House Democrats reject effort to limit speaker’s power over Capitol artifacts

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax ,confers with Clerk Suzette Denslow as the Democratic majority took control of the chamber's legislative proceedings in January. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

A debate Friday about who should control the artifacts and artwork inside Virginia’s Capitol turned into a larger discussion of women’s accomplishments and the legacy of slavery, with House Democrats voting against relinquishing some of Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn’s power to the unelected Capitol Square Preservation Council.

Amid social justice protests last summer, Filler-Corn abruptly removed a statue of Robert E. Lee and busts of seven other Confederates from the Old House Chamber, a museum-like section of the Capitol. The secrecy surrounding the removals drew some pushback, and Filler-Corn was later fined for failing to properly respond to a public records request from a lawyer seeking more information about the removals.

Though there has been little outcry for the artifacts to be restored, the episode sparked debate over who should be making decisions about what does and doesn’t get displayed at the statehouse.

Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, filed legislation creating a bigger role for the Preservation Council, the longstanding advisory body tasked with overseeing “the architectural, historical, archeological, and landscape features of Capitol Square and antiquities contained therein.”

The bill, which would have required the council’s review and approval of alterations involving “monuments, statuary, artwork, or other historical artifacts,” passed the Senate unanimously. Norment said his proposal was also backed by Craig Reynolds, the Preservation Council’s chief administrative officer and curator.

On Friday, Norment presented the idea to the House Rules Committee, which Filler-Corn oversees. Though he insisted he was not trying to “poke a finger in anyone’s eye,” Filler-Corn’s leadership team clearly felt otherwise.

“This is a step when we are taking the power away from our first woman speaker. I cannot support something like that,” said House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria. “Because it will tell every young girl out there who seeks to achieve something that is so magnificent that there are people out there who are trying to take that authority from you. That’s not the way that we should do things.”

Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, also a member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, defended the speaker’s action as a “proud moment” for the state.

“For days, for years, walking past that room often left me sort of disgusted and anxious and bothered. And sometimes even preoccupied by what I saw as I walked through that particular space,” McQuinn said. “Some individuals want to call it a museum and even with that I take offense because I don’t see this as a museum.”

Norment repeatedly said he had no ulterior motive, and he strongly objected after former Richmond City Councilwoman Michelle Mosby, who is Black, suggested the bill was an effort to “keep us reminded that we should continue to feel uncomfortable in this space.”

Norment said he simply felt professional preservationists and designers should have a say.

“I get how some people see shadows behind trees,” Norment said. “That’s just not my motivation.”

Democratic lawmakers peppered Norment with hypothetical questions about situations where his bill would require the council’s approval for minor changes, like moving a couch, hanging a new portrait or putting up children’s artwork. 

Norment said he didn’t envision the bill applying to minor decorating and repeatedly suggested the House could amend the legislation to only require the council’s review, not its formal approval. Republicans on the committee attempted to make that change, but Democrats voted it down and then killed the bill on a 13-4 party-line vote.

“When someone takes power as the speaker of the house,” said Herring, “they take that power with the history that goes with it.”