By Jason Boleman
Earlier this month Democrats elected a new House of Delegates leadership team as the party took control of the chamber for the first time since 1999.
For outgoing House Majority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, the Democratic leadership team lacks diversity in one area: their home districts.
In a statement released Nov. 9, and retweeted by Republican leadership, Gilbert congratulated the new House leadership and said Republicans are looking forward to working with them, but also expressed concern with the party electing “an entire leadership team that is centered in the deepest parts of Northern Virginia.”
“The House of Delegates represents our entire commonwealth, and the varying and often conflicting interests of Northern Virginia, metro Richmond, Hampton Roads, and rural Virginia deserve a fair hearing in our legislative process,” Gilbert said.
Among the new leadership is Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, who is set to become the first female speaker in the chamber’s 400-year history.
Joining Filler-Corn in leadership positions are Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, and Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax. Herring will serve as House majority leader and Sullivan will serve as majority caucus chair in the upcoming General Assembly session.
Under the current House District map, all three delegates are from northern Virginia. The outgoing leadership team represented central, western and northern areas of the state.
“It is a bit unusual to have an entire leadership team drawn from one region of the state,” said Bob Holsworth, political analyst and managing partner at the consulting firm DecideSmart, by email.
Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, said that regionalism has been “a fairly common theme here in the commonwealth.”
“As for whether the regional dominance translates into an actual resource or representation imbalance: not likely,” Bitecofer said. “But keep in mind, every time a resource gets distributed to NoVa the accusation will be leveled.”
Holly Armstrong, a spokeswoman for Filler-Corn, said the delegate does not have a response to Gilbert’s statement, instead choosing to focus on policy matters.
“Her decisions on leadership, including committee chairs, will speak for themselves,” Armstrong said. “The policy agenda will begin to take shape as the committee chair decisions are made and caucus members continue to discuss priorities.”
On Thursday, Filler-Corn announced Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton and Del. Roslyn Tyler, D-Sussex would receive chair positions – respectively – to the Appropriations, Finance, Commerce and Labor, and Education committees.
With more chair decisions to be made, Bitecofer said she would not be surprised to see more regional diversity in the assignments.
“I expected that the fact that Democrats have chosen leaders from NoVa would be raised as concerns among the minority,” Bitecofer said. “This detail has not been overlooked, and I assume we’ll see some nice committee chairs doled out to members representing other regions to offset that.”
Holsworth agreed that committee chairs will play a role in offsetting Gilbert’s concerns.
“Key committee chairs – who have greater power and leadership than some of the leaders – exhibit considerable diversity in terms of region,” Holsworth said.
The current House leadership team, which has been in place since 2018, includes Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, Gilbert and Del. Tim Hugo, R-Fairfax. Republicans are still determining the new Republican minority leadership roles. Cox, outgoing speaker of the House, said he will not pursue a leadership position in the upcoming session. Hugo, the current majority caucus chair, lost his re-election bid to Democrat Dan Helmer.
Gilbert, House majority leader since 2018, and Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, are likely contenders for the minority leader position, according to the Washington Post. They are both influential figures in the Virginia House of Delegates Republican Caucus, Holsworth said.
The last Democratic Speaker of the House was Tom Moss, a delegate from Norfolk who served as speaker from 1991 until the Republicans took control of the chamber in 2000. Moss’s House majority leader was Richard Cranwell, who represented Danville until leaving the House in 2001.
Democrats now hold a 55 to 45 majority over Republicans in the House, and a 21 to 19 majority in the Senate. No change in Senate leadership is expected, according to Senate Democrats. Minority Leader Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, will assume the majority leader position currently held by Thomas Norment, R-James City.