For Eileen Filler-Corn, who is forgoing the uncertainty of reelection to the legislature this year apparently for the longer odds of something bigger in 2025, the end started at the beginning.
In 2020, only weeks into her historic speakership as the first woman and first Jew to lead the 100-member House of Delegates, the Fairfax County Democrat was squeezed by many in her caucus — most notably, Blacks and Northern Virginians, both key allies — to kill a measure stripping the General Assembly of its power to draw legislative and congressional districts.
Their argument: leaving map-making to a bipartisan commission or, if it failed, to a Republican-dominated Virginia Supreme Court, would cost Democrats the narrow majorities they installed in 2019. All Filler-Corn had to do was use her near-absolute authority as speaker to pocket the proposal, averting a floor vote in the House and leaving it to Democrats to set lines that would lock in their power for a decade.
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Filler-Corn refused. Democrats’ nightmare became a reality.
The redistricting proposal cleared the legislature and, as a constitutional amendment, was approved by voters. The commission deadlocked, tossing redistricting to the Supreme Court, which imposed boundaries that lumped into districts with other incumbents 66 lawmakers, including Filler-Corn. Even before those lines were finalized, voters — angry over inflation, COVID-19 and post-George Floyd overreach by Democrats — elected in 2021 a Republican governor and GOP House.
Filler-Corn would be out as speaker, despite a brief but consequential tenure attributed to the Democrats’ trifecta: control of the House, Senate and governorship.
Their accomplishments included restoring restrictions on firearms, clearing obstacles to abortion rights, abolishing the death penalty, legalizing recreational use of marijuana, expansion of green energy, in-state tuition breaks for the children born in Virginia to illegal immigrants and removing Confederate iconography from the state Capitol, itself for most of the Civil War the seat of the Southern revolt to save slavery.
Losing the speakership was not the final ignominy for Filler-Corn.
Having been reduced to Democratic minority leader — in a quick, weekend-after-the-election session at a suburban Richmond union hall of a dispirited caucus in which there was little, if any, time for alternatives to Filler-Corn to step forward — she would be toppled from that position in a coup in spring 2022 by former allies as punishment for the party’s loss of the House.
Her ouster was accompanied by a bill of complaint that Filler-Corn strongly disputes.
She supposedly sat on nearly $1 million in late campaign cash. The money, having landed in the final countdown to the election, might not have made a difference in the handful of House races, decided by a handful of votes, that tipped the House to the GOP. Also, there was grousing over her perceived overreliance on fellow Northern Virginians for political counsel, never mind that Filler-Corn’s highest-profile partners on such issues as abortion rights include downstate Democrats.
And her relationship with the Democratic Senate could be fraught.
Filler-Corn and Dick Saslaw, the retiring majority leader from Fairfax, tussled on the opening day of the 2020 session — not hours after she was installed as speaker — over how many delegates and senators would make the ceremonial visit to the third floor of the state Capitol to inform then-Gov. Ralph Northam the General Assembly was ready to proceed with the people’s business. Filler-Corn and Senate Democrats later angrily went at it after she accused them of derailing a proposed ban on military-style rifles.
Replaced by Don Scott of Portsmouth, a former ally whom Filler-Corn had appointed caucus campaign chairman and who is almost certain to become Virginia’s first Black speaker should Democrats take the House in November, she returned to the back benches — a fate she might have avoided had she sunk the redistricting measure and taken the short-term public-relations hit for doing so.
It is what her Republican successor as speaker, Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah County, did this year with his party’s bills limiting abortion. He bottled them up. Though they were certain to pass in the House, they were unlikely to escape the Democratic Senate. And though the GOP base might disapprove of Gilbert’s maneuver — it meant denying Gov. Glenn Youngkin another go at his proposed ban of most abortions after 15 weeks — it also could prove helpful, tamping down in swing districts the enthusiasm of Republican-hostile abortion rights voters.
Embarrassment for the GOP this winter might prevent embarrassment this fall, in the form of surrendering the House to Democrats once again.
In joining the growing exodus of senior delegates and senators that is draining from the General Assembly hundreds of years of service and technical prowess, Filler-Corn, who came to the House in 2010, is not as much leaving politics as she is apparently considering a campaign for governor. The election is more than two years off, but the field of actual and prospective Democratic candidates is growing. Some are viewed as far more potent than Filler-Corn.
Filler-Corn is coy, for now, on her next move, though she is dropping plenty of hints. Filler-Corn has in her House campaign account and political-action committee more than $1.1 million. She says she will steer some of that money to Democrats who could wrest the House from Republicans. And asked if some of it could go to a gubernatorial bid in 2025, Filler-Corn unhesitatingly replied with one word: “Absolutely.”
Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter, @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis at 7:45 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. Friday on Radio IQ, 89.7 FM in Richmond; 89.1 FM in Roanoke; and WHRV, 89.5 FM in Norfolk.