Seismic events have been a frequent occurrence in Virginia politics in recent years. In August 2017, my community in Charlottesville was attacked by violent neo-Nazis — a devastating event that laid bare the white supremacy that has long been built into our society and is attracting new, fervent members. This shook not only my city but also the entire state and country.
We were only beginning to heal from that when in February of this year, we were shaken again, this time by scandal in our state’s highest offices. As a painful reminder of the white and male supremacy that still run rampant through our institutions, our governor and attorney general became embroiled in separate blackface controversies. Multiple allegations of sexual assault were brought against our lieutenant governor. All three of these men remain in office.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of Virginian democracy and Virginian slavery; the legacy of these two events cannot be separated. It is poetic, then, that in the quadricentennial of the establishment of the House of Burgesses and of the arrival of the first enslaved people from Africa, Virginia faces the opportunity for another seismic political shift, a chance for us to decisively show the world which of the two legacies we will embrace moving forward.
This Saturday, our Democratic representatives in the House of Delegates, the modern descendant of the famed House of Burgesses, will have the opportunity to elect the first black woman to statewide office in Virginia when they vote for their next Speaker of the House: Del. Lashrecse D. Aird (D-Petersburg). This leadership election, held mere days after the general election on Tuesday, will take place with private ballots behind closed doors. Rushed, secret elections have a tendency to favor the status quo, but I urge our representatives to feel the weight of this historic moment and the weight of the trauma our commonwealth has faced — in the past two years and in the 400 years since its establishment — and to choose to be courageous and visionary instead.
The speaker of the House of Delegates is one of the most powerful positions in Virginia. It is my hope with a new Democratic majority in Richmond, we can begin to address and dismantle the white supremacy built into our commonwealth — to reinforce and improve our civic foundations with principled governance and new and better laws addressing criminal justice and equity in health care, education and energy. But to do this, it is not sufficient to elect Democrats. We need to have leaders in the General Assembly who inherently understand how to heal our communities and lead us forward.
As a former vice-mayor and now as a member of the Charlottesville City Council, I have seen the power the speaker has over our localities. On everything from education funding to the disposition of Confederate statutes, the legislative work in Richmond touches every Virginian’s life and well-being. Aird’s election to speaker would be historic, and, under her leadership, I believe Virginia can finally begin tackling in earnest the historical inequities we have inherited and perpetuated. And, in doing so, we can serve as a model for the rest of the South and the whole country, a country that desperately needs to heal.
It is time for the commonwealth of Virginia to do something that it is out of the norm for us: trust black women. A Democratic trifecta gives Virginia the rare opportunity to enact real change, change that so many communities around the commonwealth desperately need. I urge our representatives not to squander this chance, not just because it is their civic duty to do so, but to help right the wrongs of yesteryear and create an equitable now.