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New Virginia House speaker’s tweet about Northam sparks partisan fire

Former Virginia House speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) criticized successor Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) inside the House chamber on Thursday. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch)
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RICHMOND — It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Just two days into the Virginia General Assembly’s new session, the top Republican and Democratic leaders in the House of Delegates clashed Thursday over an angry tweet, exposing hard partisan feelings that could make it difficult for the divided legislature to get things done this year. The House is controlled by Republicans, while the Senate is controlled by Democrats.

The showdown featured the rare spectacle of the former House speaker, Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), condemning as “reprehensible” the words of her freshly minted successor, Speaker Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah).

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The trigger: Gilbert sent a dismissive tweet Wednesday night from the dais as Gov. Ralph Northam (D) wrapped up his farewell address to the General Assembly. The speech — more than an hour of Northam’s accomplishments, along with lofty calls for kindness and racial healing — struck a sour chord with Gilbert.

“Ralph Northam is leaving office as his own lost cause, condescendingly lecturing us all from some assumed moral high ground because he read the book ‘Roots’ and then went on a non-stop reconciliation tour. Saturday can’t come fast enough,” Gilbert posted at 7:59 p.m., about four minutes before Northam finished speaking. Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin will be sworn in Saturday.

Filler-Corn, who stepped down as speaker Wednesday because Republicans won a 52-48 House majority, told Gilbert on the floor of the chamber Thursday that his tweet “did not live up to” the oath he took as speaker. Her face flushed with anger, she called his message “hurtful, divisive” and “not just wrong, but it was reprehensible.”

She said members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus were particularly hurt by the remark, which appeared to refer to the efforts Northam took to understand Black history in the wake of the 2019 blackface scandal that almost cost him his job.

It was her duty, Filler-Corn said, to call out the speaker for words that “failed to live up to the duty that we all have to this commonwealth.”

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Gilbert, who was elected speaker on a unanimous vote, stood stern-faced and silent as Filler-Corn spoke. Afterward, in a brief interview, Gilbert defended his tweet.

“My words were exclusive to Governor Northam, and the fact that anybody tried to take it beyond that is interesting,” Gilbert said, noting that Democrats had called for Northam to resign in the immediate aftermath of the scandal. “Was that reprehensible?” he said.

Asked whether he regretted the tweet, Gilbert referred back to a prayer breakfast he had attended Wednesday morning with both Northam and Youngkin.

Northam gave, Gilbert said, “a partisan speech for about 10 minutes, highly charged and condescending. And he failed to pray for the incoming governor. And the incoming governor had the good sense and grace to then pray for Governor Northam and his wife. And so I had a long day of listening to the governor condescend to us about various matters, so I stand by” the tweet, he said.

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According to the text of Northam’s remarks, he said he would pray for Youngkin when he hands over the keys to the Executive Mansion. He then cited a passage from the gospel of Matthew about caring for the poor and said, “This is my prayer for our Commonwealth: May we always remember the least among us, in word, and in action, and in our public policy.”

Alena Yarmosky, a spokesman for Northam, defended him as “a man of quiet faith” and said the theme of Northam’s speech Wednesday night was “being kind, helping others, loving thy neighbor.” She added, “It’s interesting that the speaker would turn that back on the governor.”