The Virginia House of Delegates unanimously elected Republican Kirk Cox as speaker Wednesday, enacting a long-planned succession of power with Republicans holding a thin 51-49 majority.
The House elected Cox, a former government teacher and sports coach from Colonial Heights, in a 98-0 vote. There was no vocal opposition to Cox after a contentious election season in which Republicans lost 15 seats but survived a series of recounts, lawsuits and a rare tiebreaker to keep control of the chamber.
Shortly before the House was set to convene Wednesday, Democrat Shelly Simonds conceded to Del. David E. Yancey, R-Newport News, in the tied 94th District race after a wild campaign finish that included a recount, a court hearing on a single disputed ballot, and Yancey being declared the winner after the State Board of Elections randomly picked his name from a bowl.
Still, House Democrats are entering the 60-day session with a diverse class of 16 new delegates and increased power.
Cox, who will serve as speaker for at least the next two years, struck a tone of bipartisanship and unity as he spoke to the chamber shortly after its new members were sworn in, saying the body has important work to do on the state budget, improving education and addressing the opioid crisis.
After the election, Cox said, the 5-foot aisle in the House separating the two sides at times felt “5 miles wide.”
“The first and foremost task of this body is to bridge that divide,” Cox said. “We are not two parties. We are one House. Tasked with the responsibility of governing one commonwealth.”
First elected to the House in 1989, Cox succeeds former Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, who announced his retirement last year and was recently hospitalized for emergency heart surgery.
“I stand here today succeeding a great man,” Cox said. “I freely admit that I will never be as funny or as charming. But I do hope to fulfill the duties of this office with every bit as much character and integrity.”
Adding another touch of unity on the first day of the 60-day session, Del. Luke E. Torian, D-Prince William, made a brief speech supporting Cox’s nomination for speaker.
“I do not look at the politics,” Torian said. “I look at the man.”
With the class of 16 new delegates, House Democrats are entering the 60-day session with more legislative clout than they have had in two decades.
“It’s the most excited I’ve been on opening day since the first day I was down here in 2006,” said House Minority Leader David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville.
In bipartisan negotiations over new House rules, the parties agreed to have proportional representation on subcommittees, the small legislative panels that routinely kill legislation at early morning meetings with little record of what happened. Perhaps more importantly, recorded votes will now be required at the subcommittee level.
Democrats also wanted the authority to choose committee appointments for their own members rather than accepting whatever the speaker decides. Though it did not get into the formal rules, Republicans agreed to consult with the minority party on how committee slots get handed out.
With the speakership vote, the first order of business on a day more focused on organization than policy debates, Democrats had a simple math problem. A few final obstacles to the 51-49 GOP majority seemed to fade away just as lawmakers convened in Richmond.
Toscano urged his members to support the new rules even though Democrats did not get everything they wanted, saying recorded subcommittee votes were “something that we have pushed for years.”
“We like a lot of things in these rules,” he said.
Simonds conceded in the 94th District race Wednesday morning. Under state law, Simonds may have had the option to seek a second recount after losing last week’s tiebreaking drawing. House Republican leaders had said they would not seat Yancey if Simonds asked for another recount, but Simonds had been tight-lipped about whether she would pursue the option.
In a series of Twitter posts, Simonds said she conceded to Yancey because she saw no “legal pathways forward” and wanted the 94th District to have representation on opening day. She vowed to run for the seat again in 2019.
Yancey was sworn in without incident.
Late Tuesday, a federal appeals court denied a last-ditch effort by Democrats to block Republican Bob Thomas from being seated after a close 28th District race against Democrat Joshua Cole that was tainted by errors that caused 147 Fredericksburg-area voters to cast a ballot in the wrong House district. A federal district judge on Friday night declined to order a special election in the 28th District, but the group of Democratic-aligned voters serving as plaintiffs in the case said Sunday that they would appeal the ruling.
Republicans expected to be able to elect Cox speaker, but the recent legal developments made it an inevitability.
In his opening speech, Cox urged the assembled delegates to move past the political season and focus on governing, saying, “We are not here for Facebook likes or shares.”
Cox said he is “particularly optimistic” about working with Democratic Gov.-elect Ralph Northam.
“He’s a product of this legislature and someone who has worked well with governors and legislators from both parties,” Cox said.
Cox urged the 19 new delegates — 16 Democrats and three Republicans — to “relax” and “trust in yourself and your colleagues as well as this institution.” He also urged delegates to remember that the seats they hold are not theirs, but “belong to the people.”
“They existed long before any of us were born,” Cox said. “And will exist long after we depart.”