A trifecta of powerful Virginia Democrats on Monday threw their support behind Del. Hala Ayala of Prince William for lieutenant governor in the party’s June 8 primary, backing a candidate who would become the first Latina to hold the office but whose fundraising has struggled to match that of prominent rivals.
Gov. Ralph Northam, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and House Majority Leader Charniele Herring endorsed Ayala, describing her campaign as “historic,” and touting her work to secure support for criminal justice reform and Medicaid expansion as a whip for the House Democratic caucus.
“Her leadership in the House Democratic majority has been central to these and so many other historic pieces of legislation that are improving the lives of Virginia families. I’ve seen firsthand her indispensable ability to bring people together to make progress,” Northam said in a statement.
Herring said Ayala “has been a central part of some of the biggest legislative wins of our Democratic majority.”
Filler-Corn highlighted that, if elected, Ayala would be the first woman of color to serve in statewide office and the first woman to serve as lieutenant governor, “bringing historic representation to the highest levels of our state government.”
The leaders will appear alongside Ayala on Monday during a campaign event at the Virginia Women’s Monument inside Richmond’s Capitol Square.
Ayala was first elected to the General Assembly as part of the so-called “blue wave” in 2017, when she defeated four-term Republican incumbent Rich Anderson. In 2019, she again beat Anderson, who is now the chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia.
Ayala was one of the first Hispanic women elected to serve in the House of Delegates, alongside Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, who was also first elected in 2017.
Guzman was also seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, but withdrew earlier this month, citing a lack of funding.
Ayala faces five other candidates in the crowded Democratic primary: Del. Sam Rasoul of Roanoke; Del. Mark Levine of Alexandria; Norfolk City Council member Andria McClellan; Xavier Warren, a lobbyist for nonprofits and an NFL player agent; and Sean Perryman, former head of the Fairfax County NAACP.
Two people familiar with the leaders’ thinking said having a woman in the Democratic statewide ticket was a driving force behind the endorsement. They emphasized Ayala’s legislative record and that Democratic leaders’ strained relationships with some other candidates for lieutenant governor also played a significant role.
Northam, Filler-Corn and Herring have come under criticism for endorsing former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in his bid to retake the office while they tout the merits of racial and gender representation in politics. Filler-Corn and Herring also endorsed Attorney General Mark Herring, who is seeking a third term; Northam endorsed Del. Jay Jones of Norfolk. (McAuliffe's supporters include a number of prominent African American lawmakers including Charniele Herring and Senate President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth.
For Northam, Ayala was the candidate “most aligned with him ideologically and who made the most sense for the ticket,” a source close to Northam said. The governor also has a strained relationship with Andria McClellan — the other woman running in the primary — who called on him to resign during the blackface scandal after once serving as a key campaign aide to Northam.
Ayala has worked closely with Filler-Corn and Charniele Herring as a whip for the caucus. Rasoul unsuccessfully competed with Herring for majority leader and supported Del. Lashrecse Aird’s failed bid for House speaker in 2019.
Ayala ranked fifth among the remaining Democratic hopefuls for lieutenant governor with $154,960 in cash on hand as of March 31. Rasoul led the field with a balance of $952,611.
In a statement, Perryman criticized the endorsement as a "coronation" and a sign the Democratic Party is "coming out in force against progressive candidates."
“I have great respect for Governor Northam and the Democratic leaders, but this heavy-handed and coordinated effort to influence this election is reminiscent of the Byrd Machine and their attempts to control the outcomes of our elections," he said, referring to the power Gov. and then U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd, a segregationist, and associates exerted to control Virginia politics for much of the 20th century.
McClellan also responded to the endorsement: "As the only candidate in this race from Hampton Roads, the state’s second largest voting bloc, I provide a much needed perspective to Richmond."
The winner in the Democratic primary will face the Republican nominee, who will be selected in a May 8 convention.
The GOP candidates for lieutenant governor are Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach; former Del. Tim Hugo; Northern Virginia business consultant Puneet Ahluwalia; Air Force veteran Lance Allen; finance sector CEO Maeve Rigler; and former Del. Winsome Sears.