The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia Democrats leadership fight grows after House ouster

Del. Don L. Scott Jr. checks his phone on the floor of the Virginia House of Delegates in Richmond. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)
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RICHMOND — The leadership battle that began last week when House Democrats ousted Del. Eileen Filler-Corn as caucus chief appears to be widening, with at least two additional lawmakers considering bids to replace her.

Del. Don L. Scott Jr. (D-Portsmouth) led the effort to remove Filler-Corn (Fairfax) as minority leader in a closed-door caucus meeting Wednesday and remains the only declared candidate for the leadership post, which will be decided in an internal caucus election that has yet to be scheduled.

But on Monday, Del. Marcus Simon (Fairfax) and Del. Richard C. “Rip” Sullivan Jr. (Fairfax), both Filler-Corn allies who held leadership posts under her, said they also were thinking about running. And Democrats buzzing about the matter mentioned two other potential candidates: Caucus Chairwoman Del. Charniele L. Herring (Alexandria), who survived a removal vote of her own on Wednesday, and Filler-Corn, who could seek a comeback after losing the position in a narrow, 25 to 22 vote. Herring did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Through a spokesman, Filler-Corn declined to comment on whether she will try to win the post back but issued a statement portraying herself as a fierce foil to Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), whose coattails helped Republicans flip control of the House last fall.

“We are facing unprecedented attacks on our democracy and on the policy gains we made for all Virginians when we were in the majority,” Filler-Corn said. “It is deeply disappointing that some have now chosen internal fighting instead of focusing on the real threats we are facing. As a woman in politics, these are the punches we are forced to roll with.”

She continued, “While it is upsetting of course, it does not deter me from what has always driven me: making Virginia and our country a place of opportunity for all. I remain dedicated to doing whatever it takes to win back the majority and fight tooth and nail against Gov. Youngkin’s right-wing agenda that will turn the clock back and harm Virginians. We must stay focused on the progress we have achieved under my leadership and ensure it is not rolled back.”

Democratic leadership battle erupts in Virginia House of Delegates

The leadership struggle has the potential to distract and divide Democrats as they try to bounce back in Virginia, a former swing state that trended solidly blue while Donald Trump was president. “There has been a violation of the trust that existed among colleagues,” said Del. Delores L. McQuinn (D-Richmond), a Filler-Corn supporter. “It is difficult to begin to reestablish the kind of bond that you had.”

Scott and his allies have never publicly presented their argument for removing Filler-Corn, but her critics have argued that she sat on money that might have made a difference in the handful of tight House races that flipped control to Republicans last year.

Although Filler-Corn plowed more than $4 million into party committees and individual House races last year, she had close to $900,000 on hand at the end of December, between her personal campaign account and Energized for Change, her political action committee, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.

Some Democrats also took issue with what they described as her top-down leadership style, according to three delegates who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal discussions. As an example, the delegates pointed to her effort to counter Youngkin’s proposed gas tax holiday with a plan to give drivers a $50 rebate.

Some Democrats thought the amount looked stingy, but Filler-Corn did not share the plan with the full caucus until a day before its public rollout, the delegates said. Her supporters confirmed that timeline but noted that she had worked out the plan with Democrats on the finance committee for several weeks before the rollout.

Republicans have tweeted giddily about the infighting. Some have mocked the prospect of Scott serving as leader, because he spent seven years in federal prison after a 1994 conviction on drug charges, a story he shared with the Virginian-Pilot in 2018.

Youngkin faces tricky work of building relationships as governor

“Don Scott the felon is running to be leader … he just hasn’t ascended to the throne yet. Wonder if they will do a back[g]round check?” tweeted Chris LaCivita, a Republican strategist who advises Attorney General Jason Miyares.

Scott, who passed the bar after his release and went on to become a highly successful lawyer, said he was not deterred by the line of attack. “My life story is, I know that government can really help you, but I also know the government can crack you in your head and hurt you really bad,” he said in a brief interview Monday, in which he otherwise declined to comment on the race for party leader. “You really need people like me who have experienced both sides,” he said. “I’m proud of the challenges I’ve overcome.”

Scott had hoped to stand for election immediately after the caucus voted Wednesday to remove Filler-Corn, who was the first woman and the first Jewish person to hold the speakership, one of the most powerful posts in state politics.

But Herring ruled Scott’s motion for a snap election out of order. The election could have proceeded if a majority had voted to overrule Herring, but Scott withdrew his motion amid heated arguments that other potential candidates should have time to jump in.

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Several House Democrats said they expect the election to take place when the General Assembly gathers in Richmond to vote on a state budget. No date has been set for that gathering, since negotiators have yet to strike a deal on the two-year spending plan, but the legislature will need to pass a budget by July 1 to avoid a state government shutdown.

Simon confirmed in a text Monday that he is mulling a run for leader. As the party’s parliamentarian, he has regularly popped up to challenge Republicans over procedure and policy debates. It is a role the party leader usually plays, but it is not unprecedented for the leader to hand it off to someone else.

“I’ve been approached about running and I am considering it,” Simon wrote. “I think everyone knows we need a united caucus for potential special elections and the 2023 general, and that’s a big part of the conversations I’m having with members. A leader can’t lead on a knife’s edge. Some of my colleagues think I can bring the caucus together and I’m honored by that, but whoever it is needs to know they have the full support of the caucus.”

Sullivan, another Filler-Corn ally and the campaign chairman for the caucus in 2017 and 2019, confirmed that he also is considering seeking the post. “I’m giving serious thought and losing a lot of sleep over whether I could serve the caucus at this moment as its leader,” he said.