Terry Kilgore

Terry Kilgore of Scott County will not be the next Speaker of the House. Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah County will be, but Kilgore will be House Majority Leader. The two Republicans who had both sought the speakership cut a deal this week which suggests that a) Gilbert had the votes and Kilgore didn’t, and b) the two Republican leaders have a practical bent that will serve them well as they take control of the House of Delegates with a new GOP majority.

This is more than a change of party. This is a very visible change in power in Virginia in lots of ways.

Under the Democrats, the two top leaders in the House were two women from Northern Virginia: Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax County and House Majority Leader Charniele Herring of Alexandria, the latter being the chamber’s first Black majority leader. Now the leadership will be two white men from west of the Blue Ridge, one of them so far west that he lives closer to seven other state capitals than his own.

It’s fair to say that Democrats, for all their emphasis on diversity, did not do a very good job of relating to the full diversity of Virginia. You need only look at the election returns, particularly those in rural Virginia, to see that. The challenge before the Gilbert-Kilgore team will be whether two rural legislators can relate to such a metropolitan state as Virginia is now.

A pet peeve: When I was at The Roanoke Times, we heard that Filler-Corn was going to be in Blacksburg for an event. We contacted her office to extend an invitation to come by to talk with us. We never heard back. But the day that she ordered the old House chamber cleared of Confederate statues, she made a point of calling us – the only time she ever did. Instead of talking with her about Robert E. Lee, I would have preferred to talk about a different Lee – Lee County, which one prominent House Democrat (also from Northern Virginia) had criticized for failing to “make better use” of its state school funding. (This is a county that, for a time, had so many leaks in the roof at one school that students and teachers had to set out trash cans on rainy days.)

I suspect Gilbert and Kilgore will not be more concerned with Confederate statues than school construction. Now, whether they can overcome their natural conservatism and provide substantially more funding for rural schools, we’ll see – although in recent years we’ve seen a role reversal, with rural Republicans showing more interest in the subject than some suburban Democrats.

The changes in Richmond call for some historical context.

When Filler-Corn became speaker, she made history in lots of ways. She was the first woman ever to be speaker in Virginia. She was our first Jewish Speaker of the House. She was also the first speaker from Northern Virginia since Democrat John Ryan of Loudoun County in 1899 (Loudoun County was probably not full of data centers then) – unless you count Republican Bill Howell of Stafford County from 2003 to 2018, although most would not.

Henry Clay Allen. Courtesy of House clerk’s office.
E. Blackburn Moore. Courtesy of House clerk’s office.

Gilbert won’t make quite as much history. He will be the first speaker from the Shenandoah Valley since Democrat Blackburn Moore of Frederick County from 1950 to 1968. If you want to be even more precise, Gilbert will be the first speaker from Shenandoah County since Democrat Henry Clay Allen, who presided from 1877 to 1879.

Regrettably for students of Virginia history like me, there doesn’t seem to be any master list of majority leaders in Virginia, so it’s harder to put Kilgore in any kind of context. In recent memory we’ve had majority leaders from the Roanoke Valley – Republican Morgan Griffith of Salem from 2000 to 2010, Democrat Richard Cranwell of Vinton from 1991 to 2000. That was almost two decades of Virginia having a majority leader from west of the Blue Ridge. For a long time before that, the House had leadership from just east of the Blue Ridge. A.L. Philpott of Henry County was speaker from 1980 to 1991 and was majority leader for two years before that, from 1978 to 1980.

But has Virginia ever had a majority leader from as far west as Kilgore? If so, such a majority leader resides in the dim recesses of history, and out of any records I’ve been able to find.

Virginia’s southwestern corner has not often had the honor of having one of its own in the highest councils of state government. Just one governor has come from there at the time he was elected – Henry Carter Stuart was born in Wytheville but lived in Russell County when he was elected governor in 1913. Stuart holds the record for the most lopsided win in a gubernatorial election in Virginia. Republicans were so weak then that they didn’t nominate a candidate; this was also in the aftermath of the 1902 constitution that had disenfranchised not only almost all Black Virginians but a lot of white Virginians who tended to vote Republican. Stuart won with 91.87% of the vote; his two opponents were both socialists. Linwood Holton was born and raised in Big Stone Gap but lived in Roanoke at the time of his election in 1969, so it all depends on how you want to count being “from” a place.

If you want to be technical, Virginia’s westernmost lieutenant governors were Elisha McComas and William Lowther Jackson, both of whom served before the Civil War and hailed from what is now West Virginia (although to be further technical, none of that was Southwest Virginia). Otherwise, our most southwestern lieutenant governors were Benjamin Franklin Buchanan (elected 1917) and Lewis Preston “Pat” Collins (elected 1945, re-elected 1949). Both were from Smyth County.

Southwest Virginia can claim more representation in the office of attorney general. Judith Jagdmann, who served out the final year of Bob McDonnell’s term in 2005-06, was born in Norton, although she was living in the Richmond area when she was named to the post. Jerry Kilgore of Scott County — Terry Kilgore’s twin brother — was elected attorney general in 2001, but at the time he was living in the Richmond area. Andrew Miller was born in Fairfax but was practicing law in Washington County when he was elected in 1969. Rufus Ayers lived in Scott County when he was elected in 1885. He’s been back in the news lately. Until this election, when Jason Miyares ousted Mark Herring, Ayers was the only candidate in Virginia to defeat a sitting attorney general.

Isaac Fowler, the last Speaker of the House from far Southwest Virginia. Courtesy House clerk’s office.

Had Terry Kilgore prevailed as speaker, he would have been the first speaker from far Southwest Virginia since Isaac Fowler of Washington County in 1881-82. Fowler presided during a brief era when the Readjuster Party ran Virginia after Reconstruction. The Readjusters were a party that seems fantastical to us now. The big issue then was whether to pay off the state’s debt, which had become quite onerous – about half the state budget went to paying the interest. The state’s political establishment – the old planter elite – was in favor of paying off the debt. Of course, much of that debt was owed to them and their friends. The Readjusters represented the “have nots” of the day. They were a biracial coalition of white small farmers and newly enfranchised Black Virginians. They wanted to “readjust” the state debt – in other words, not pay some of it – and use the savings to pay for the state’s new public school system. They also wanted a lot of other innovations, such as abolishing the poll tax and the whipping post, and creating a Black university (today’s Virginia State) and hiring Black Virginians for state jobs. Geographically, the Readjusters were a party with a strong following in the western part of the state, which never had much sympathy for the state’s eastern establishment. The Readjusters came to power in 1881, did exactly what they said they’d do, and so infuriated the state that they prompted a conservative backlash that swept conservative Democrats (the Funders) into power, where they stayed until the late ’60s or maybe a little beyond. Of course, the Readjusters were also fantastically corrupt – at least their leader, William Mahone, was. Lots of railroad money changed hands in those days, let’s just say.

Does any of this matter now? On the one hand, no. On the other hand, some strands run through history up until the present day. Southwest Virginia has historically always been at least a little bit at odds with the rest of Virginia – less interested in leaving the Union before the Civil War, more interested in public school funding afterwards, less interested in “massive resistance” to integration in the ’50s, more interested in building a new economy now than other parts of the state that have the luxury of not having to think about such things.

Voters in future years will judge whether this new Republican majority is worth keeping or not. But while it’s there, Virginia will have a House Majority Leader who likes to point out that Southwest Virginia isn’t where the state ends, it’s where the state begins. That might be a change in perspective more profound than any change of parties.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.