Two Years After Charlottesville, Virginia Chooses Its First Jewish-American House Speaker

Democrat Eileen Filler-Corn will create several firsts when she becomes speaker of Virginia’s House of Delegates in January. She tells Haaretz how Jewish beliefs like tikkun olam helped shape her political career

Virginia Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn, left, speaking at a news conference in Richmond, August 15, 2019.
Steve Ruark / AP

WASHINGTON — Last week’s elections in Virginia made national headlines as the Democratic Party took control of the state legislature for the first time in two decades after flipping the two chambers. The victory was made possible thanks to a huge shift in suburban districts that were traditionally Republican Party strongholds but which have been trending toward the Democrats in recent years. Political analysts believe the shift represents a broader national trend in which the GOP is losing support in suburban America, where moderate, middle-class voters are rejecting President Donald Trump.

For Virginia’s Jewish community, the election has brought its own unique historical marker: The House of Delegates, which has existed since the 17th century and is one of the oldest legislative bodies in the United States, will soon have its first Jewish-American speaker of the House. Eileen Filler-Corn, a Democrat who represents a suburban district in northern Virginia, will also be the first woman to hold the position.

Furthermore, the leading candidate to become the next majority leader of the state Senate, Dick Saslaw (currently the Democratic minority leader), is also Jewish. If he is selected, Virginia will have two Jewish-American lawmakers as the heads of its two legislative chambers.

“If you ask a random Jewish person in America which state has that kind of thing, they would never guess it’s Virginia,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (which includes the growing Jewish community of northern Virginia).

From the 1960s until 2008, Virginia consistently backed Republicans in presidential elections. Barack Obama was the first Democratic nominee to win the state in four decades, and Hillary Clinton kept it in the Democratic column in 2016. But at the local level, until recently Virginia was much more “red” than “blue.” It elected a Republican governor in 2009 and the Republican Party won a 66-34 seat majority in the House of Delegates in 2015. But two years later, Democrats won the governor’s race by a 9 percent margin, and last Tuesday completed their takeover of the state by wining majorities in both the House of Delegates and state Senate.

Del. Eileen Filler-Corn speaking with House Speaker Kirk Cox during a House session at the Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, January 17, 2019.
Steve Helber/AP

Speaking with Haaretz, Filler-Corn, 55, said the Virginia results were part of a national political shift also seen in different parts of the country. “Did we win because of Trump, as some pundits are saying?” she asked. “It certainly didn’t hurt us that he is there, always in the headlines. He energizes our base and pushes away swing voters. But we won because of a bigger story. We won because people believed we can deliver changes they want to see in Virginia. People want to have common sense gun laws; they want to have better environmental policies. We won on substance and policy,” she said.

Filler-Corn opened the phone interview by recalling, in Hebrew, how she had lived in Israel for almost a year during the ’80s. “I lived and studied in Jerusalem, where I also learned Hebrew,” she explained. “After that, I worked for several months on a moshav, picking melons. I’ve forgotten a lot of my Hebrew but I can still have this kind of conversation,” she said. The Hebrew portion of the interview lasted two and a half minutes.

She noted that one of the most dramatic events to take place in Virginia in recent years was the far-right gathering in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017, during which hundreds of neo-Nazis and white supremacists rioted around the town and chanted “Jews will not replace us.”

That event, she recounted, was a shock for many Virginians — and not just in the Jewish community. “It was shocking to see this level of anti-Semitism and racism and hate. People realized that we have to fight for our values,” she said.

In the 2017 Virginia elections, which took place three months after Charlottesville, the Democrats made significant inroads into the Republican lead in both the House and Senate. Many of the Democrats who won close races in that election were women. All of them were reelected last week as the Democrats capitalized on their 2017 gains on the way to a majority.

Filler-Corn joined the Virginia General Assembly in 2010 and will be sworn in as House speaker in early January. She says the list of priorities for the Democratic majority includes, among other things, “common sense gun laws that will save lives,” anti-discrimination bills that were rejected by the Republican Party in the previous legislative session, and “voting rights.”

“People voted for us because we convinced them that elections have consequences and that we can do all sorts of good things if they give us the power,” she said. “Now we are going to prove it.”

Virginia is home to some 150,000 Jews, the vast majority of them residents of the Washington suburbs. Filler-Corn is very involved in the local Jewish community: She is on the board of the local American Jewish Committee chapter and in the past was a board member at her synagogue, Congregation Adat Reyim, in Springfield.

“Being Jewish is an important part of who I am. I grew up thinking how to do tikkun olam — how to make things better around me. That’s what I want to do now in Richmond,” she said, referring to Virginia’s state capital and the center of its legislative politics.

Dick Saslaw speaking to supporters at an election party in Springfield, Virginia, June 11, 2019.
Steve Helber / AP

Saslaw, meanwhile, told Haaretz that, for him, the fact two Jewish Americans are leading the party that enjoys a majority in Virginia “shows how things are changing. This used be a big issue in American politics; it’s not anymore. We are also going to have, for the first time ever, an African-American woman [Charniele Herring] as the majority leader in the House, serving with Eileen as the first woman speaker. And these leaders are going to bring Virginia the change that voters want to see.”

Halber said there is “an enormous sense of pride within the Jewish community over the fact that Eileen will be the first woman — and the first Jewish person — to be the speaker of the House.”

He added, “We’re not talking here about someone who ‘happens to be Jewish.’ She’s very involved in the local Jewish community. She lives and breathes Jewish values. And while she’s a fighter for the priorities of her party, I think those on the other side will also find that she’s a good listener and a fair person. That’s because she’s a mensch.”

Halber added that Virginia “used to be a red state, then it became purple, and I would say that now it’s light blue. It’s not New York or California; the average Democrat in Virginia is more moderate than what you’ll find in other states that have complete Democratic governments. I think this will be one of the challenges of their new majority: How to promote their agenda without alienating people in the middle.”