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In Day of Firsts, Democrats Take Control of General Assembly

man and woman behind desk
Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn is sworn into her new post. Filler-Corn urged lawmakers to reach out across party lines but said Democrats would move to act on an agenda that largely stalled under GOP leadership. (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM)

Virginia Democrats formally took control of the General Assembly for the first time in over two decades on Wednesday, bringing record diversity -- and a long agenda -- to the chambers.

The party’s leaders pledged to move on priorities that they said were demanded by voters who swept them into office in November’s elections. Republicans, meanwhile, warned of overreach. 

The incoming class of lawmakers included more women and more people of color than any in the legislature’s 401 year history. 

Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) was formally elected Speaker of the House -- the first woman and first Jew to hold the post. She appeared to hold back tears as she thanked her family, rabbi, and colleagues for their support.

Filler-Corn made equity a center-piece of her first address, pitching the party’s diversity an asset in addressing inequalities that resulted from Virginia’s history. She drew a contrast between the incoming class of lawmakers and the many portraits of white, male leaders that dot the Capitol. 

“These paintings serve as a silent and critical reminder of how we have been, of where we have been, and how far we have yet to go to reach the promise of equality upon which this nation was founded,” Filler-Corn said. 

Filler-Corn said voters should expect action on issues like climate change, gun control, and worker protections. 

And she vowed to become the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which would explicitly put the protection of equal rights -- regardless of sex -- into the constitution. President Trump’s Justice Department released an opinion ahead of session saying that the deadline for ratification has already passed. Others argue that Congress has the final say.

Republican House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) criticized Filler-Corn’s slow rollout of the proposed House rules, whose passage will determine committee assignments and other parliamentary procedures. He asked if Filler-Corn knew of any precedent of starting the legislature without them.

"I would say to the delegate that this day is unprecedented," said Democratic Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria).

In an interview later, Gilbert said Republicans would work alongside Democrats even if some ideological battles remained unbridgeable.

“Those are the things that are going to be flashpoints for debate and disagreement, but I still think we're going to get a lot of things done together that just that will be under the radar,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert cautioned Democrats against interpreting November’s elections as a sweeping mandate.

“The political environment is very tough for Republicans right now,” he said. “That pendulum always swings back in the other direction.” 

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, squabbled over committee assignments. Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Midlothian), a self-described “firebrand” who announced in November that she wouldn’t caucus with Republicans, took to the floor to denounce what she called a “pay-to-play” system as the Senate debated rules that would effectively exclude her from any committee.

Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City) said the remarks were offensive to the institution, and the rules easily passed the Senate.

In the end, Chase was given a seat on the Senate’s local government committee.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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