Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The Numbers Behind Virginia’s Most Diverse General Assembly

The new Virginia General Assembly building in Richmond. (Photo by Emily Richardson/CNS)

RICHMOND — The votes are counted, the committees are set and even the first bills are filed as Virginia’s General Assembly prepares to gavel in early next year. It’s a new slate of legislators more representative of the state’s citizens.

Major gains for Black history

Even in America’s longest-serving state legislature, there are still a lot of firsts coming with this next class.

The House and Senate will have Black leadership for the first time when it convenes on Jan. 10.

Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, will be the first Black House-speaker in Virginia. Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears has been the presiding officer in the Senate since 2022. She was the first Black woman elected to a statewide office in Virginia, and the second woman.

Virginia’s Black community makes up just under 21% of the state’s population, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. Legislative representation will be slightly higher at just under 23%.

Voters elected 32 Black legislators out of 140 seats; 25 delegates and seven senators. All but one is a Democrat. The total includes two delegates who identify as more than one race.

Virginia was once the “cradle of the Confederacy,” but that time is over, Scott said.

“Virginians are ready to move on,” Scott said. “They’re not looking at race, they’re looking at who’s the best candidate.”

Scott added that his nomination as speaker is a great milestone for Black people all across the state and they “can be proud of this day.”

Jatia Wrighten is an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University. She conducts research on Black women, state legislatures and leadership.

“It is absolutely fascinating to think about a state that was one of the most exclusionary in the South,” Wrighten said during a post-election event organized by the Virginia Public Access Project. “And yet we have a state legislature that is one of the most diverse in the entire country.”

Black women representation

The 20 Black women who won election represent a historic number. This is a little over 14% of the General Assembly.

This comes after a long history of exclusion, according to Wrighten.

“They’ve had to work outside of these institutions in order to gain equal access to political, social and even economic opportunities,” Wrighten said.

Black women are the voter block that helps Democrats win, she said. Black women have impacted elections throughout the South, in presidential and state races.

“Black women have always been here,” Wrighten said. “It’s just the case that now Virginia actually allows Black women to actively participate.”

Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, in reference to a Martin Luther King Jr. quote, stated in an email that this new diversity is “neither automatic nor inevitable” — it was possible due to “tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

“There are many who worked to make this day happen and the ancestors are proud for those who are making a difference in our communities,” Locke stated.

Increased diversity and inclusion

Research shows people feel better served when their legislators look like them, according to Wrighten.

“For the very diverse demographics that exist in the state of Virginia, what you should expect are feelings of satisfaction with elected members,” Wrighten said. “Especially as the diversity actually represents the population in this state.”

The number of female representatives stayed the same as last year, although a decade ago there were only 25 in the General Assembly. Women account for a third of state representation, although they are more than half of the state’s population.

A total of 48 female legislators will represent the state. Democrats elected 38. Republicans elected 10.

For the first time in at least recent history, the number of white representatives will dip below 100.

About 100 African American men served in the General Assembly between 1869 and 1890, according to a Virginia legislative website. The backlash to gains made during Reconstruction led to changes to the state constitution in 1902. Black citizens were disenfranchised as a result, and representation was limited.

L. Douglas Wilder in 1969 was the first Black representative elected to the Virginia Senate since Reconstruction. After a term as lieutenant governor, he became the first Black governor in the U.S.

All races will see gains in representation this upcoming session, most at historic numbers.

  • Almost a third of the upcoming state legislature will be people of color.
  • Eight Asian American legislators won their respective races, half were incumbents. Five will serve as delegates; three as senators. The total includes two delegates who identify as more than one race.
  • Four Latino legislators will serve in the House. Two nonincumbent Latino candidates won their respective race.
  • Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, has served since 2014 and is the legislature’s only Palestinian American.

Virginia will welcome its first Iranian American legislator. Delegate-elect Atoosa Reaser from Loudoun County won House District 27.

Reaser’s family fled Iran during a revolution. She stated that recent events propelled her to run for office, to ensure Virginians have the “same freedom and opportunity that brought her family to America in the first place.”

“Sadly women, people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, and others are seeing their rights taken away,” Reaser stated.

At least three Muslim legislators were elected. Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, was the first Muslim legislator elected to the state Senate in 2019. That representation grew by one this election.

LGBTQ+ representation

The LGBTQ+ community also made gains.

All nine Democratic candidates won that were endorsed by the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund, a national organization that helps elect candidates. Two will serve in the Virginia Senate, and seven in the House.

Del. Danica Roem, D-Manassas, will move from the House to the Senate. She is the first transgender member of Virginia’s upper chamber. She will be the South’s first transgender state senator.

Just under 4% of adults in Virginia are estimated to be LGBTQ+, according to the Williams Institute.

When Democrats held a majority in the General Assembly for two years, they ushered in several protections for LGBTQ+ citizens, including the Virginia Values Act that extended nondiscrimination laws to better protect LGBTQ citizens.

A constitutional amendment to repeal the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, though trumped by federal law, failed to pass its required second time when Republicans gained control in the House in 2022.

Virginia’s LGBTQ+ community has often been at odds with Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s updated model policies regarding transgender students in schools. These policies saw immense backlash from students, parents and LGBTQ+ advocates — although many parents also supported the policies.

Advocates also criticized Youngkin’s administration for its quiet removal of the Resources for LGBTQ Youth page on the state department health website after inquiry from a right-leaning media outlet.

“The legislature that takes office in January will look a lot more like Virginia than previous legislatures,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science and director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington.

Diversity in the Virginia Republican party does not match the Democrats, though that isn’t for a lack of recent commitment, according to Farnsworth. Republicans nominated the most diverse executive branch in history two years ago, with the first Black lieutenant governor and a Hispanic attorney general.

“The Republican Party nominated a very diverse slate of candidates, but many of them were running in places where Democratic candidates had a huge advantage,” Farnsworth said.

Diverse, but still mostly divided

Despite the steep learning curve that comes with the job, there is also an opportunity for change and new ideas, according to Wrighten.

“I think when you have all new freshmen legislators, I think we're going to see some of these exciting parts of democracy actually come to realization,” Wrighten said.

Though more diverse, Virginia’s government remains mostly divided. Democrats have control, but with a Republican governor who holds a veto pen. They do not have the super majority needed to overturn his vetoes.

Youngkin told reporters the day after the election that he was disappointed with the results, but expressed optimism about working with what he described as a "pretty bipartisan-looking" General Assembly. He said legislators need to be dedicated to cooperation.

Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, a school teacher, said he is working with Youngkin on issues such as testing reform, to help improve the quality of education for Virginia’s children. VanValkenburg will move to the Senate in January.

“I’m hopeful we can take the next step and get that testing reform put into law, and we can do right by our kids,” VanValkenburg said.

The issue of education rallied voters on both sides this year, according to Farnsworth.

“Polls show both Republican voters and Democrat voters were energized by education concerns,” Farnsworth said.

There are other opportunities for the parties to work together in a limited capacity, including education, mental health and economic development, according to Farnsworth.

Incoming House Speaker Scott emphasized there is a chance for Youngkin to work with House Democrats.

“I think there are opportunities to work with the governor to continue to do the things that make it easier for everyday working class Virginians to make a decent living,” Scott said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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