RICHMOND — From her old office, Del. Eileen Filler-Corn could lean against the window and look hard left along the General Assembly building for a glimpse of Virginia’s white-columned State Capitol.
But Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax County) is on the move, and her new digs look straight out at Mr. Jefferson’s temple on the hill. It’s a historic step for Filler-Corn, taking over the office suite of the minority leader of the Virginia House of Delegates — the first time in 400 years that a woman has held such a position.
“I’ll tell you, there has been an outpouring of excitement and energy around that,” Filler-Corn said in an interview. “Everyone is just kind of surprised to think that it’s taken so long.”
She also will become the first delegate from Northern Virginia to ascend to a top House leadership post in about 40 years, as well as the first Jew.
“I think women have a different perspective,” she said. “I’m also the first mom [in such a position] — it’s a different perspective to bring, both with issues and also with personality. . . . From what I hear, a lot of folks are saying it’s about time.”
Democrats are on a roll in Virginia, and the House has been leading the way. Last year, 15 Democrats flipped seats that had been held by Republican delegates, and 11 of those winners are women. The party holds every statewide office. With all 140 seats in the House and state Senate on the ballot this fall, Democrats are hoping to build on their momentum.
That puts Filler-Corn, a nearly nine-year veteran of the House, in an especially high-profile position. Fellow Democrats chose her this month as their leader to replace Del. David J. Toscano of Charlottesville, who is running for reelection but had decided seven years was long enough as minority leader.
Filler-Corn will preside over a diverse group of 49 Democrats, energized and looking to flex some newfound power. Those who were freshmen this year kept their heads down and stuck to the party’s main agenda item: passing Medicaid expansion. In the General Assembly session that convenes in January, though, there might not be a single overriding issue to enforce party discipline.
“They did a lot of listening and learning. They are ready and champing at the bit,” Filler-Corn said. “One of the common denominators was [that] they felt underutilized, so I’m looking for ways to make sure they have even more of a voice.”
Republicans still control the chamber with a 51-to-49 advantage, but next fall’s elections and a possible court-ordered redistricting have Democrats hoping they can take back the majority for the first time in a generation. That could leave Filler-Corn in good position to make a run at being Virginia’s first woman to serve as speaker. It also could make it much harder to preserve fragile party unity.
“When you’re in the minority, it gives you a great opportunity to stick together,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington. “The real challenge for the Democrats will come when there are 51 or more of them.”
Even picking Filler-Corn as leader revealed some divisions. Although the vote was private, there were at least five candidates, including a strong bid from Del. Sam Rasoul of Roanoke, according to several Democrats. Rasoul represents a more populist approach to politics — he has refused all corporate donations, for instance, and regularly challenges the party’s orthodoxy.
Filler-Corn, by contrast, works for an Arlington lobbying firm and has close ties to Toscano and the existing power structure. The Clean Virginia progressive political group has targeted her because she takes donations from Dominion Energy.
In the end, she won by unanimous acclamation, with some of the new delegates supporting her because she had stood by them during their long-shot campaigns.
“She firmly believed in supporting the women running for office, as well as empowering them,” said Del. Hala S. Ayala (D-Prince William), who said Filler-Corn had recruited her to run last year. “She took the time to invest in knowing who we are as individuals.”
Del. Mark D. Sickles (D-
Fairfax) said it’s important to have a leader from a suburban district — particularly in Northern Virginia, which has driven so much of the party’s recent gains.
And Filler-Corn has earned her leadership post, Sickles said. Even after Filler-Corn lost a bid for caucus chair a few years ago, he said, “it did not discourage her. She continued to raise remarkable amounts of money for the effort — which is just work, and she’s willing to put in the time.”
Filler-Corn, 54, married and the mother of two grown children, was first elected to represent western Fairfax County’s 41st District in 2010. She had run for the seat in 1999 and lost, then spent many of the intervening years working for two Democratic governors.
Born in New York City, Filler-Corn got her law degree from the Washington School of Law at American University.
She worked for Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) from 2002 to 2006 as deputy director of the Virginia Liaison Office, managing the state’s relationship with outside groups such as the National Governors Association and federal agencies. She played a similar role for the first year of the administration of Gov. Tim Kaine (D).
In 2007, Filler-Corn joined Albers & Company as director of government relations. Albers is a lobbying and consulting firm that works with state and local governments. Filler-Corn helps companies manage their relationships with associations such as the Council of State Governments and the National Conference of State Legislatures. She said shedoes no work with the state of Virginia.
Albers has donated nearly $49,000 to various candidates in Virginia over the years, nearly twice as much to Democrats as Republicans, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.
Filler-Corn won her first election — a special election to replace former Del. David W. Marsden (D), who had jumped to the state Senate — by 37 votes. In her two most recent elections, she was unopposed.
She has emphasized transportation, education and health care. Filler-Corn was instrumental in getting Virginia to pass legislation in 2015 that enables families with disabled children to set up tax-free savings accounts, similar to 529 accounts for college savings. And she worked on bipartisan legislation allowing women to purchase a year’s supply of birth control pills.
Filler-Corn is a talker — she buttonholes colleagues, speaks out in news conferences and texts or telephones fellow delegates habitually.
When the new crop of Democrats was running for office last year, Filler-Corn was something of a mentor. Ayala, a single mother, said that the decision to seek office was daunting but that Filler-Corn “was really thoughtful to make sure I was okay. She would call . . . [and say] ‘I’m here for you if you need to talk.’ ”
After the new delegates got to Richmond, Filler-Corn helped set up an orientation message board — including child-friendly details for delegates’ families.
In 2015, Toscano made an earlier attempt to step down as leader, and Filler-Corn got in her car and “drove to Charlottesville to convince me to stay on,” Toscano said. Since she was chosen to replace him, “we have talked every single day,” he said. “She has lots of questions and wants to do a good job.”
Filler-Corn said she has been calling every delegate in the caucus to get a better sense of what role each would like to play in the coming session. She also has reached out to the Republican leadership, and has talked or texted with House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah).
She is already setting some priorities. This year, Filler-Corn and other Democrats formed a “Safe Virginia Initiative” task force, which she co-chairs, to look at preventing gun violence.
Although the Republican leadership squelched all efforts to consider gun-control bills in the 2017 session, Filler-Corn said the task force intends to press the issue next year. She said she has kept GOP leadership in the loop and believes there are areas of agreement.
“We’re going to be reasonable,” she said. “We’re talking about areas where there is agreement on what we can do because doing nothing is not an option.”
Gender equality is another priority, she said, with Democrats and some Republicans pushing for Virginia to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
And with Virginia looking at a possible windfall of tax revenue because of changes to the federal tax code, Filler-Corn said she will insist on using some of the money to invest in education, which is also a priority of Gov. Ralph Northam (D).
Rasoul said he expects the caucus to unite behind her, noting that she has promised to give a voice to the full spectrum of delegates.
“It only goes sideways when you force everyone to be monolithic, and that’s clearly not in the best interest of public policy,” he said. “I know Eileen and the rest of leadership is laser-focused on how we can reach the majority, so that way we can positively impact Virginians with good public policy.”
In the meantime, Filler-Corn is in a whirlwind of moving her office to the fancy new space and making phone call after phone call. She refuses to engage in speculation about possibly running for speaker one day. And although she was a big fan of Toscano’s leadership, she said, her own style will inevitably be different.
She noted that Virginia elected three women to Congress this year. “People are changing. Times are changing,” she said. “All for the better.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Filler-Corn, in her professional role as a lobbyist, helps state and local governments manage their relationships with associations. Filler-Corn helps companies manage their relationships with associations such as the Council of State Governments and the National Conference of State Legislatures. This story has been updated.