Two days after she was elected speaker of Virginia’s House of Delegates, Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) said that the commonwealth is moving in the right direction.
“I’m very, very excited,” she says. “I think the fact that the commonwealth has shifted so much and we’re so much more inclusive — welcoming, encouraging diversity — is wonderful.”
This is the second time this year Filler-Corn, 55, has made history in her state. In January, she was elected House minority leader — the first woman in that position. Now, Filler-Corn will be the first woman and first Jew to be House speaker.
She beat out three Democratic opponents for the position in a vote on Nov. 9.
With both houses of the legislature flipping to a Democratic majority, state Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-District 35) will become majority leader when the Virginia General Assembly meets in January.
Saslaw is Jewish, too.
“I don’t know if it’s happened before that both branches are led by members of the Jewish community,” says Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
Both Saslaw and Filler-Corn have been active in Virginia’s Jewish community for decades. Saslaw was first elected to the House of Delegates in 1976 and has been the Democratic Senate leader since 2008.
Filler-Corn says she got involved in elected office because of the Jewish value of tikkun olam — repairing the world.
“That’s what we’re all striving to do. So it’s very exciting for me,” says Filler-Corn, who moved to the area in the 1980s. “Being the first Jewish speaker, too, for me is so important. I’m so active in the Jewish community. It’s been such an important part of who I am.”
She has been on the boards of Congregation Adat Reyim in Burke, the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes and the American Jewish Committee.
Saslaw told Washington Jewish Week in January that he didn’t give having two Jewish then-minority leaders much thought.
“I think it’s great that, by and large, it shows how far we’ve come as a society that it’s not considered newsworthy,” Saslaw said. “It’s certainly not something I talk about much with people.”
Filler-Corn says she hopes girls will see her as a role model of a woman who works and has a family at the same time.
“When I was elected in 2010, I was the only mom with school-age kids, and now look — we have so many women, so many constituencies represented,” Filler-Corn says. “It’s the way it should be, so we’re heading in the right direction.”
She told WJW in January that she remembers a time when she had to explain why her children needed to miss school on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Now, she “can’t imagine” a teacher being unfamiliar with the holidays.
As a result of the Nov. 5 election, Democrats control the state’s legislative and executive branches for the first time since 1994.
Saslaw and Filler-Corn said that with Democratic control of the General Assembly, they will be able to pass more legislation that Democrats have pushed unsuccessfully for years.
“A lot of the things that have been bottled up for the last seven or eight years are going to come to fruition,” Saslaw says. “Things that didn’t get dealt with before, as a result of both chambers flipping, we’ll be able to get things done.”
Both want to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in Virginia and implement gun violence prevention laws.
“We’re the East Coast supplier of guns,” Saslaw says. “We used to have this one gun a month law, which we need to reinstate.”
After a mass shooting in Virginia Beach in May, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) ordered a special session of the legislature to discuss “common sense” gun control legislation. After 90 minutes, Republicans adjourned the session without considering a single bill.
“I can assure you this is a top priority,” says Filler-Corn, who was co-chair of the Safe Virginia Initiative. “All of us as legislators are here to improve Virginians’ lives.”
Other top issues include the environment, transportation, education and anti-discrimination legislation, both Saslaw and Filler-Corn say.
“Whether we do them all this year or not, I don’t know,” Saslaw says. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
But he looks forward to finally making headway on these issues that have been blocked by the Republican majority for years.
Halber says his agency has work with the outgoing Republican-controlled legislature, but he expects the new Democratic majority will be more open on issues of concern to the Jewish community.
“I do think that the new legislature will lend itself to enabling JCRC to push forward,” says Halber, noting that Saslaw and Filler-Corn’s doors have always been open. “We’ll have greater receptivity.”
Some of the JCRC’s priorities include mental health parity and women’s reproductive health rights.
“I think there’s a lot of synergies and alignments with our issues,” says Filler-Corn.
The elections in Virginia and elsewhere are being looked at as bell weathers of the 2020 election. Halber says the Democratic victories can’t necessarily be used to predict a shift away from the Republicans the 2020 elections. He said Democrats face a challenge in appealing to their progressive base while not stepping “so far out of line that they are kicked out of power in four years.”
Saslaw seems to echo that sentiment: “We’re not gonna turn upside down either; in other words, just go crazy off the deep end.”