Del. Kenneth R. Plum has been around long enough to remember how loud things got the last time an almost evenly divided Virginia House of Delegates tried to pick a speaker.
“You could not hear yourself think,” Plum, a Fairfax County Democrat and the House’s longest-serving member, said of the raucous day in 1998 when Democrats rammed through the re-election of then-Speaker Thomas W. Moss Jr. of Norfolk as Republicans pounded their desks and yelled objections.
With Republicans on track for a 51-49 majority in the House heading into a handful of electoral recounts later this month, it’s not yet clear if Democrats will have a shot at electing one of their own to lead the House. But Plum, a 76-year-old retired educator who has served in the House for more than three decades, has already begun making the case to colleagues that he’s the right man for the job, setting up a potential challenge to current House Minority Leader David. J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville.
“I think with me as speaker and with Toscano as majority floor leader, we can get some things done,” Plum said Friday, listing Medicaid expansion, education and mental health funding and nonpartisan redistricting as top priorities.
“It’s my feeling that I can make a contribution to the smooth operation of the House,” Plum said. “I’m not a strong partisan.”
Toscano acknowledged he’s had “limited conversations” with Plum about who’d be the best speaker. The uncertainty over how many seats each party will have, Toscano said, makes it hard to predict
“Until people start asking for votes, you never know,” said Toscano, who has been the House Democratic leader since 2011.
Plum said his conversations with other delegates so far have been casual, and he hasn’t started counting votes. But he plans to knuckle down when the recounts get underway and the final composition of the House for the 2018 legislative session becomes clear, especially if it appears Democrats will take a majority.
Democrats flipped 15 House seats in last month’s elections, a wave that wiped out what had been a 66-34 GOP majority. Though Republicans appeared to hold on to a 51-49 advantage, the numbers could change as four recounts get underway and a federal court takes up a lawsuit seeking to throw out a GOP victory in the Fredericksburg-area 28th District because of mapping errors that caused 147 voters to cast ballots in the wrong district. If Democrats pick up one seat — a possibility given the 10-vote margin for the GOP in the Newport News-based 94th District — the House would be evenly split.
“I don’t believe anyone — when it’s 50-50 — can get enough votes to be speaker,” Plum said. “I think what will happen will be that there’s a power-sharing arrangement.”
Republicans hope they won’t have to share. In February, the House Republican Caucus named Del. M. Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights, its “speaker-designee” to replace retiring Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford. Though the GOP’s plan of succession now looks surprisingly precarious, Republicans have continued to refer to Cox as the presumptive speaker.