When a bill banning assault weapons died in the Virginia Senate in February, it looked as though several gun- control bills promised by Democrats were suddenly in jeopardy. Rookie House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) went to work to save them.
She reached out to the opposite side of the Capitol, contacting senators to build up support — an unusual tactic in a legislature where House and Senate are sometimes more at odds than Republicans and Democrats.
But the approach worked. Seven of the eight gun-control bills backed by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) wound up passing the General Assembly in some form, though several were watered down to get Senate backing.
“Eileen obviously had an interest in this issue, and she was working the phones,” said Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City), who opposed some of the measures. “I can’t ever remember (her predecessors as House speaker) doing that.”
The intervention served notice that Filler-Corn was not afraid to break tradition as the first woman — and first Jewish person — to serve as speaker in the 401-year history of the House of Delegates. Despite some early procedural hiccups, Filler-Corn used her role to push an aggressive agenda of change.
“I did feel like it was my responsibility to keep the process moving and be deliberate and tough and bold,” she said in a recent interview. “Maybe some thought we wouldn’t be able to get things done, and we proved them wrong.”
Two weeks after Virginia’s General Assembly session came to a close, Filler-Corn had expected to be traveling the state with a message of unity. Instead she’s cooped up at home like most people, avoiding coronavirus exposure and working the phones.
It’s a comedown after the drama that filled Richmond from Jan. 8 until March 12. With Democrats taking control of the legislature for the first time in a generation, every day brought a gush of ambitious lawmaking. In the House of Delegates, there was an entirely untested leadership team, with women and minorities in unprecedented positions of power.
“We were efficient, we were effective and also fair,” Filler-Corn said. “We did a lot.”
Republicans in the House had a different view. Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) made several extraordinary speeches on the House floor warning Filler-Corn that she was violating protocol and presiding over sloppy lawmaking. Del. Robert D. Orrock Sr. (R-Caroline), the GOP’s parliamentary specialist, routinely popped up to challenge Filler-Corn’s actions as breaking the rules.
“I don’t want to get into a partisan fight at a time like this, but I think it’s obvious to anyone who watched this year’s session that Democrats had a steep learning curve,” Gilbert said via email on March 27. Charging that the new majority wasted time getting themselves organized, he said they eventually just cut off debate when Republicans asked uncomfortable questions.
“I would agree, though, that Democrats were effective in passing a significant number of bad bills which are now poised to inflict additional harm to employers, employees and our economy,” Gilbert said.
Filler-Corn was not surprised by the antagonism. “I anticipated them to be adversarial, and they certainly did not disappoint — starting on Day One,” she said.
She had several key allies who advised her, including House Majority Leader Charniele L. Herring (D-Alexandria) and Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax), the Democrats’ own parliamentary whiz. She also reached out to C. Richard Cranwell, a former House majority leader and state Democratic chairman from the Roanoke area who is one of the party’s wiliest tacticians.
“She’s a quick study,” Cranwell said, describing his role as “more for her to confirm the decisions she had already reached.”
Filler-Corn stayed true to her own style — hyperactive, lots of talking and planning and texting. She withstood brutal attacks after banning guns in the Capitol, when extremist bloggers threatened her and slung anti-Semitic slurs.
She drew strength, she said, from the outpouring of support over her status as the first female speaker. There were messages from Hillary Clinton and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but what Filler-Corn said affected her the most were encounters every day in the Capitol.
“It was humbling and also at first surprising, the number of people — especially young people — who came up to tell me how special it was to have the first woman speaker,” she said. “The fact that we have a more diverse General Assembly now is important. It represents communities that never had a voice in the past.”
That diversity led to historic action to protect LGBT rights, Filler-Corn said, as well as to make it easier to vote, loosen restrictions on abortion, pass the Equal Rights Amendment, increase access to health care and decriminalize marijuana.
It’s rare for a speaker to personally sponsor legislation, but Filler-Corn carried an omnibus transportation bill that she said was her top accomplishment. The legislation will raise the gasoline tax to provide about $1 billion over the next four years to improve highways and railways.
“That’s always at the top of the list when I think about what I hear from constituents about what’s important to their everyday life,” she said.
Presiding over a caucus that ran the gamut from lefty newcomers to conservative old-timers was not always a smooth process. Things almost fell apart at the end of the session, as Democrats couldn’t agree on a proposed constitutional amendment to create a bipartisan redistricting commission.
Filler-Corn sided with members of the Legislative Black Caucus who wanted to scrap the amendment, but after pushing the decision to the last possible moment, she couldn’t persuade a handful of holdout Democrats to vote her way. The proposed amendment passed, with nine Democrats joining House Republicans in supporting it.
Even there, Filler-Corn showed her willingness to break tradition. The redistricting drama contributed to a logjam over the state budget that prevented the session from adjourning on time on March 7. Filler-Corn marched across the Capitol and haggled with senators to reach a deal to extend the session by five days — a seemingly minor action that probably had former speakers spinning in their official portraits.
In the end, she got the job done, only to face the jarring uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic. Filler-Corn said she has been glued to the telephone, talking with Northam or his staff every day and looking ahead to April 22, when the General Assembly will reconvene for a day to take up vetoes and budget amendments.
It makes the historic chaos of her first session as speaker seem a distant memory.
“Clearly there were a lot of successes we had, a lot of bills passed,” Filler-Corn said. “But right now it’s all about covid-19, and we’ve got to get through this. We don’t know when the end will come, so now we have to focus on this public health, safety and economic crisis.”