The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Va. General Assembly wrestles with race, ideology after Republican is rejected from Black Caucus

Virginia Del. A.C. Cordoza (R-Hampton), center, is applauded by fellow Republicans after a speech during the House session at the Capitol in Richmond on Feb. 3, 2022. (Steve Helber/AP)
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RICHMOND — Tensions over race and party erupted this week when the lone Black Republican in the House of Delegates, A.C. Cordoza of Hampton, stood and accused the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus of excluding him because he disagreed with a liberal agenda.

“The questions for entry had little to do with being Black and had more to do with being leftist,” said Cordoza, who won in November by fewer than 100 votes in what had seemed a safe Democratic seat.

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His floor speech Thursday laid bare an uncomfortable set of questions around race and ideology, the outgrowth of a phenomenon so rare that the State Capitol has seen it only a handful of times in the past century: Black Republicans.

Republican Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, a Jamaican immigrant and the first woman of color elected statewide in Virginia history, took issue with the caucus’s vote on Twitter on Friday morning.

“We’re trying to start a new caucus. Name suggestions?” she tweeted. “The You’re Not Black Enough Caucus. The No More Division Caucus. The Welcome Caucus. The Let’s Do Away With Caucuses Caucus. The FRIEND Caucus.”

But other Black lawmakers shot back Friday that the problem with Cordoza was less about ideology and more about interpersonal friction.

“I don’t think his response to the questionnaire had much to do with … why he didn’t receive enough votes,” said Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), chairman of the Black Caucus, referring to a survey new members must fill out before joining.

In his speech, Cordoza revealed that he had applied to join the VLBC but was voted out, and he said it was based on his answers to a questionnaire. He said the questions included topics such as his top three environmental justice priorities, whether he favored charter schools, if he would favor overhauling the process for recalling public officials to “end harassment,” and if he would work to repeal sovereign immunity for police officers.

Other topics, he said, included if he supported collective bargaining — which he called “turning our state into a union state” — and standing up for abortion rights, mask mandates and gun control.

“These questions … spit in the face of our ancestors who fought to have all of our rights guaranteed,” Cordoza said. “I asked myself what any of those things mentioned have to do with being Black. The answer is it has nothing to do with being Black. … The caucus is not about being Black, it’s about being leftist.”

The Black Caucus has 21 members — 17 in the House and four in the Senate. All are Democrats. The caucus has had at least one Republican member in its history — Earle-Sears, when she served in the House from 2002 to 2004.

But aside from Cordoza and Earle-Sears, there has been only one other Black Republican delegate in modern times: In 1997, Paul Clinton Harris of Albemarle became the first Republican African American elected to the House since Reconstruction.

Earle-Sears said she did not spend long in the Black Caucus, which she characterized as unwelcoming to Black Republicans.

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“I really wasn’t wanted when I joined. And 20 years later, nothing has changed,” she said in an interview Friday. “So clearly the issue is, they don’t want Black Republicans.”

She said she had no objections to like-minded Black legislators forming their own caucus, but she objects to what she sees as a “truth-in-labeling” issue.

“People join groups because they believe certain things. There’s not a problem with that,” she said. “This is not about race. … If it were, the Black guy would have gotten in. … Clearly it is about politics. It is better for them to call themselves the Democratic Caucus. If a Black person isn’t Black enough to get into the Black Caucus, then pray tell, who can get into the Black Caucus?”

Earle-Sears sees some good in the attention being paid to Cordoza’s rejection. “What it shows then is that all Black people don’t think alike,” she said. “And that’s healthy. It’s healthy for us to have these discussions. White people don’t all think alike. Neither do Asians. Neither do Hispanics. Same here.”

Bagby took issue with the idea that Cordoza was rejected over a policy litmus test.

On Friday, he pointed out, Democrats stood and applauded when a GOP delegate made a Black History Month speech lauding Kay Coles James, a Black Republican who has served in several high-ranking government posts in Virginia — including as Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s designee for Secretary of the Commonwealth.

“Standing ovation on both sides,” Bagby said. James is “the model individual for both sides of the aisle to look at. Somebody that can disagree on … some of the major issues, but still the content of her character cannot be challenged. … If Kay Coles James was a member, she would be in that caucus yesterday.”

Bagby said he offered to work with Cordoza to smooth out some relationships and get him a second vote. But he said he was discouraged Wednesday to get a call from Fox News asking for comment — which he said suggested that Cordoza was using the issue for political purposes.

L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), the Senate’s president pro tempore, questioned why Cordoza would seek to join the caucus.

“We seem to have nothing in common,” she said. “Why would you want to be a part of a group where you know there’s going to be controversy … because you don’t have the same values, you don’t have the same vision for policy. I don’t get it.”

Cordoza declined to comment on the situation Friday, directing a reporter to send questions to his legislative staff. The staff did not immediately respond with answers.

For his part, Bagby said he wasn’t ready to shut the door on Cordoza coming into the caucus just yet. “I always like to find a way forward,” he said.