Since the Democratic Party took full control of Virginia’s five statewide offices in 2014, the occupants have all been men.
Now, scandals involving Virginia’s top three elected officials and allegations of racism and sexual assault are tarnishing the state. But those scandals could open the opportunity for something that has never happened in Virginia: a woman of color in statewide office.
When Gov. Ralph Northam leaves office — whether through resignation or because his term ends — some political observers say the state needs someone who can help Virginia recover.
“You need someone who can be a healer and a bridge builder across all these issues and that person absolutely needs to be a woman and it should be a woman of color. And it should be a black woman,” said Ravi Perry, associate professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Perry has been outspoken in questioning how Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring rose to the top of the Democratic Party ranks through what he says should have been an exhaustive screening process. He calls them “a trifecta of toxic masculinity at the top.”
By not resigning, the three are displaying a “masculine arrogance,” Perry said in a recent interview. “They’re continuing to expose that day by day.”
Many Democrats have at least one woman in mind for a statewide job, should she want it: state Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond, a corporate lawyer who brings a focus to issues of race and is widely respected by her colleagues in the General Assembly.
There’s been no clear roadmap for a woman of color to enter statewide office in Virginia.
Thirty-seven of the General Assembly’s 140 members, or just over 26 percent, are women.
After women made gains in legislative elections in 2017, the new scandals allow Virginia a chance to demonstrate how women could lead because the country is watching the fallout, said Glynda Carr, a co-founder of Higher Heights, an organization dedicated to helping black women get elected.
“You have an opportunity to show that these women are not only ready to continue to lead but to step into additional leadership roles,” she said.
Of 312 statewide executive offices nationally, women hold 86, according to the Center for Women in Politics at Rutgers University. Only four of the 86 are black women and of those, three — the lieutenant governors of Kentucky, New Jersey and Illinois — were part of a ticket. Only one black woman in statewide office in America was independently elected — New York Attorney General Letitia James.
In interviews with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, several lawmakers in the Virginia General Assembly described challenges that are unique to women of color, and said they regularly deal with implicit and explicit racism and sexism in the legislature.
“There hasn’t been a deliberate effort to encourage minority women to step into this role [as elected officials],” said Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, the assistant director for development at Richard Bland College of William & Mary.
Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, said women of color pick which battles to fight in the General Assembly and which ones to let go. Price, 38, a Democrat and fourth-generation resident of the Peninsula who lives in Newport News and directs a local nonprofit for community organizing, serves on six committees or subcommittees, and not one is chaired by a woman.
Price spoke out on the House floor earlier this month on a tax deal between Northam and Republican leaders, saying it didn’t provide racial and economic equity. Members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, who have called for Northam to resign, opposed the deal. Northam’s negotiation from a position of weakness and inability to push for racial equity in the tax deal makes the scandal about more than just a photo, Aird and Price said.
Aird, 32, and Price, both elected in 2015 and re-elected in 2017, said that even when women are rising in politics, there are always guards at the gates above them.
Among experiences they’ve had in the legislature: In the old General Assembly Building, both were repeatedly asked to show their badges when they had their delegate pins on, even when they were walking in the building alongside male lawmakers who were not asked to show their badges.
Male and female lawmakers of both parties mix them up, they said, as do lobbyists.
“There are so many examples of people leaving things on my desk thinking it’s Delegate Price or people coming up to me thinking it’s her,” Aird said.
Said Price: “We have to be intentional about every single detail. We have to be excellent in every single moment. And they don’t even have to learn our names.”
Members of the black caucus like Aird and Price, who were not previously taken seriously in their own positions of power, are now being asked to help Northam.
“The idea that African-Americans have to pick up the banner to teach white people how to not have white privilege is white privilege,” Price said. “I am standing within a power structure that tells me I should not be here, but because of my power with the position, I am being asked to clean up someone else’s mess.”
Del. Hala Ayala, D-Prince William, was elected in the 2017 “blue wave” when Democrats flipped 15 seats in the House of Delegates. She said she has encountered an aggressive attitude toward women and said she was propositioned on her first day in office in January 2018.
“Women still, in the Democratic Party, can’t seem to navigate or they still are stopped at navigating waters in the upper echelon of authority in the party,” said Ayala, 45, a federal contractor.
Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, said there have been 400 years of white men serving in the legislature, but only 35 years of women of color. The first was the late Yvonne Miller of Norfolk, who served in the House and Senate.
“Candidates and politicians of color don’t always have the rolodex of very wealthy people to lean on, and sometimes that can be a challenge,” Rasoul said. “People feel as though Richmond is a system of a quote-unquote good old boys network, and that makes it difficult for women in general but specifically challenging for a woman of color.”
Charniele Herring of Alexandria, the House Democratic caucus chairwoman, who was homeless at age 16 in high school, made similar comments in an interview, saying she isn’t from a political family and didn’t have a natural network of donors.
She said the party’s “brand is scarred” by Northam and is among the many Democratic officials who have asked him to resign — but since he won’t, have offered advice.
“I do think one day we will have a black woman governor of this commonwealth,” Herring said.
She added, “We as a party have to have a demonstrated commitment to the diversity we always talk about, and be bold.”