Virginia To Abolish The Death Penalty In A Show Of Political Evolution

RICHMOND —Since becoming the first woman to serve as Virginia's speaker of the House in early 2020, Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) has presided over only a single ordinary 60-day session in the State Capitol.

Eileen Filler-Corn et al. taking a selfie: Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), seen in Richmond in January 2020, has presided over a period of enormous legislative change. © Steve Helber/AP Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), seen in Richmond in January 2020, has presided over a period of enormous legislative change.

Once the pandemic hit last March, she pushed the House to hold its meetings online, an unprecedented effort that included two special sessions and this year’s regular legislative term. When the legislature convenes for a possible special session later this year related to coronavirus relief, Filler-Corn is hoping that vaccinations will allow all 100 delegates to return to the ornate House chamber.

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[Live from someone’s kitchen: Virginia’s virtual House of Delegates]

“I’m definitely hopeful that we can be in person,” Filler-Corn said recently in an interview looking back at this year’s session and ahead to the Nov. 2 election that could determine whether she gets another term as Speaker.

A delegate since 2010, Filler-Corn, 56, has presided over a period of enormous legislative change. After a generation of Republican control in the House, Democrats won majorities in both legislative chambers in 2019. Allied with Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, they have quickly reshaped the political landscape of a longtime red state that briefly blushed purple before seeming to turn deep blue.

In the past two years, Democrats have passed gun-control measures, ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, legalized marijuana and abolished the death penalty, among many other changes.

[This is what a blue state looks like: Rapid change roils Virginia Republicans]

“I’m so proud of what we were able to do,” Filler-Corn said.

But this year’s elections — for every seat in the House as well as governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general — pose an enormous test. There is no Donald Trump in the White House to energize Democrats. And it remains to be seen whether that ambitious agenda of change has pushed Virginia voters too far, too fast.

Republicans are running this year on that very theme, suggesting that single-party control has been harmful. GOP candidates for House and statewide races want to keep the focus on how long it has taken Virginia to reopen schools for in-person learning and on questions about a state inspector general report that found irregularities in actions by the state parole board.

“When they weren’t busy ignoring the plight of our school children, House Democrats spent months making life easier for criminals, more difficult for police, all while ignoring blatant corruption at the Parole Board,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said via email. “November will be a referendum on one-party rule in Virginia. That’s why we’re confident voters will return a Republican majority to control this fall.”

[Virginia House Democrats see record number of challenges in primary elections]

Republicans say they are energized this year, with candidates so far in 90 of the state’s 100 delegate races. Democrats have candidates in 98 of the races.

That includes about a dozen contests in which Democratic incumbents face primary challenges from candidates pulling harder to the left.

Filler-Corn said she’s not concerned about intraparty tension, and that the challengers are an encouraging sign.

“Maybe I’m the optimist but I think what that shows is there is a lot of energy among our folks,” she said. “We got a lot done and there are a lot of other folks who want to be part of the solution.”

[The long, surprising road that led Virginia to abolish the death penalty]

She said she’s confident that most Virginians agree with the recent slate of change. “We’re on the right side of all the issues,” she said, adding that she doesn’t believe Democrats need the specter of a Trump presidency to get people to the polls.

“We don’t have Donald Trump in the White House but we still have the Virginia Republican Party, which is the Virginia Trump party,” she said.

She’s facing a reelection challenge from Republican Entifadh Qanbar. According to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project, Filler-Corn has so far raised almost $708,000, while Qanbar reported $85.

Filler-Corn said she plans to work for Democrats all over the state, traveling where possible, to both protect the party’s majority and try to grow it.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is the quality of our caucus and the diversity of our caucus,” she said, noting the historic numbers of women and people of color in positions of leadership.

Virginia Democrats could make more history in their choice of a nominee for the governor’s race. Among the candidates running in the June 8 primary are Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, only the second Black man elected statewide in Virginia; state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (Richmond) and former delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy (Prince William), both vying to be the first Black woman elected governor of any state; and Del. Lee J. Carter (Manassas), a self-proclaimed socialist.

[Many Democrats said it was time for a woman to lead Virginia. But the party establishment is lining up behind Terry McAuliffe.]

But Filler-Corn and other party leaders are lining up behind former governor Terry McAuliffe, who is White and served from 2014 to 2018. Virginia governors are prohibited by the state’s constitution from serving consecutive terms.

Acknowledging that she’s heard from people questioning her endorsement, Filler-Corn defended it as “a personal decision based on what I’ve seen him accomplish already.”

In most other states, she said, McAuliffe would have been able to run for reelection. “Is there any reason to not reward Gov. McAuliffe with a second term? Absolutely not, he deserves that opportunity,” she said.

Filler-Corn added that she would not seek to change the state’s constitution to allow governors to seek a consecutive term. And she praised the lineup of candidates. “We are lucky, it’s an embarrassment of riches to have so many capable, qualified individuals,” she said.

If Democrats maintain control, Filler-Corn said she anticipates finishing work on several agenda items that remain incomplete. The process of legalizing marijuana has many details that need to be finalized, she said, and she would like to do more to expand paid sick leave, limit qualified immunity for police officers, improve access to education and health care and continue to deal with the impact of the pandemic.

She lauded the legislature’s support for workers, but said she was skeptical that Virginia would be likely to repeal its right-to-work law, which organized labor says prevents the spread of unions and undermines worker security. A bill seeking repeal got nowhere in this year’s session despite support from many Democrats.

“Many of us would have supported it, but we didn’t have the votes for it,” Filler-Corn said, noting that Democrats in the state Senate signaled deep opposition. “I was focused and continue to be focused on legislation that can pass. … But that doesn’t mean that there’s not more we can do to support workers.”

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