Unified Democratic control is not unprecedented in Virginia; the party last had a trifecta in 1993.
But one of the distinguishing features of the candidates and activists powering the state’s blue wave is that many of them do not resemble the largely white, business-friendly and pro-gun Democrats who were once the norm in the state.
Gov. Ralph Northam and state Senate Democratic Leader Dick Saslaw are firmly ensconced in the older, more moderate strain of the state’s Democratic politics.
On Saturday, Democrats in the Virginia House, whose members include a self-described democratic socialist and a Peruvian immigrant inspired by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), will decide how much of a break they are prepared to make with the “Virginia Way” ― the bipartisan tradition of pro-corporate gentility embodied by Northam and Saslaw.
House Democratic Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, a 55-year-old white woman who manages a lobbying and consulting firm when she is not at the state Capitol, was the odds-on favorite to become speaker when the ballots came in on Tuesday night. As many news accounts noted, Filler-Corn, a Fairfax County Democrat, would be the first woman and the first Jew to serve as speaker.
But the morning after the election, Del. Lashrecse Aird, a 33-year-old Black woman who runs William and Mary’s junior college, announced that she would be seeking the speakership.
Aird, a Petersburg Democrat who is heading into her third term in the chamber, is framing her candidacy for the top post as an opportunity to embrace a more progressive policy agenda.
“This election was a mandate from voters in Virginia to see Democrats in the majority, but in my mind it is much more than just having the numbers in the body. It’s going to be about bold, progressive leadership,” Aird said.
“You have, in my opinion, a Commonwealth that wants to see that. You have members who have been in our caucus and who will be coming into our caucus that want to see that happen,” she added. “I strongly believe that the other individuals in this race, their personal politics has never been about bold progressive leadership, so why are they going to start now because they receive a new title?”
Many Virginians would call into question the ability for someone to govern the body and be a lobbyist.
Virginia Del. Lashrecse Aird (D)
Aird is also open about the fact that she sees being a Black woman as an asset, particularly at a time when Virginia is commemorating 400 years since the arrival of African slaves and seeking to move past the national infamy it earned for the revelation in February that Northam had worn blackface in 1984.
“Folks want to see a Commonwealth that is inclusive, that is reflective, and that is more equitable than it’s ever been before,” she said.
Aird told HuffPost she plans to allow a vote on legislation that would grant the state’s public-sector unions collective bargaining rights and repeal the state’s “right to work” status, which bars private-sector unions from compelling dues payment from workers who benefit from union protections.
She would also permit a frank and open discussion of ways to confront corporate power in the state in general and the two state-regulated electric utility monopolies in particular. In 2015, those monopolies, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, which are consistently among the state’s largest corporate campaign donors, managed to get a law passed barring the state regulatory commission from reviewing the utilities’ prices.
Now the monopolies’ critics fear that the companies, which extract fossil fuels and generate energy in addition to transmitting it, will seek to water down any efforts to combat climate change. To the extent that Democrats pass legislation mandating more renewable energy use, antitrust crusaders inside and outside the legislature fear that Dominion and Appalachian will try to monopolize production of those new energy sources as well.
“Having gender equality, public safety, LGBTQ equality, gun safety — those are the things we should be able to accomplish regardless of who’s in charge… Only taking care of those things is such a cheap cop-out for what a party should stand for. I want to go beyond those issues,” said Del. Mark Keam, a Fairfax County Democrat, who would not say how he plans to vote in the leadership race. “How do you change infrastructure so we run on clean energy rather than fossil fuels? We need to get there by breaking down monopolies and increasing competition.”
Aird is among the 47 incoming members of the Virginia General Assembly, as the legislature is called, who took an activist-sponsored pledge not to accept campaign contributions from the two monopolies.
What’s more, her two biggest individual donors this past election cycle were hedge fund manager Michael Bills and his wife, Sonjia Smith. The couple are among the state’s most influential critics of the utility monopolies’ power. Bills bankrolls Clean Virginia, the group pushing the no-donation pledge and leading much of the statewide effort against the monopolies’ influence.
Filler-Corn declined to sign on to the pledge, but she did not receive any direct contributions from either Dominion or Appalachian this past election cycle.
Eileen was at the helm and was running the operation in an election cycle when we pretty much did everything we could ask for.
Virginia Del. Marcus Simon (D)
However, Filler-Corn did receive $3,750 from Dominion lobbyist William Murray. And she is a major recipient of cash from other corporations with unsavory practices. The Richmond, Virginia-based tobacco company Altria was her single largest corporate donor, giving her $26,388. Amazon, which the legislature lured to northern Virginia with a package of $750 million in subsidies, also cut her a check for $5,500. (Aird received a smaller contribution of $1,250; they both voted for the subsidies.)
Filler-Corn’s spokesperson Holly Armstrong insisted that Filler-Corn makes decisions based on her sincerely held policy views, not campaign donations.
“You can go through finance reports and decide whether people have some kind of quid pro quo,” Armstrong said. “She was very adept this year in making sure Democratic House candidates had the funding that they needed.”
Filler-Corn is technically not a registered lobbyist at Albers & Co., where she works as a managing director. But the firm, whose clients include Google, drugmaker Eli Lilly and the dialysis provider Fresenius, has represented clients before the Virginia governor and state agencies.
Filler-Corn, who took over for David Toscano as caucus leader last December, has recused herself from voting on legislation in which her firm had a vested interest. Armstrong told HuffPost on Friday that Filler-Corn would continue to do so as speaker.
“With a citizen legislature, you have people with full-time jobs,” Armstrong said. “There are all sorts of different backgrounds represented, which is what makes the legislature so diverse. It is not just cultural diversity that counts; professional diversity matters, too.”
Aird implied, however, that it undermined the case for Filler-Corn’s speakership.
“We are in a period of time where Virginians are holding elected officials to a high ethical standard,” Aird said. “Many Virginians would call into question the ability for someone to govern the body and be a lobbyist.”
Aird is pitching her Democratic colleagues on not only the vision of a more ambitious legislative agenda but also on granting rank-and-file House Democrats more opportunities to shape caucus priorities. On Friday, she released a 14-page report, “60 Day Plan for a Stronger Commonwealth,” outlining her proposals, which include the creation of new leadership posts and a new committee dedicated to energy and natural resources. That committee, Aird acknowledged, would enable the House to take a proactive role in oversight of the state’s utility monopolies.
For her part, Filler-Corn plans to decide on what legislation to prioritize once she consults with members, according to Armstrong.
“She heard over and over across the Commonwealth that people want to address gun violence prevention, they want health care reforms and combat climate change in a way that follows the scientific research,” Armstrong said.
And Filler-Corn is making the case that she provided effective leadership during a tumultuous year clouded by scandals ensnaring Northam and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, and the Republican-dominated legislature’s refusal to consider tougher gun regulations in the wake of a Virginia Beach massacre in May that killed 12 people.
“She kept the caucus together,” Armstrong said.
Aird faces a number of obstacles to prevailing in Saturday’s vote, when all 55 incoming members of the caucus will cast secret ballots for members of their party’s leadership team. In addition to Filler-Corn and Aird, Dels. Luke Torian, a Black moderate from northern Virginia, and Ken Plum, a white moderate serving in the legislature for more than 40 years, have said they plan to seek the post.
Filler-Corn, who faced only token opposition in her reelection race on Tuesday, has likely earned good will with many members for spreading around her campaign cash and presiding over the retaking of the Democratic majority. Unlike Aird, she also hails from northern Virginia, the region of the state with the largest concentration of Democratic delegates.
“Eileen was at the helm and was running the operation in an election cycle when we pretty much did everything we could ask for,” said Del. Marcus Simon, a Falls Church Democrat, who would not reveal for whom he is planning to vote.
Further, Aird is liable to face skepticism of her relative youth and inexperience. She was first elected in 2015, while Filler-Corn joined the General Assembly in 2010.
Aird points to her work as an aide to then-Del. Rosalynn Dance prior to being elected to the House. At the time, Democrats held a tiny minority of seats. The experience makes her sensitive to the concerns of moderate lawmakers, she said.
“I feel like I have one foot in the old world and one foot in the new world to lead some of the new folks that came in in 2017 and will be coming in this year,” she said. “I will take a balanced approach to governing.”
At the very least, Aird has members willing to publicly praise her skills.
“On the House floor, she has been described by members of the Republican Party as the future of Virginia and I couldn’t agree more,” said Del. Jeff Bourne, a Richmond Democrat who would not say whom he plans to support. “She is extremely bright and thoughtful and caring.”
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