The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Troubled past charts unlikely rise to power for Virginia Democrat

Virginia House Minority Leader Don L. Scott Jr. (D-Portsmouth) gets out of his car, a baby blue electric Porsche Taycan, in Portsmouth, Va., on June 6. (Kristen Zeis/For The Washington Post)
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PORTSMOUTH, Va. — The all-electric, baby blue Porsche Taycan 4S glides into a parking spot, as silent as a dream, as costly as some of the houses in this scrappy port city. The door opens, alligator-skin cowboy boots swing onto the pavement and out comes a man in a royal blue suit with a cellphone pressed to his ear.

Don L. Scott Jr. has arrived.

It was a short trip here from his other law office, in Virginia Beach, but a wild journey to this point in his life. Scott, 57, got his law license just seven years ago. In 2019, he won a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates as a Democrat representing Portsmouth. Now, with only three legislative sessions under his belt, Scott has ousted former speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) as the chamber’s top Democrat and was elected by his caucus as House minority leader.

If that turbocharged rise wasn’t remarkable enough, Scott did it all while carrying what many would consider a handicap: He spent seven years in federal prison on a drug-related felony conviction. Scott credits then-Gov. Robert McDonnell, a Republican, with restoring his voting rights about a decade ago.

“The Republicans caused me to be here,” Scott likes to say with a chuckle.

Some Republicans have had a field day with Scott’s ascent, using his background to hammer Democrats. “Now we know why @vademocrats want to so badly end mandatory minimum prison terms for drug dealing … so they can elect them to leadership in the state legislature!” GOP strategist Chris LaCivita tweeted this month, after referring to Scott in other posts as “the felon.”

Within his own party, Scott has stirred concern with his aggressive moves. Filler-Corn is a veteran lawmaker who raised millions for her party’s candidates, became the first woman to serve as speaker and leads a powerful delegation from vote-rich Northern Virginia.

But the House Democratic caucus is in flux. Half of its 48 members have been elected since Donald Trump won the White House in 2016. Two years in power as the majority whetted the appetites of the new delegates, and Filler-Corn took the fall when Republicans wrested back control of the chamber after last November’s elections. Many turned to Scott in hopes that he can help them regain power.

Supporters see his unusual background — up from poverty, Navy veteran, life-changing mistake — as an asset in connecting with issues that appeal to voters. “He shares the experiences of Virginians,” Del. Dan Helmer (D-Fairfax) said.

Then there’s Scott’s prowess as a floor debater. Only a few days into this year’s legislative session, Scott, who is Black, accused new Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) of sowing racial division by crusading against “critical race theory” in schools, saying the tactic made him question the governor’s oft-touted religious faith.

The line drew gasps on the House floor and provoked Youngkin to pay a highly unusual personal visit to Scott’s legislative office — after Scott declined an invitation to the Executive Mansion. The two men met privately and have continued to stay in contact. When Scott became minority leader, Youngkin sent a letter of congratulations.

The clash gave Scott the aura of power that comes with a reputation for fearlessness — another byproduct, supporters say, of his difficult life experience.

“He doesn’t rattle easily,” Del. Sally L. Hudson (D-Charlottesville) said, “because losing an election will never have been the worst thing that happens to him.”

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Scott was born in Houston to a single mother and spent time growing up in a small town in East Texas — coincidentally, just a few miles from the town where Virginia House Speaker Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) was born. Both are lifelong Dallas Cowboys fans.

Growing up with five siblings, Scott accepted mayonnaise sandwiches and occasional electricity shut-offs as ordinary aspects of life. He never realized how much his mother struggled until, as an adult, he saw a Social Security document that suggested she never earned more than $13,000 a year.

She was strict, Scott said — not afraid to use the belt to keep kids in line. When she went to work, his mother often parked him and his younger brother at the library, where they’d read until it closed and then wait outside for her to pick them up.

Scott said he had a debilitating stutter as a child, and spoke so seldom in class that teachers thought he was a slow learner. But standardized tests put the lie to that, he said. Scott wound up bused across town to gifted programs in predominantly White schools in Houston.

Racism was similar to poverty — casual, pervasive and just the way things were, he said. Scott wound up working his way through Texas A&M University with a major in agriculture. When an internship sent him out to give farmers advice on pesticides and crop rotation, White friends warned Scott to be on guard — that he might even be in danger.

“But I’d go knock on the door and you’d be surprised,” Scott said in an interview. “When you just go talk to people, if you’re coming to help them, they’re gonna listen.”

After college, Scott served a stint in the Navy, then opted for law school at Louisiana State University. He was getting his life on track. But just a few months shy of finishing his law degree, Scott ruined everything.

In April 1994, federal agents came looking for him at a Denny’s restaurant in Mobile, Ala. According to court documents, Scott ran into the men’s room and tried to dispose of several thousand dollars in drug money. Agents had been tipped off by an informant in a crack cocaine distribution ring.

Released that night, Scott returned to LSU and was wrapping up his law degree when agents showed up several weeks later and handcuffed him in the library, marching him out in front of fellow students. He graduated, but wound up pleading no contest to a single charge of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute crack cocaine.

Scott still denies that he ever handled any drugs, but acknowledges that he agreed to transport the money for a close acquaintance. “Bad decision,” he said. “Terrible choice.” He says he pleaded no contest on the advice of his lawyer in hopes of getting favorable treatment as a first-time offender. Instead, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

It was a devastating blow. Scott recalls two moments of prayer that fortified him for the challenge. The first was just before sentencing, when a friend of his mother’s poured oil over his head and told him the story of Jesus in the garden, struggling to face the reality of his coming crucifixion.

“She said, ‘You gonna be all right. You gonna be protected,’ ” Scott said. “She said, ‘You got to go through this. You’re gonna be great.’ I believed her.”

The day he was sentenced, Scott clung to the woman’s words. As a guard led him to a backroom to be fingerprinted, “I asked, can I kneel down and pray,” he said, the memory bringing him to tears. “I’ve always been thankful to that guard, for letting me pray. It brought me peace. And I knew I was gonna be okay.”

He will say little about the experience of being behind bars, other than he felt fear and “saw some crazy stuff.” It made him stronger, he said, and gave him the mantra: “Pain into purpose.”

Scott used his legal skills to help other inmates with their cases, his education to teach them to read. An enthusiastic chess and bridge player, Scott encountered inmates who could beat him at both but were illiterate. “It just tells me the type of talent that we have behind those walls,” he said.

Released in 2002 after 7½ years, Scott went to live with an uncle in Delaware who was committed to helping him rebuild his life. Through tough jobs — including being an ironworker and keeping the books at a used car dealership — Scott wound up in a company that won contracts with local governments to help welfare recipients train for work.

He met the woman he would marry — Mellanda Colson, a dentist — and began climbing the corporate ladder, landing in Portsmouth more than a dozen years ago as an executive vice president.

Active in his church and community, and with a young daughter, Scott began to chafe at the constant travel that his job demanded. Once he got his rights restored, his wife pointed out that he still had that law degree.

So in 2014, 20 years after finishing law school, Scott decided to take a swing at the Virginia bar exam. He spent six weeks studying and passed it on his first try.

After opening a shoestring law office in downtown Portsmouth in 2016, Scott turned out to have a natural talent in the courtroom. He built a reputation as a tough defense lawyer, taking on indigent clients as well as high-profile, high-payoff cases. Earlier this year, he won an $11 million settlement for the family of a man killed during a high-speed police chase in Portsmouth.

Scott is effective because he has “a natural, given talent … to be able to synthesize a lot of different things and simplify it into a story that somebody else will understand,” said Jeffrey Breit, a prominent Hampton Roads lawyer who recently asked Scott to become a partner in his firm.

In 2018, a year after reaction to Trump had propelled Democrats to big gains in the General Assembly, Scott began thinking of running for office. He was friends with judges and political leaders throughout Portsmouth, and a seat was coming open.

But first Scott had to confront his past. He gave an interview in the Virginian-Pilot newspaper that revealed the story for the first time to a wide audience, and he met with several influential friends to get their advice.

Top among them was Portsmouth Circuit Court Judge Johnny E. Morrison, Scott’s next-door neighbor and something of a father figure to him.

“I told him just tell the truth, be honest, get in front of it and you’ll be fine,” Morrison said in an interview. “I’m very proud of him.”

Last year, as Scott ran for reelection, he quietly stepped aside for a few days to donate a kidney to Morrison, who had been in declining health. Morrison said his only regret now is that the relationship means he can no longer preside over Scott’s cases. “To a certain extent,” Morrison said, “he laid down his life for me. I will be forever grateful.”

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House Clerk G. Paul Nardo said Scott appears to be the first person to win election to the House after being convicted of a felony, though he cautioned that the 403-year-old body doesn’t officially track such things.

While the distinction might make some people cautious about sticking their neck out, it has had no such effect on Scott, who said he has more than 20 pairs of cowboy boots and doesn’t mind a little flash.

“The guy attracts attention, right?” said Portsmouth Mayor Shannon Glover. “He says he doesn’t, but I mean, who drives a car like that?”

But Glover credited Scott with working hard to contribute to the community. “He could’ve quit at any point in his life. He could’ve said, ‘Lord, I’m not built for this. I made some mistakes, and now I’m just going to let the world define me.’ But he didn’t do that. He defined himself.”

During the height of the social justice protests of 2020, state Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) turned to him for help when she was charged with two felonies after appearing at a Portsmouth demonstration in which a Confederate statue was later pulled down and fell on a man, seriously injuring him.

Scott waged a high-profile effort to defend the right of Black people to protest racism, and came up with a “Not This Time” slogan that he emblazoned on T-shirts and handed out to hundreds of people for a rally.

Lawyer Tim Anderson, who is now a Republican delegate representing Virginia Beach, pounced on the situation to launch a campaign to have Lucas recalled from office.

Scott was the perfect person to defend her, Lucas said. “Once he sticks his teeth into something, he’s not going to let it go until he gets all he can get out of it. I knew with him I was going to win,” she said.

The charges were dismissed, the campaign abandoned, and Scott punched back at Anderson with a $20 million civil suit on Lucas’s behalf, charging that he defamed her character.

That was eventually dismissed, as well, and today Anderson has nothing but praise for Scott as an adversary. “You would think that somebody would take that personally, but I’m a lawyer, he’s a lawyer doing his job. He was doing it professionally, and I have no heartburn with that,” Anderson said.

In the protocol-laden world of the General Assembly, though, Scott’s aggressive move to unseat Filler-Corn caught some fellow Democrats off guard. While Scott said he only made the effort after other delegates asked him to do it, his move left bruises. And some Democrats worry about how opponents will target his background, though they won’t talk about it publicly.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, a Democrat who keeps close tabs on party affairs and counts friends in both old guard and new, conceded that “it was hard to watch that situation with him and Eileen.” But change happens, he said, and Scott could be a welcome jolt.

“I see Don Scott as inspirational,” Stoney said, adding that his own father had a felony record.

McDonnell, the former Republican governor who had a federal corruption conviction overturned on appeal, doesn’t specifically remember restoring Scott’s rights among the thousands of cases he reviewed. But he said he finds Scott to be “a great American story of redemption. … I don’t care what party you’re in, this is the kind of story we really should salute and raise up.”

Scott said he knows he’ll be judged now for what he does with his newfound status. He wants to help Democrats connect with the real, everyday concerns of ordinary people, he said, and do a better job telling the story of how policies can help everyone have a fair chance.

For all his swagger, Scott said he approaches the task with the humility that comes from having hit bottom and climbed back up. He knows that people will call him “a crook,” he said, but he has faith that the word doesn’t express who he is. And that, he added, enables him to stand up to someone like the wealthy and powerful Youngkin.

“I know how God sees me,” Scott said. “And so it empowers me to walk with fearlessness. And to speak with fearlessness to people that I should not be speaking to. From where I’m from, I should not be speaking to a 400-million-dollar man that’s the governor … [but] what I’m doing, everybody can do, if they choose. If they believe. So I walk in that belief without fear.”

correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated where Virginia House Minority Leader Don L. Scott Jr. was born. He was born in Houston. In addition, the article incorrectly stated the amount of time Scott spent studying for the bar exam. It was six weeks. The article has been corrected.

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