Lt. Gov.-elect Winsome Sears, who in January will become the first woman of color to hold statewide office in Virginia, on Tuesday toured the Capitol where she will soon preside over the state Senate and where before her, only men regularly held the gavel.
She stood on the dais and saw image after image of the white men who line the building. She paused on many photos and paintings — including a portrait of former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected Black governor, who served as lieutenant governor from 1986 to 1990.
“Look how dapper he is,” she remarked.
Sears, a Republican, is a Marine Corps veteran and business owner who served one term in the Virginia House of Delegates from Norfolk, from 2002 to 2004. As lieutenant governor, she will also break tie votes in the chamber on issues other than the budget or election of judges. Democrats are in control 21-19.
“I can’t believe I get to do this,” she said during the tour with a small group. “I’m going to serve, and that’s it. That was the whole goal, from the very beginning, it was for us to come back together. No more of the constant racial strife. And I figured that I could be the one to do that.”
She walked into the Senate chamber with her group.
“Isn’t it gorgeous?” she said. The group included her transition director, Chris Saxman, and a crew from “Fox News Sunday” with Chris Wallace.
“A Black lieutenant governor is handing off to another Black lieutenant governor and that has never happened,” she said, referring to Democrat Justin Fairfax. “That is history. And that tells you we’ve got progress.”
As a little girl, Sears said, she never saw herself doing this. She said she thought of her father coming to the United States as an immigrant from Jamaica.
“Shall I?” she said, looking up at the dais where the lieutenant governor presides. “I shall.”
She climbed the steps, smiled and picked up the gavel. “It’s really something. It’s heavy actually.”
Sears spent several hours on Monday night watching videos of Fairfax presiding over the chamber. On Tuesday, she practiced a line: “For what purpose does the senator rise?”
She asked about the men in the portraits that ring the chamber. Nathan Hatfield, the assistant Senate clerk and Tuesday’s tour guide, explained that they are lieutenant governors who did not go on to serve as governor.
She crossed the Capitol to see her old stomping grounds — the House chamber. She served there with Saxman, a former GOP delegate from Staunton who is now the executive director of the nonprofit pro-business group Virginia FREE.
And then Sears found her own photo in a display of lawmakers from years past.
“She was young, wasn’t she?” said Sears, examining the photo. Among others serving with her in the House: future Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican; Democrat Brian Moran, now secretary of public safety and homeland security; current Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-9th; and Viola Baskerville, a Democrat who later served as secretary of administration in Gov. Tim Kaine’s administration.
Sears will be addressed in the chamber as “madame president” or “Governor Sears.” It’s tradition to address the lieutenant governor that way when the officeholder is not in the presence of the governor.
Capitol tour guides and staff graciously greeted Sears. She received a warm welcome in the office of Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar, who entertained her with stories of Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Virginia in 2007. They then met to discuss the transition.
Sears was among Republicans who stunned Democrats in Virginia on Nov. 2 by winning back the offices of governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general and taking control of the House of Delegates. Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares held a news conference in Richmond last week. But Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin has kept largely private.
On Tuesday, coincidentally, Youngkin and his wife, Suzanne, were on a tour of the Capitol with the Department of General Services.
Valerie Coley of Chesterfield County, a certified peer recovery specialist with a local government mental health department, joined Sears on the tour. At times, her eyes grew wet. A Black woman who grew up in public housing communities in Richmond and who was previously incarcerated for drug-related offenses, she said she was so inspired by Sears and the GOP ticket that for the first time she didn’t vote Democratic.
One thing that changed for her, Coley said, is that she began watching what politicians do. Democratic control of Virginia, she said, led to political cliques but no improvement for the quality of life for African Americans in forgotten areas, she said.
“Actually, things had gotten worse,” she said. A pastor, she said she’s been called a traitor for supporting Republicans.
She said Sears cares about people returning from incarceration, like her.
“It’s not about parties with me. It’s about purpose” and supporting “whoever is presenting purpose for the benefit of everybody — humans, period.”
Sears said she brought Coley along as a special guest because she was formerly incarcerated. “America gave my father a second chance at life, so I wanted people who are returning to society to see that they can have a second chance at life.”