virginia. What do you think the next priorities for the party should be if you keep winning?
I think we’re going to continue to build off of our successes under Governor Northam and the Democratic majority. We’re going to focus on health care, education and building from this pandemic. Again, we are in a pandemic and our priority is that we provide every Virginian with the resources they need to succeed and thrive.
What is critical race theory to you, and what role should it play in the education system?
I don’t know what that is, it doesn’t exist. We need to make sure that our students learn about history. The commonwealth has the oldest legislative body in this country. We understand the history of Byrd laws and Jim Crow, and the impact they’ve had on Black and brown Virginians. We need to focus on telling the accurate history of this commonwealth and this country.
Do you think the way that CRT has been characterized — that it simply tells White students that they’re racist — do you think that’s accurate? What do you think it is?
I don’t know what that is. It doesn’t exist. This is a dangerous GOP talking point, and we must focus on being an inclusive and welcoming commonwealth, as we’ve done in the House of Delegates. We need to make sure every Virginian has the life-saving health care they need, the resources they need to recover from COVID. We’re going to continue the good work, and my focus is to make sure we continue our progress. And just to touch a little bit further — this distracts from the real issue of making sure that every Virginia child is a part of the best schools in our nation, and setting them up for success. That is my understanding of our history, and that is the understanding that I’ll take with me as LG, making sure kids have the tools and resources they need to be successful in the future.
How does your heritage inform your politics?
I’m a Virginian. Virginia is my family, and I want to make sure that they have the tools and resources it needs to thrive. As I shared with you earlier, I started off pretty rocky early on in life, I’m the exception and not the rule. And I will work hard for every Virginian to make sure that they have the resources and tools they need to succeed. It has been my honor and privilege to serve, and these lived experiences, the voices of the voters I’ve met along the campaign trail since I’ve been running, will always be heard and brought to the forefront. I want to bring the voice of Virginians to the table where decisions are being made, and I will do that as LG. Look, if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re on the menu.
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