2020 marks a record year for female legislators in Virginia
Women may make up more than half of Virginia’s population, but their presence in the statehouse has always fallen far short of parity. This year’s election brought a seismic change, however.
Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, says that women now hold 41 of the General Assembly’s 140 seats. While still not equal, that translates to 29% of the legislative body, and that, she points out, is a darn sight better than the 15% of seats women now hold in Congress.
“I can’t stress how much of a change this is over 2017, when female representation in the state legislature was still below 20%,” Bitecofer says. “It would not be an overstatement to say that 2020 will be the Year of the Woman in Virginia politics.”
Meet some of the notable female legislators who are part of this new paradigm:
Editor’s Note: All photos contributed except Danica Roem (photo by Stephen Gosling) and Shelly Simonds (photo by Will Schermerhorn/Blueberry Shoes Productions).
Del. Dawn Adams
As a first-time delegate in 2017, Dawn Adams, the first openly lesbian Virginia legislator, squeaked into office by a margin of less than 1% of the vote. This time she won easily, but her reelection has been clouded by two controversies. First, Adams cosponsored legislation that would have lifted restrictions on third-trimester abortions. She later disavowed the unsuccessful bill and apologized for not exercising “due diligence” before attaching her name to it. An even fresher controversy, though, is a lawsuit brought by her former legislative aide, who alleged the delegate may have accessed the former aide’s personal email and social media accounts without permission in order to “cover up” evidence that the aide had performed unpaid work for the delegate’s private company. Adams, a nurse practitioner and health-care advocate, “strongly” denied the allegations in a pre-election statement.
Del. Hala Ayala
D-Prince William County
When stumping for Hala Ayala’s reelection, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker cited the famous Martin Luther King Jr. quote about how “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Then, he added, “We cannot wait for the arc to bend. We must be arc benders.” Ayala could put “arc bender” on her résumé. Two years ago, the single mother of two became one of the first two Latinas elected to the General Assembly. (The other was Elizabeth Guzman, D-31st District.) Ayala tells a bootstrap story about her determined rise from a
service worker with no health insurance for her children to a respected cybersecurity specialist working for the Department of Homeland Security. As a legislator, she has channeled that determination into advocating for women’s and minority rights. Her focus has been on raising the minimum wage and ensuring equal pay and affordable health care access for her constituents. “I want to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves,” she says.
Del. Lashrecse Aird
After easily winning her third term in office, progressive millennial lawmaker Lashrecse Aird made a bold bid to be House speaker, which would have made her not only the first woman to hold that post, but the first African American. At age 33, she would have been one of the youngest state speakers in the nation’s history, as well. “I think I’m exactly what is necessary to unify us as a caucus,” said the confident Aird, who even had a 60-day transition plan ready if she got the job. But it was not to be. Instead, a six-term moderate, House Minority Leader Del. Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax, 55, was tapped for the speakership. Aird was gracious in defeat, though. “[I’m ready] to roll up my sleeves and get to work,” she says.
Sen. Amanda Chase
Just call her Sen. Teflon. In a state that has turned blue and has experienced a major mass shooting in the last year, Sen. Amanda Chase is known for packing heat on the floor of the state Senate. In the #MeToo era, she has called rape victims “naive and unprepared.” And there’s more. In September, the Chesterfield GOP gave her the boot for supporting the opponent of a Republican nominee for sheriff. That controversy came on top of damaging press about Chase’s heated argument with a Capitol Police officer over a parking issue. Yet, the vocal Trump fan won reelection handily and she keeps on fighting — most recently with her fellow Senate Republicans. She announced in November she wouldn’t caucus with them in protest over the selection of state Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City County, as minority leader.
Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant
Dr. Siobhan Dunnavant knows how to multitask. As a mother, a business owner and a physician — she’s the only medical doctor in the Senate — she’s had lots of practice with problem-solving and consensus-building. “It’s the only way I can get everything done,” she quips. “Everything” includes helping to pass 55 pieces of legislation during her first Senate term. Twenty-six of those bills concerned health care, and 13 were passed in conjunction with Democrats — an example of the consensus-building she touts. In 2015, the pro-life Dunnavant, who has delivered more than 2,500 babies, won her first term in a runaway. This election, however, was decided by fewer than 2,000 votes and featured the specter of a polarizing president, close to $5 million in partisan spending and rough attack ads about gun control and abortion. On what turned out to be a dark day for the state GOP, Dunnavant described her narrow victory as “a bright shining light. We’re going to get great things done for Virginia,” she promises.
Del. Wendy Gooditis
Better health care for Virginians is personal for Wendy Gooditis, who cruised to victory over the same opponent she faced in her debut run for delegate in 2017. Until recently, Gooditis and her family had medical coverage through the Affordable Care Act. Her brother, who had been denied Medicaid coverage for his longstanding mental-health problems, died by suicide two years ago. Those facts were a catalyst for Gooditis to not only support Medicaid expansion but to take a leading role in passing legislation meant to strengthen suicide-prevention programs, a law that garnered unanimous support in both chambers of the General Assembly.
Del.-elect Nancy Guy
Former Virginia Beach School Board member Nancy Guy declared victory over incumbent Republican Del. Chris Stolle – but it wasn’t a done deal. Guy won by just 27 votes, or about 0.02% of all votes cast, and Stolle — whose siblings are Republican state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant and former state Sen. Ken Stolle — filed for a recount. However, he ended up conceding after the December recount found Guy ahead by 41 votes. Her election gives the Democrats a 55-45 majority in the House of Delegates.
Sen.-elect Ghazala Hashmi
Home is not a place, it’s a feeling, a wise woman once said, so when the Trump administration proposed a partial ban on Muslim refugees entering the country, Ghazala Hashmi panicked. “I had to wonder, after living here for nearly 50 years, whether I had a home anymore,” she said. The answer to that question turned out to be a resounding “yes” when voters made her the first Muslim woman elected to the Virginia Senate. Born in India, Hashmi emigrated to the United States with her family at age 4. She campaigned on typical Democratic priorities such as gun control, expanded educational opportunities and climate change, but she characterized her win as a victory for any Virginian who has felt “unheard, unseen and unrepresented.” Says Hashmi: “This victory is not mine alone.”
Del. Charniele Herring
As the first African American woman to represent Northern Virginia in Richmond and the first African American to chair the state Democratic Party, being first has become almost second nature to Charniele Herring. Now she is a double first — the first woman and the first African American to become House majority leader. “The nature of what I am, a woman and a black woman … it’s not been an easy road,” Herring says. She is tired of being considered a novelty, too. “We hear of two African American women thinking about running for governor, and that’s awesome,” she said recently, referring to state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Woodbridge. However, she adds, “then people say, ‘But what if they run against each other? Then maybe one won’t win the general election.’ We need to call that kind of thinking out.”
Sen.-elect Jen Kiggans
Jen Kiggans believes in public service, and she doesn’t just talk about it. Kiggans spent 10 years as a Navy helicopter pilot, including two deployments to the Persian Gulf, and her day job now is as a nurse practitioner caring for adult and geriatric patients. The first-time politician won a squeaker of a race, which came down to just 514 ballots. In the final tally, she earned 50.36% of the votes. Now, as a legislator, and the only female veteran in the General Assembly, she plans to concentrate on what she knows best: veterans’ affairs and health-care reform. She intends to listen carefully to her constituents and value their priorities. “What you see is what you get with me,” Kiggans says.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan
Jennifer McClellan didn’t just beat her opponent on her way to reelection. She shellacked him: 47,195 to 11,432. That power at the polls is adding to speculation that the state senator and former 11-year delegate might have her sights set on the governorship in 2021. Earlier this year, McClellan launched a political action committee to help elect Democrats to state offices, and speculation is that the PAC could also be used to advance her gubernatorial aspirations. Back in February, the African American legislator was rumored to be on the short list of potential lieutenant governor appointees when it seemed possible that either Gov. Ralph Northam or Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax might be forced to resign over scandals involving blackface and alleged sexual misconduct, respectively. The Verizon corporate lawyer said then that the timing wasn’t right for her. However, as this unprecedented election attests, the times they are a-changin’.
Del. Danica Roem
“I’m grateful to represent you because of who you are — never despite it,” Democrat Danica Roem tweeted after she won reelection. That was a none-too-subtle reminder of how Roem initially came to office two years ago. Then, she was the first openly transgender person to be elected and serve as a state legislator in the U.S., and her run against an incumbent who styled himself as the commonwealth’s “chief homophobe” had propelled Roem into the national spotlight. Running for reelection, Roem focused on her record as a freshman delegate and less about who she is. She delivered on her promises to constituents, she said, by expanding Medicaid, raising teacher pay and chipping away at that perpetual problem of the Washington suburbs, traffic. Her reward? Thumping her opponent and successfully becoming a pothole politician.
Del.-elect Shelly Simonds
In 2017, Shelly Simonds lost her race for delegate by zero votes. Happily for her, her rematch against Republican David Yancey “didn’t have to end with a bowl,” she says. That’s a reference to the highly publicized ceramic bowl from which the chairman of the State Board of Elections randomly drew a film canister containing Yancey’s name, declaring him the winner in early 2018. The election had been a crucial one; a Simonds win would have ended the GOP’s 17-year domination of the House, creating a delegate deadlock at 50-50. This time, in a reconfigured district, no bowl was required. Simonds trounced Yancey by 18 percentage points. “I’m just so glad that the voters of Newport News helped us rewrite the ending of our story,” Simonds says.