The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Republicans take over Virginia House of Delegates, outgoing Democratic speaker promises to defend record

Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) in February 2021. (Steve Helber/AP)

RICHMOND — Eileen Filler-Corn has already moved out of the speaker’s office, but the Fairfax Democrat said she is gearing up to defend her party’s record when Republicans take over leadership of the House of Delegates later this week.

As Virginia House speaker, Filler-Corn broke ranks with her predecessors

“Our number one focus is to stand firm and be sure our progress is not rolled back,” said Filler-Corn, who became the first woman to lead the Virginia House in its 400 years when she won the speaker’s chair in 2019. She will soon return to the role of House minority leader.

The 60-day General Assembly session convenes at noon Wednesday, with Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) set to take over as speaker. Republican Glenn Youngkin will be sworn in as governor on Saturday.

Two years ago, Democrats took the majority in both the House and Senate for the first time in a generation after elections in which Virginia voters reacted against the administration of President Donald Trump. United with Gov. Ralph Northam, the party moved quickly to reshape Virginia’s policy landscape.

Over two sessions, they passed gun-control legislation, extended access to the vote, abolished the death penalty, legalized small amounts of recreational marijuana and overhauled criminal justice laws, among other measures. At the same time, they grappled with the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis that went along with it.

“We know we’re on the right side of these issues, we are on the right side of history,” Filler-Corn said, adding, “I will not let [Republicans] do in Virginia what they have done in states like Georgia,” referring to GOP efforts in that state to roll back voter access laws. Though she will not have enough raw votes to stop Republicans from passing bills, Filler-Corn said she will speak out against what she sees as wrong and marshal support from constituents.

Republicans have argued that Virginia voters put the brakes on the Democratic agenda in November’s elections, handing the Executive Mansion to Youngkin and erasing what had been a 55-to-45 Democratic advantage in the House.

“Virginians looked at the ‘accomplishments’ of the House Democrats, and voted accordingly,” Garren Shipley, a spokesman for Gilbert, said via email. “We look forward to charting a new course for Virginia that will improve our schools, make our neighborhoods safe, and bring prosperity to every Virginian.”

The GOP will start the session with a House majority of at least 52 to 47. A Democratic-leaning district in Norfolk is set to hold a special election Tuesday for a recently vacated seat.

The Senate did not face elections last year, and Democrats maintain a 21-to-19 advantage there, though the incoming Republican lieutenant governor, Winsome Sears, will preside and be able to break any tie votes.

Filler-Corn said she does not believe the election results amounted to a rejection of Democratic policies. She blamed “historic head winds,” including the struggles of a new Democratic administration in the White House and a failure by Congress to act quickly on infrastructure and spending bills.

Combined with the economic and medical toll of the pandemic, she said, “voters were frustrated and tired.”

Filler-Corn said the Democratic caucus is still waiting for signals from Youngkin about what to expect in the upcoming session. “There certainly have not been many specifics out there or proposals yet,” she said.

Filler-Corn said she has spoken only briefly with Youngkin — in a phone call shortly after his victory in November and exchanging pleasantries at a meeting in Richmond later that month.

“I am hopeful that the incoming administration will focus on continuing to invest in public education, raising teacher pay,” she said. Youngkin has said he intends to seek money for charter schools. Asked about that priority, Filler-Corn said only that she will work to prevent any rollback in funding for public schools.

“The hope would be that we can find common ground on some issues,” she said, touting the state’s robust fiscal situation, with surpluses of more than $3 billion projected for each of the next two years.

Youngkin will inherit a Virginia government stuffed with cash, but what he can do with it remains uncertain

Filler-Corn said she has had numerous conversations with Gilbert, who has been naming new committee chairs and organizing Republican plans for the session.

One area that could lead to bipartisan support is the Republican call for tax relief. Filler-Corn singled out Youngkin’s pledge to eliminate the state’s grocery tax as a subject that Democrats “will look to have a substantive discussion” about.

Northam, in his final budget proposal, has suggested eliminating the 1.5 percent statewide grocery tax but maintaining the additional 1 percent that localities can impose.

Democrats have filed very few pieces of proposed legislation — Filler-Corn, for example, has zero. But she said the bills are coming. She has designated issues experts within the caucus and has been meeting with them regularly, including for several hours over videoconference on Sunday evening, she said. House Democrats have also conferred with their counterparts in the Senate.

“We’re dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and making sure the legislation is ready,” Filler-Corn said. “To a certain degree, we’ve got to wait and see. We don’t know what the new majority will be focused on and whether they will be trying to roll back some of our progress.”