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Virginia lieutenant governor Earle-Sears makes her mark in Richmond during tumultuous first week

Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears with former lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax a few days before she took office in January. (Bob Brown/AP)
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RICHMOND — Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, the first woman of color to hold statewide office in the commonwealth, continued to make history — and some waves — in her first week on the job.

A conservative Republican, Jamaican immigrant and former Marine, Earle-Sears only had to gavel the Senate into session for the first time to draw the approval of nearly 34,000 people on Twitter.

“Badass,” one person tweeted approvingly. “True patriot,” wrote another. “Semper Fidelis @WinsomeSears,” Sebastian Gorka, a former adviser to President Donald Trump, tweeted to his 1.1 million followers, along with a campaign photo of Earle-Sears with an assault rifle strapped over her dress.

She won praise from Republicans and condemnation from Democrats for saying that Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) could withhold funding from school districts that defy his Inauguration Day order to make mask-wearing optional in K-12 classrooms, stating flatly what the famously cagey governor had avoided spelling out.

She then upped the ante by suggesting that parents upset with defiant schools might be eligible for vouchers.

Earle-Sears presided over the Senate smoothly but from behind a plexiglass barrier because she has refused to say if she’s vaccinated. And after three days on the dais, she was absent for the rest of the week because she’d been exposed to the coronavirus.

She could also pose a challenge for the current governor if her agenda — and straightforward communication style — do not line up with his. Her blunt talk of withholding funding, for instance, has the potential to widen the political divide in the Capitol, where Youngkin will need support from the Democrats who control the state Senate to get anything through the legislature.

With attention both positive and negative, Earle-Sears has made a splash, with some political strategists calling her high-profile debut an opening foray into a future bid for governor.

“Normally, lieutenant governors are in the background and pretty quiet, particularly when the governor belongs to the same party,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington. “But we may be seeing the opening act of a 2025 gubernatorial campaign.”

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‘Her own political agenda’

Earle-Sears, 57, glided into office on the winds of historic change, bringing a touch of glamour to this month’s inaugural celebrations by showing up in a full-length fur coat.

She also took something else out of the mothballs: the maiden name and hyphen that she’d set aside for simplicity’s sake during the race. In campaign materials and on the ballot, she’d gone by “Winsome Sears” or “Winsome E. Sears.”

As president of the state Senate — her chief duty as lieutenant governor aside from stepping in for Youngkin should he suddenly leave office or become incapacitated — Earle-Sears has worked through the daily calendar of bills with precision, not hesitating to reach for her gavel when a senator broke decorum by cheering or speaking out of turn.

Outside the Capitol, Earle-Sears has been outspoken on the most contentious issues, potentially complicating Youngkin’s path forward by suggesting he could take the legally questionable step of withholding school funds over the mask directive, political observers say. Earle-Sears declined to be interviewed for this article.

While Youngkin and Earle-Sears regularly meet for breakfast, along with Attorney General Jason S. Miyares (R), the governor’s office appeared to have been caught off guard by her statement about education funding. Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter accused Democrats of mischaracterizing the statement on the video but would not say how.

Youngkin, as reticent as Earle-Sears is unfiltered, told a WTOP reporter that he would use “every resource within the governor’s authority” to enforce his order. Porter has declined to elaborate. “Consistent with the governor’s past remarks, we will consider the tools available to make sure that parents’ rights are protected,” she said.

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The role Earle-Sears plays in the Youngkin administration will depend on how well the two get along, said Republican Bill Bolling, who served two terms as lieutenant governor, from 2006 to 2014, and today teaches government and political science at George Mason University, the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University.

“If she’s not actively involved in the administration, she’ll have to create her own role,” Bolling said. “In doing that, it’s important that she try to articulate positions that are consistent with the governor. But that may not always be the case. She has her own political agenda.”

Helpful and hurtful

The lieutenant governor has never shied away from controversy or an opportunity to ruffle the feathers of her political opponents. Her campaign photo with the assault rifle appealed to gun-rights advocates but also made her a target for gun-control groups.

As a Black conservative and an immigrant with a compelling up-by-the-bootstraps biography, Earle-Sears has provided some political cover for some of Youngkin’s agenda.

In particular, she has highlighted her own success to defend another Youngkin directive of barring public schools from teaching critical race theory, the academic concept for evaluating systemic racism that, while not part of the state’s curriculum, has become conservative shorthand for all instruction or staff training related to race and cultural awareness.

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Earle-Sears argues that African Americans should not focus on slavery and other injustices, holding herself out as “proof” of racial progress.

“I am an immigrant and in the former capital of the Confederacy, I am second-in-command of the entire Commonwealth of Virginia,” she said on Fox News. “When are we going to start saying to ourselves, ‘We can make it. We are making it’?”

The argument has irked other Black leaders. Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) said the election of Earle-Sears as lieutenant governor — or even Barack Obama as the nation’s first Black president — does not prove that racial injustice is a thing of the past.

“Those are one-offs, okay? I’m a one-off,” said Lucas, who, like Earle-Sears, rose from poverty. “When you can count the folks who’ve made it on your hands and toes, yes, that’s progress, but it is far, far, far from where we need to be.”

Nonetheless, Lucas, along with other Senate Democrats, warmly welcomed Earle-Sears this month as a trailblazer. As president pro tempore of the Senate, Lucas also stepped in to preside over the chamber when Earle-Sears was absent and later expressed sympathy for the lieutenant governor’s exposure to the virus, tweeting “we look forward to having you back soon!”

Other Black lawmakers have scoffed at the image Earle-Sears hopes to convey of herself as a conservative champion of Black causes. Earlier this month, she posted to Twitter a photo of herself outside the St. Brides Correctional Facility in Chesapeake. “They can’t come to me, so I must go to them,” she wrote. “All Virginians need hope and a future.”

Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D), the first African American to serve in that seat, retweeted the post, calling it a “photo opp.” Randall wrote, “Want to help the incarcerated?” and proposed a list of reforms for the lieutenant governor to champion, such as ending mandatory sentencing.

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Earle-Sears, a devout Christian who once ran a prison ministry, responded to Randall with a plea for both sides to rise above partisanship. But that doesn’t seem possible after such a contentious first week, political analysts say.

Former governor L. Douglas Wilder, who became the first African American to win a statewide office in Virginia when he was elected lieutenant governor in 1985, said Earle-Sears’s positions could backfire on her if she strays from Youngkin’s agenda. “You’ve got to be careful about getting too out in front,” he said about her statement on withholding school funds.

Bob Holsworth, a longtime political analyst in Virginia, said Earle-Sears is both potentially helpful and hurtful to Youngkin. On the one hand, the lieutenant governor is an effective spokesperson to the Republican conservative base, Holsworth said. On the other, her unvarnished style may cast a harsher light on the governor when he needs to negotiate with Democrats to advance his agenda.

“She is her own person,” Holsworth said. “She operates by noting what she thinks is correct, what she thinks ought to be done. And she usually doesn’t filter those comments through the same kinds of calculations that other politicos would.”