Women take charge of Virginia House as historic assembly session convenes

Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) is sworn in by Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court Don Lemons during opening ceremonies of the 2020 Virginia General Assembly at the Virginia State Capitol on Jan. 8, 2020, in Richmond, Virginia.

A view of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.

Former Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) attends the opening ceremonies of the 2020 Virginia General Assembly at the Virginia State Capitol on Jan. 8, 2020, in Richmond, Virginia.

Virginia House of Delegates Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, takes the oath of office during opening ceremonies of the 2020 Virginia General Assembly at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. Filler-Corn is the first woman to hold the position.

Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) arrives before the start of opening ceremonies of the 2020 Virginia General Assembly at the Virginia State Capitol on Jan. 8, 2020, in Richmond, Virginia.

Clerk of the Virginia House of Delegates, Suzette Denslow, left, takes the oath of office from Supreme Court Justice William Mimms, right, after being elected clerk during opening ceremonies of the 2020 Virginia General Assembly at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.

Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) speaks after being sworn in during opening ceremonies of the 2020 Virginia General Assembly at the Virginia State Capitol on Jan. 8, 2020, in Richmond, Virginia.

Virginia House of Delegates, Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, takes the oath of office during opening ceremonies of the 2020 Virginia General Assembly at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.

Equal Rights Amendment supporters demonstrate outside Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. The 2020 session of the Virginia Legislature begins Wednesday.

Extinction Rebellion climate protesters demonstrate outside the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. The 2020 session of the Virginia General Assembly begins Wednesday.

Demonstrators gather in front of the Capitol steps and listen to speakers to support the removal of Confederate monuments at the Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.

Former Charlottesville City Councilman Wes Bellamy, right, gestures as he speaks to demonstrators in front of the Capitol steps to support the removal of Confederate monuments at the Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.

A rally for environmental protections, including the Green New Deal, by the bell tower on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, receives big cheers from ERA supporters as she walks in on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.

Protesters stand outside the House caucus rooms on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020 in Richmond.

Virginia House Democrats are getting set for caucus, led by Northern Virginian Dels. Eileen Filler-Corn, Rip Sullivan and Charniele Herring.

Republican Del. Todd Gilbert complains about new House rules not being ready for vote on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.

People are going through security to get into the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.

Visitors mill around the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.

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The ascent of female leadership in Virginia’s House of Delegates highlighted a transformative day as the General Assembly convened Wednesday for its annual session in Richmond.

Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax County, was unanimously elected the first female and first Jewish speaker in the 400-year history of the House of Delegates; Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, became the first female and first black House majority leader; and Suzette Denslow was unanimously elected as the House’s first female clerk.

“A new torch is being passed today. One that ushers in a modern era representing all Virginians,” Filler-Corn said in a speech to the House after taking the oath of office.

Democrats took control of both the Virginia House and Senate in November’s elections. With Gov. Ralph Northam in the Executive Mansion, Democrats now control state government for the first time in decades.

“We anticipate that the next 60 days will be busy, and also successful,” Filler-Corn said.

The new leadership should be an inspiration for girls across Virginia and across the country, Herring said.

“After 400 years, they will now see on that dais a woman leading the way in the most prestigious legislative chamber in the nation,” Herring said. “The political ‘herstory’ of Virginia is now and forever will be changed.”

Democratic priorities for the session include equity and equality changes tied to criminal justice reform, environmental protections and education.

Del. Kathy Byron, R-Lynchburg, speaks at a news conference held by an anti-Equal Rights Amendment group on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (WTOP/Max Smith)

The General Assembly is also expected to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, although it remains unclear whether time has expired to ratify the amendment banning discrimination on the basis of sex. If time has not expired, Virginia could be the 38th and final state needed to ratify the amendment.

(The Justice Department wrote in a memo on Wednesday that the deadline for ratification has passed, and it won’t matter if Virginia passes the amendment. A lawsuit filed Tuesday, however, argues that the deadline is not binding.)

A number of gun-related measures are also proposed, such as expanding background checks and a red flag law to temporarily remove guns from those who are a threat to themselves or others.

Pushback from pro-gun groups and related threats online have driven noticeably increased security around Capitol Square this session, and an unusual message from Virginia State Police, Capitol Police and Richmond Police that everyone is welcome on Capitol Square but intimidation, violence or other violations of the law are not.

A contentious pro-gun rally is scheduled Jan. 20 on what is typically a lobby day for a number of issues.

Affordable housing, authorization of casinos, minimum wage increases, redistricting and transportation are among other significant issues in the 60-day session.

The legislature also must approve a wide-ranging two-year state budget.

Record diversity

Beyond the leadership, the General Assembly is among the most diverse ever, including the most women ever and the most black lawmakers since reconstruction.

Democratic Del. Suhas Subramanyam, who represents parts of Loudoun and Prince William counties, became the first Hindu and Indian-American in Virginia’s General Assembly.

Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William County, has Route 28 and transit as one of her major priorities, seen outside her office on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (WTOP/Max Smith)

Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William County and Manassas Park — who had lots of attention as she was sworn in for her first term two years ago as Virginia’s first openly transgender lawmaker — was simply getting down to business Wednesday.

“This time around, you know, we’ll just say the new-delegate smell is maybe left in the first term, and now it’s just like, ‘Oh, OK, I’m part of the institution now,’ and I’m not just a curiosity or a wonder for people. I’m a legislator,” Roem said.

Her office features rainbow flags representing a push against discrimination, but also diagrams of fixes for Route 28 and other items from the Manassas area.

Roem plans to continue work on traffic and transit, expanding access to school meals for families that may not be able to afford it, freedom of information laws, and easing absentee and other voting restrictions ahead of what is expected to be a high-turnout 2020 election.

“I’m still working on fixing Route 28; I’m still dealing with mass transit. I’m still feeding hungry kids in schools, and I’m fighting for equality, too,” Roem said.

Black caucus priorities

The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus has a long list of priorities.

“Every issue is a black issue. Every issue affects communities of color. Every issue affects vulnerable communities. We are their voice,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond.

The caucus has gained additional power over the past year since Northam’s blackface scandal led to a renewed commitment to anti-discrimination and equity.

Northam received applause when he met with lawmakers in the Democratic and Republican caucus meetings just before the session began.

With Democratic control of the General Assembly, many of the black caucus’ priorities are expected to move forward. “We will work to eliminate the last vestiges of racism and white supremacy in Virginia law today,” McClellan said.

The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus kicks off the session outlining key priorities on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (WTOP/Max Smith)

Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who is also a black woman, was elected president pro tempore of the Senate.

New Democratic Del. Joshua Cole, of the Fredericksburg area, was a bit in awe as he prepared to walk into the chamber to be sworn in, in a Capitol that slaves helped build.

“It’s amazing. There is a saying that said, ‘You are your ancestors’ wildest dreams,’ and it’s just been very spooky, and the goose bumps and all the feels when you walk into a Capitol that was built by your ancestors, and now we’re governing, and it’s really amazing,” Cole told WTOP.

He is optimistic about getting new funding for transportation improvements in the Fredericksburg region; education support, including for special education students; and statewide bills that could increase the minimum wage, ban certain questions on job applications and prevent employers from forcing workers to pay for uniforms.

“This session, we’re really going to be focused on education, criminal justice reform and — because of the Stafford area/95 corridor — transportation and traffic,” Cole said.

New House Democratic leadership got off to a bit of a slow start though, as the proposed rules for the session weren’t quite finished. The previous session’s rules were instead extended one day, to allow for a debate and vote Thursday to get the rest of the legislative process going.

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