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Eileen Filler-Corn, exiting Va. Statehouse, eyes the governor’s mansion
The first woman and Jewish person to serve as House speaker, who was ousted from party leadership, makes the case for her political future
When Virginia Del. Eileen Filler-Corn announced this month that she would not run for reelection to the House of Delegates after 14 years, political observers in Richmond and Washington quickly began to wonder about her next move.
After two years as Virginia’s House speaker — the first woman and first Jewish person to hold that role — Filler-Corn was ousted last year as the House Democratic leader by her colleagues. But in an interview with Jewish Insider, Filler-Corn insisted she isn’t letting the setback keep her out of politics. In fact, it’s fuelling her to look even higher.
“You always want your next move to be at least lateral, if not, you know, bigger and better,” she said on Monday. “I realize, obviously, that until we control the executive branch as well, back to having all three [bodies], we would not have the opportunity to move Virginia forward.”
Filler-Corn, known for being a prolific Democratic fundraiser, has been talking to donors and supporters as she considers her political future. A run for governor in 2025 is a strong possibility.
“I have definitely been letting everyone know that I’m interested in exploring it,” she said. Two major election cycles, including this year’s legislative elections in Virginia, still have to take place before Virginia’s next gubernatorial race. But that hasn’t stopped Filler-Corn and other possible contenders, including Richmond’s Democratic mayor, Levar Stoney, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) and former Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA), from starting to raise money and jockey for political connections.
Donald Trump’s election in 2016 fueled a wave of Democratic victories in Virginia. In 2019, Democrats took control of the Virginia Statehouse, giving the party full control of state government for the first time in more than two decades. Filler-Corn was voted House speaker due in large part to her role campaigning and fundraising for Democratic candidates who flipped the House and Senate.
“I remember telling everybody everywhere we went, every speech was like, ‘This is what we’re going to do when we win, when we are back in power,’” she recalled. “We then did achieve that goal, and Democrats were in control for the first time in a generation. And as you know, I was the first woman and the first Jewish person to serve as speaker and had an opportunity to say, ‘OK, let’s be bold, let’s be swift.’”
But Virginia Democrats saw their fortunes reversed in 2021, when now-Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, defeated Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who had served as governor from 2013 to 2017. Democrats also lost control of the House, and Filler-Corn transitioned from speaker to minority leader — until a group of delegates led a quiet campaign to oust her, and they narrowly voted in April 2022 to remove Filler-Corn as party leader. Del. Don Scott, a Democrat from the Hampton Roads area in the Tidewater region of the state and the engineer of the plan to remove Filler-Corn, was voted in to replace her.
“I think it was just opportunistic on the part of, you know, a few ambitious new members,” said Filler-Corn, who called the ouster an “internal battle” and declined to say more about it.
But she believes that the fact that she was voted out of her leadership position won’t affect her odds in a future election.
“Not at all,” she said, when asked if it might hold her back. “I think the focus has got to be, when you look at the record, What did we accomplish? What did we, as Democrats, accomplish with me at the helm as leader?” She pointed to her role in winning the majority, as well as passing legislation on gun reform, the environment, reproductive health and public education.
A frequent critic of Youngkin, Filler-Corn found herself unexpectedly aligned with him during this year’s legislative session on a number of bills related to antisemitism. After a commission Youngkin established to examine antisemitism in the Old Dominion returned its official report late last year, he introduced several bills to fight antisemitism. The state Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, initially voted down a bill that would adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism.
“There were no bipartisan patrons for those bills. So I think that was a concern, and I think that led to some hesitancy on the part of some Democrats,” Filler-Corn said. Still, she added, “I felt strongly that if there was a bill out there which would work towards combating antisemitism, then obviously that is a good thing.”
The IHRA legislation was amended to clarify that its adoption of the definition is “non-legally binding” in response to critics who argue that the definition — which says that anti-Zionism can at times be antisemitic — can infringe on free speech. The bill was supported by a coalition of Jewish communal organizations in Virginia and ultimately passed the General Assembly, but it had some Democratic opposition, including from Scott, the state delegate who ousted Filler-Corn and replaced her as Democratic leader.
“I was surprised,” Filler-Corn acknowledged, “knowing that the IHRA definition was widely respected and used throughout state governments, countries, organizations throughout, that there was still pushback by some in the Democratic caucus, and even some of Jewish faith.”
Filler-Corn’s grudging partnership with Youngkin on antisemitism doesn’t mean she’s come around on his other policies.
Last year, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, she joined with other Jewish leaders — including the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington — to present a Jewish case for supporting reproductive rights. Youngkin has proposed banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
She also criticized the way the governor approached education issues in the 2021 campaign, when Youngkin lambasted McAuliffe for saying parents shouldn’t have a say in what schools teach and called for “critical race theory” to be left out of Virginia schools. It’s a playbook other Republicans nationwide have sought to follow,
“I don’t believe it was exclusively or even primarily Terry [McAuliffe]’s response to that question as far as us losing the election. But I do believe them honing in on the issue of parents — parents matter, yes, parents do matter, and we have said that continuously,” said Filler-Corn. “But it’s also the teachers and the schools.”
“You can’t just say ‘parents,’” she added, “without offering a vision. I think that’s what we saw.”
According to Virginia law, the governor cannot run for reelection, not to mention that Youngkin is reportedly considering a presidential bid in 2024. So if Filler-Corn runs in two years, she’ll face someone new. She faces an uphill battle — making sure voters outside of heavily blue Northern Virginia even know her name, and distinguishing herself in a likely crowded Democratic field.
Her argument seems to be, at least in part: I helped other Democrats. Now it’s my turn.
“I’ve been crisscrossing the Commonwealth for a long time, making sure I’ve provided the resources to candidates and also hands-on experience and mentoring and even help recruiting many of them as well, to get them to realize that we need their voice,” Filler-Corn said. “In Virginia, there’s always another election, but we can’t lose track of, as soon as we win this election, that we do have to win the executive branch back as well so we can continue to move Virginia forward.”