Filler-Corn, Saslaw see blue in Virginia

Virginia state Sen. Richard Saslaw is the body’s minority leader. Photo by Jared Foretek.

RICHMOND — Virginia state Del. Eileen Filler-Corn and Sen. Richard Saslaw, both Jewish Democrats, have watched Northern Virginia transform quite a bit over the last couple of decades. Not only has the area’s Jewish population grown to the point where it’s larger than the District or the Maryland suburbs, the region’s explosive growth in general has improved the fortunes of their Democratic Party.

As far as anyone knows, 2019’s legislative session will mark the first time in the state’s history that leaders in both houses of the legislature are Jewish, with Filler-Corn as the minority leader in the House of Delegates and Saslaw as minority leader in the Senate.

The two represent the Northern Virginia region where the Jewish population has grown significantly in recent years. And Filler-Corn, who represents Fairfax, is making history as the first woman to occupy the office of minority leader of Virginia’s House of Delegates when the legislative session convened Wednesday.

Filler-Corn was elected minority leader in a secret ballot. Saslaw, who was first elected to the state House in 1976 and has been the Democratic leader in the Senate since 2008 — he represents Falls Church, as well as parts of Alexandria and Fairfax — said his colleagues in the House made a good choice.

“Eileen is extremely competent,” Saslaw says. “It was recognized in the party selection process that she had a lot of experience and was near the political center and very good at raising money.”

The two are products of different generations. Saslaw, 78, served in the Army from 1958 to 1960 before getting his degree from the University of Maryland, then starting a successful auto service and gasoline business. He was in the General Assembly back when Democrats consistently held majorities. Since 1999, though, they’ve been in the minority in both houses for all but one four-year period, a streak that could end with legislative elections later this year.

And he’s not so inclined to dwell on the growth of the Jewish population in Virginia, or the significance of having two Jews in legislative leadership roles. “I was probably the first, I don’t think there were any others,” he says. But either way it’s just not that important to him.

“To be honest with you, nobody gave it much thought. There weren’t any stories in the paper when I became leader that, ‘Jeez, after all these years there’s a Jewish leader,’” says Saslaw, munching on nuts inside his office, which overlooks the Thomas Jefferson-designed Capitol.

Eileen Filler-Corn. File photo.

“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. It’s certainly not something I talk about much with people.”

Filler-Corn, on the other hand, wears her Jewish identity on her sleeve. Since moving to the region in the 1980s, she’s served on the boards of Congregation Adat Reyim in Burke, the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes and the American Jewish Committee.

She says she’s “genuinely thrilled” that the Commonwealth will have two Jewish minority leaders and that it’s a sign of how much bigger and more diverse Virginia is from when she arrived.

“I think it’s so exciting for the Jewish community to see that the Commonwealth of Virginia has leaders who are also members of the tribe,” she says, adding that it’s something one wouldn’t have expected to see when she first moved to Springfield.

Filler-Corn remembers struggling to explain to her children’s schoolteachers the significance of Rosh Hashanah when they stayed home for both days, missing a school picture day once, and trying to get tests rescheduled so that they wouldn’t fall on Yom Kippur.

The problem wasn’t a lack of empathy, she says, but a lack of understanding. Today she can’t imagine a Northern Virginia schoolteacher not being, at the very least, familiar with the High Holidays.

There aren’t any available estimates of the number of Jews living in Northern Virginia when Saslaw or Filler-Corn first took office, but a 2017 demographic study found that 121,500 Jews now live in Northern Virginia, making it the biggest hub by jurisdiction of the Washington region.
“I always felt like we were a part of a small minority,” Filler-Corn says. “I’ve always been a very active and vocal member, but it was small. And it was a surprise how quickly it’s grown with the rise of the Jewish population here in Northern Virginia. It’s more of a surprise than how the electorate has moved [from Republican to Democrat].”

Saslaw and Filler-Corn will have unusual jobs as far as minority leaders go. Democrats have the slimmest of deficits in both chambers, controlling 19 of 40 seats in the Senate and 49 of 100 seats in the House. And with a Democrat, Ralph Northam, in the Governor’s Mansion, the two will be tasked with shepherding legislation that can keep their party unified and attract support from at least one Republican each to advance Democratic priorities.

That’s what happened when the state legislature voted for Medicaid expansion last year, making as many as 400,000 low-income Virginians eligible for the program, which Republicans had long opposed. Filler-Corn called it the most consequential vote she’s ever taken, and said it was the thing she heard most about from Jewish groups in Northern Virginia; the non-partisan Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, for example, had supported the expansion. Starting Jan. 1 this year, the expansion went into effect.

“It was so inspiring for me to think now that this past week, 200,000 Virginians signed up for Medicaid,” Filler-Corn says. “People often ask, do I feel like I’m making a difference? And I can say, ‘Absolutely, yes.’”

Referring to the Hebrew term for repairing the world, she says, “It’s really tikkun olam that motivates me, and when I run for office I’m often explaining to people who don’t know what that is.”

This year, Saslaw says, the Democratic priorities are increasing school funding, adjustmenting the state’s tax code, and making Virginia the 38th state to ratify the “Equal Rights Amendment,” which would codify equal rights for women under the U.S. Constitution.

Having seen his party rise and fall throughout his long career, Saslaw is more circumspect about Democratic statewide dominance than some others. The party hasn’t lost an election for governor or U.S. senator in over a decade. Unlike many, Saslaw hasn’t written the Virginia G.O.P.’s obituary, but says that it will ultimately have to adapt to demographic shifts like those that have brought so many Jews to the state’s north.

He points to Republican Corey Stewart’s recent failed candidacy for U.S. senator, in which Stewart parroted many talking points of President Donald Trump.

“I’ve been around long enough that I’m never going to count anybody totally out. A lot of things in life are cyclical,” he says. “But there’s no question that the demographics are changing to a point where in years to come it’s going to be increasingly difficult to elect a Republican statewide if they’re campaigning the way they
do now.”

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