Democrats Flipped The Virginia House. A Leadership Fight Will Decide How They Govern.

If elected, Virginia Del. Lashrecse Aird (D) would be the state’s first female speaker of the House and the first Black person to lead the legislative body. (Photo: Virginia Del. Lashrecse Aird (D))

Democrats banished Republicans from the last major bastions of power in Virginia on Tuesday, taking control of the House of Delegates and the state Senate.

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?”

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.

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.” 

Virginia Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D) is arguing that she has successfully steered the state House Democratic Caucus through a tumultuous year. (Photo: Julia Rendleman/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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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ARIZONA STATE CAPITOL MUSEUM Phoenix, Arizona Year completed: 1900 Architectural style: Classical Revival FYI: The building, once home to the territorial government, is now a museum dedicated to the history of Arizona. The governor’s office and state House and Senate floors are located in other buildings in the same complex off Wesley Bolin Plaza. Visit: The museum exhibits are open from Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with staff available to answer questions from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Or, reserve a guided tour (from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.)
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SOUTH CAROLINA STATE HOUSE Columbia, South Carolina Year completed: 1903 Architectural style: Greek Revival FYI: On the outside of the capitol, six bronze, star-shaped markers denote the spots where the building was hit with artillery during General Sherman’s Civil War march. Visit: Guided tours are offered weekdays, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Reservations are recommended for groups.
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MISSOURI STATE CAPITOL Jefferson City, Missouri Year completed: 1917 Architectural style: Classical Revival FYI: The first floor of the capitol houses the Missouri State Museum, with exhibits detailing the state’s cultural and natural history. But that's not the only place to find interesting artifacts. In the buildings and around the grounds, look for James Earle Fraser’s 13-foot statue of Thomas Jefferson, Karl Bitter's bronze relief of the signing of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, a frieze by Alexander Stirling Calder (father of th famed mobile-maker of the same name), and Thomas Hart Benton’s murals of everyday Missouri life. Visit: The Missouri State Museum offers free guided tours every 20 minutes, beginning at the top of the hour, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (except for noon). June through February, tours leave every half hour, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (excluding a 12 p.m. lunch break).
MONTANA STATE CAPITOL Helena, Montana Year completed: 1902 Architectural style: Neo-Classical FYI: When the Capitol underwent an expansion in 1909, a conscious decision was made to feature art by Montana-based artists, including Charles M. Russell (his Piegans sold at auction for $5.6 million in 2005) and Edgar S. Paxson (known for painting Custer's Last Stand), among others. Visit: The Montana Historical Society offers guided tours. From May through September, tours leave on the hour (9 a.m. to 2 p.m.) Monday through Saturday, and from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday. From October through April, tours are only on Saturdays and leave on the hour from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. When the legislature is in session (odd numbered years), hourly tours are also offered from January through April, Monday through Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
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NEVADA STATE CAPITOL Carson City, Nevada Year completed: 1871 Architectural style: Neo-Classical Italianate FYI: After Nevada became a state, the constitutional convention made a provision that no state capitol would be built until after three legislative sessions, in case future leaders wanted to move the center of government away from Carson City. A ten-acre site set aside for the building remained empty. In his book Roughing It, Mark Twain describes the empty plaza as a useful spot for “public auctions, horse trades, mass meetings, and likewise for teamsters to camp in.” Visit: The capitol is open Monday to Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (it is closed on weekends). Call the Education Program at the Nevada State Museum to arrange guided tours.
NEW HAMPSHIRE STATE HOUSE Concord, New Hampshire Year completed: 1819 Architectural style: Greek Revival FYI: The stately eagle installed on top of the New Hampshire State House’s dome may look gold, but it’s actually painted wood. The original was removed for preservation and is on display at the New Hampshire Historical Society. A new, gold-leafed eagle was put in its place in the 1950s. Visit: Self-guided tours are available Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Arrange guided tours through the Visitors’ Center.
NEW JERSEY STATE HOUSE Trenton, New Jersey Year completed: 1792 (original structure) Architectural style: Various FYI: The New Jersey State House has always been a work in progress. The original building was first completed in 1792, and a few extensions were added shortly after. In 1885, a fire destroyed a portion of the State House, which was rebuilt in the Second Empire style with a new rotunda and dome. In the 1890s, a Victorian-style addition was made to the Assembly wing. Then in 1903, the Senate wing was renovated in the American Renaissance style. A four-story office was added three years later; it finally reached its present size in 1911, and so on... Visit: Guided tours leave hourly Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., as well as the first and third Saturday of each month (12 p.m. to 3 p.m.) The State House is closed Sundays and on state holidays.
NEW MEXICO STATE CAPITOL Santa Fe, New Mexico Year completed: 1966 Architectural style: New Mexico Territorial/Greek Revival FYI: New Mexico’s Capitol is the only one housed in a completely round building, earning it the nickname “The Roundhouse.” When seen from above, the shape is meant to evoke the Zia sun symbol. Visit: Tour the capital on your own Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Guided tours are available by appointment.
NEW YORK STATE CAPITOL Albany, New York Year completed: 1899 Architectural style: Italian Renaissance/French Renaissance/Romanesque FYI: The Western staircase inside New York’s capitol has been dubbed the “Million Dollar Staircase,” because it cost more than a million dollars to build—in the late-1800s, no less. The 444 steps took 14 years to complete, and more than 500 stonecutters and carvers earned $5 a day to work on the project. The staircase’s main feature is 77 carvings of faces, which include prominent Americans such as Abraham Lincoln and Susan B. Anthony, as well as images of the carvers’ friends and relatives. Visit: Guided tours are available Monday to Friday (excluding holidays). Tour times vary; call the Office of General Services—Visitor Assistance for more information.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE CAPITOL Raleigh, North Carolina Year completed: 1840 Architectural style: Greek Revival FYI: The North Carolina State Capitol boasts two impressive statues of George Washington. Outside on the grounds sits a bronze statue cast from a mold of Jean-Antoine Houdon's statue of George Washington in Richmond, Virginia. At the focal point in the rotunda, there's a copy of a statute that stood at North Carolina’s previous state capitol until 1831. The Italian sculptor, Antionio Canova, carved George with a Roman general’s uniform and haircut—and he’s writing in Italian. Visit: Self-guided tours are available Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 pm; and Sunday, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Guided tours for groups of 10 can be scheduled through Capital Area Visitor Services.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost.