There are more women delegates in the Virginia House of Delegates than ever before.
In November, Democrats flipped 15 seats in the lower chamber — eleven of them were won by women.
Most of these new, female lawmakers hail from Northern Virginia. They represent a diverse group: Virginia’s first Latina state lawmakers, the first Vietnamese-American delegate, and the first transgender state lawmaker in Virginia history.
But Republicans still control the House of Delegates. And they’ll have a large say over what can get done — and whether these new Democratic delegates can deliver on the promises that carried them to office.
Democratic Delegate Kathy Tran held her sleeping 11-month old daughter Elise in her arms as she took the oath of office at the swearing-in on opening day.
“I was surprised by the overwhelming sense of emotions I had looking around the room,” said Tran (D-Fairfax), a Vietnamese refugee who came to the U.S. as a baby.
“How much more diverse it is and how much more representative it is of our communities — and the small piece that I’ll have to play in our state’s history,” she said.
Tran is one of Virginia’s first Asian-American state lawmakers — and the first Vietnamese-American ever to serve in Richmond.
“There’s some things that are unique to Asian-Americans and to Vietnamese-Americans and refugees and immigrants and working moms,” said Tran, who worked in workforce policy issues before running.
“And there are some things that are just really common [for everyone]: we all want healthcare. We all want good public education systems. We want good jobs. We want to be able to get there on time.”
A group of trailblazers
Tran isn’t the only trailblazer among this new group of Democratic lawmakers, dubbed the “Freshman 15.”
The first Latina lawmakers were sworn in — including Elizabeth Guzman from Prince William County.
“I was told Virginia wasn’t ready to have a delegate who looks like me,” said Guzman, a social worker from Dale City. “And look what happened.”
The first lesbian delegate, Dawn Adams, won her seat in the Richmond area.
And Danica Roem, from Manassas Park, became Virginia’s first-ever transgender person elected to state-office.
“A lot of women are very capable at seeking common ground — and actually making it happen,” said Roem (D-Prince William). “I think that’s what we’re going to show by having a lot more women’s voices represented.”
Shattering the ceiling
Day Two of the Virginia General Assembly began with a speech.
Democrat Vivian Watts, a longtime delegate from Fairfax County, stood before the packed chamber and celebrated the fact that more women — 28 — were elected to the House of Delegates in November than ever before.
“We didn’t crack the ceiling, we’ve shattered it,” exclaimed Watts.
Watts was first elected in 1982. At the time, there were just a handful of women serving in the House. She had been one of Fairfax County’s top economic development officials. She was a tax expert, a whiz on incentive packages.
And then Watts got to Richmond.
“My biggest challenge was first and foremost to be taken seriously,” said Watts.
She had to fight to get on the tax-writing committee, which had never had a woman on it because it had been considered a “man’s” issue. It wasn’t always easy.
“And I’m sure many women have experienced this,” said Watts. “You offer a solution. It doesn’t get picked up for about five or ten minutes until a guy says it. And then it’s ‘OK that’s where we’re going.’”
She persevered, and ending up helping solve a big tax issue facing the state. But looking back, she also remembers dealing with a lot of nonsense. Like the time a delegate told Watts to dumb down her presentation.
“He said to me: ‘Vivian you made a big mistake up there. You acted smart,’” Watts said.
Disappointment over committees
Committee assignments can feel like a make-or-break moment for lawmakers.
In order to tackle the issues you campaigned on, you need to get assigned the right committees.
Later on Day 2 — when Republicans announced the assignments — there was some head-scratching among the freshman Democrats like Danica Roem.
“I was certainly disappointed that it did not end up on the Transportation committee, which I very, very much wanted,” she said.
Roem had campaigned almost exclusively on a single issue — fixing Route 28. But Republicans put Roem on the Science and Technology and Counties, Cities and Towns committees.
Other Democratic freshman were disappointed too.
Elizabeth Guzman (D-Prince William) had strong labor support when she ran for office and was hoping to get on the Commerce and Labor committee.
“We were asked to present a wish list to see which committees we think could play an impactful role,” says Guzman. “It didn’t happen.”
Both Guzman and Roem say they’re looking forward to tackling the issues on the committees they’ve been assigned.
The only new Democratic delegate to score a plum assignment may have been Jennifer Carroll Foy, who worked as a public defender before running for a Prince William County delegate seat.
She landed on the Courts of Justice committee.
Foy said she’s excited to “have a seat at the table and a voice in what happens with the statutes and laws here in Virginia.”
‘A job to get done’
On Day 3 in Richmond — the real work began.
Lawmakers, aides and House pages scurried around the capitol, trying to get to the early morning committee meetings.
“I’m really excited to be on this committee to tackle issues like gerrymandering, and breaking down barriers to voting,” Tran said, while holding her Elise in her arms. (Daycare, she said, had unexpectedly closed in Richmond that day.)
Republican Delegate Mark Cole gaveled the meeting to order and prepared to hand out the subcommittee assignments.
“I spent a lot of time working on this yesterday,” Cole said at the hearing. “I came up with what I was a great plan that would’ve made everyone happy.”
“Unfortunately, I left that on my nightstand this morning,” he said.
The Republicans at the hearing broke out in laughter.
The atmosphere at this Southern statehouse can seem at times seem like an old boys’ club.
But the freshman Democrats say they’re ready to get to work. Jennifer Carroll Foy likens it to her time when she was one of the first black women ever to graduate from the Virginia Military Institute.
“It has forced me to be uncomfortable,” said Foy. “Being in a room where some people may not want you there and they may think different than you.”
“They may come from different backgrounds but at the end of the day you have to plan and execute — you all have a job to get done.”