Last week, history again was made in the Virginia Capitol.
The building, designed by Thomas Jefferson and modeled after the ancient Roman temple of Maison Carrée in Nimes, France, has seen a lot of history since construction was finished in 1788. In the old chamber of the House of Delegates, Virginia’s elected leaders voted to secede from the Union in 1861 and handed command of the Army of Northern Virginia to Robert E. Lee. Just a few feet away, on the steps of the Capitol 129 years later, L. Douglas Wilder, “a son of Virginia” as he proudly stated in his inaugural address, was sworn in by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell as the nation’s first elected African American governor.
In 1970, on those same steps, Linwood Holton became the first Republican inaugurated governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia since Reconstruction, breaking the hold the Democratic Party had held on the levers of power in the capital for almost a century. And in 2000, then-Del. Vance Wilkins, an Amherst County Republican, became the first-ever Republican Speaker of the House of Delegates after leading his party on a decades-long quest to break the stranglehold the Democrats had on the House for almost 130 years.
And on Wednesday, another chapter in Virginia’s long story was written. Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, a Fairfax County Democrat, became the 56th Speaker of the House of Delegates, the first woman and the first person of Jewish descent ever elected to the post in the 401-year history of the General Assembly. If that weren’t enough, Del. Charniele Herring, a Democrat from Alexandria, was selected the first African American female to serve as majority leader in the House.
We recount this history because it’s important to where we are now in 2020. Virginia and Virginians have led the way for the rest of the nation as America has striven to become a “more perfect Union” that lives up to the ideals expressed in our founding documents.
Our democratic republic is not a static political entity; it is in a state of constant change and transformation. With every election at every level of government, our republic grows, matures, changes and transforms, reflecting the will of the people as to what they wish their government to be.
Twenty-one years ago, in the 1999 elections for the House of Delegates, Virginians decided they wanted a change, a break from the past century, and handed control of the chamber to Republicans. Amherst County’s Wilkins, who had been a member of the House since 1978, had been laboring for decades to expand the numbers of Republicans in the Assembly. Indeed, when Wilkins came to Richmond, the joke around the Capitol was that the GOP could hold its party caucuses in a telephone booth. But years of hard work and cultivating a crop of state candidates at the local level brought the GOP and Wilkins to power 22 years later.
This past November, we witnessed a similar historic moment when Democrats, who had been in the political wilderness since Wilkins took the speaker’s gavel in his hands, regained control, not just of the House, but the Virginia Senate, too.
It’s how elections work. The pendulum of politics swings from one side to the other — it’s never not in motion.
But for some Virginians, this swing of the political pendulum has brought out fear and anger: fear that their voices will never be heard again in a changing Old Dominion and anger that their way of life is under siege. The flashpoint is a series of standard gun reform laws proposed by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, including universal background checks and “red flag” laws targeting people who subject to temporary restraining orders, but the anger and fear find root in a changing political and social landscape. The commonwealth is becoming more urban and more ethnically diverse, and change can be unsettling to some folks.
So unsettling that some of our fellow Virginians believe we’re on the cusp of a second civil war. In covering a Pulaski County Board of Supervisors meeting recently, the Roanoke Times, our sister newspaper, reported one speaker as saying, “I really do think we may be on the brink of another war.” People are warning of the need to fight “tyranny” from Richmond and comparing duly elected Democratic lawmakers to British redcoats from the Revolutionary War.
Nothing could be further from the truth. What we are witnessing simply is our democratic republic at work through free and fair elections: One party won, and another party lost. Just as in 1993 when Republican George Allen defeated Democrat Mary Sue Terry for governor. Or in 1999 when voters ousted Democrats from control of the House of Delegates. Or in 2005 when Democrat Tim Kaine defeated Republican Mark Earley for governor … or as in 2009 when Republican Bob McDonnell returned the favor and beat Democrat Creigh Deeds for the post.
A healthy democratic republic is always changing and evolving. It’s nothing to fear. When a republic stops listening to the people, stops changing and evolving … that’s when we should be concerned. But not now, not today.