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Virginia Democrats elect the state’s first African American party chair

By Errin Haines,

WILLIAMSBURG — A House of Delegates member from Alexandria on Saturday became chairwoman of the Democratic Party in Virginia and the first African American to lead a major political party in the state.

At the party’s Central Committee Meeting in Williamsburg on Saturday, Del. Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) urged the party membership to hold on to the momentum from the election of Sen.-elect Timothy M. Kaine and the reelection of President Obama and reverse the off-year trend that has favored Republicans for nearly a generation.

“The one thing we can’t do is relax. We’ve got to start now to get voters engaged,” said Herring, who was elected to the General Assembly in January 2009 in a special election to fill the vacated seat for the 46th House District.

Several candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor and attorney general made their case to attendees at the meeting. Most said they have mainstream appeal in contrast to what they described as a divisive Republican Party — exemplified by controversial abortion legislation in the legislature and the actions of conservative firebrand Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, the likely Republican nominee for governor in 2013, which they say are out of step with the values of most Virginians.

“People remember to this day,” said attorney general candidate Justin Fairfax. “They’re not going to take it anymore.”

History does not favor Democrats going into 2013. In every Virginia gubernatorial election since 1977, Virginia has reversed its support for governor in the years following the presidential election. In 2009, Republicans swept the races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. And Virginia has not had a Democratic attorney general in nearly 20 years.

Kaine, who attended the meeting, quipped that the often-cited notion of “two Virginias” actually refers to “an even-year Virginia and an odd-year Virginia.”

Kaine thanked his audience for supporting his candidacy and pledged to help elect Democrats statewide next year. He urged Democrats to continue to be inclusive as the key to appealing to voters.

“You’re not going to get big-tent demographics without a big-tent ideology,” he said. “The other side is chasing people out every single day. Clear choices are good for voters, but that means that the stakes are high for success. We have to prove we can have success in a non-presidential year. We can do it, but it is a very different kind of election.”

Herring said continuing to focus on voter registration and turnout efforts will be critical, and added that the state party will likely be helped by data gathered about Virginia voters during Obama’s reelection campaign.

Herring is a graduate of George Mason University and Catholic University Columbus School of Law.

A lawyer and longtime resident of Northern Virginia, she serves as the Democratic Whip in the House of Delegates and was chair of the Legislative Reproductive Health Caucus, where she was outspoken on the Republican legislation passed last session requiring women to undergo an ultrasound before having an abortion.

Soon after Del. Brian Moran announced his departure last month, he and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe endorsed Herring to be his successor. She had no challengers for the posiiton.

McAuliffe did not attend Saturday’s meeting, but held a reception Friday night. He addressed the audience in a short video, explaining that he was unable to appear in person because he was in Philadelphia to watch his son, who attends the U.S. Naval Academy, and his classmates march onto the field at the annual Army-Navy football game.

Saturday marked the end of Moran’s two-year tenure as party chairman.

“Thank you for your continued devotion to our shared cause of a bluer, better Virginia,” an emotional Moran told the crowd, which responded with cheers and a standing ovation.

Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.

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