House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County. Photo by Del. Israel O'Quinn.

RICHMOND – Less than 24 hours after Glenn Youngkin was elected Virginia’s 74th governor on Nov. 3, the dust had barely settled when Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, was the first lawmaker to announce his bid for Speaker of the House of Delegates. Although not all votes had been counted, it was all but certain that Republicans would regain control of the House after a Democratic majority lasting two years. 

The 60-year old Kilgore – who has represented the state’s westernmost district since 1994 – knew that his time had come to step up and take on a more prominent role in his caucus. “It is time for fresh leadership that will keep and grow our new majority. Let’s get to work!” he said in a news release. 

Terry Kilgore

But the next day, Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah – at the time the House Minority Leader – also threw his hat in the ring to become the next Speaker, setting up what could have turned into an intra-party battle over the top job in the House that would have left the GOP vulnerable at a time when it needed unity more than ever to take a successful stand against the Senate, where Democrats still held a slim 21-19 majority.

Aware of these potential consequences, Kilgore and Gilbert, 51, decided to work out a compromise. “I don’t remember who called who, but Todd and I talked because we knew we had to get a good team together. We have 52 members in our caucus and we needed a team that can bring the caucus together and try not to have a fractured election process for Speaker,” Kilgore said in an interview with Cardinal News at his office on the second floor of the Pocahontas Building in Richmond’s Capitol Square last week.

Within a day, they brokered an agreement that they announced in a letter to the House Republican caucus on Friday, Nov. 5. “Todd is proud to endorse Terry for Majority Leader, and Terry is proud to endorse Todd for Speaker. Ultimately, any final decision will be left up to you,” the letter said. The compromise spared the caucus a potentially damaging battle over the speakership while retaining party unity. “We thought this was the best way to move forward,” Kilgore said in the interview,“ and I think it was for the betterment of our caucus and for the House of Delegates really.”

Kilgore was sworn in as the House Majority Leader on Wednesday, Jan. 12 – one of very few lawmakers from Southwest Virginia in recent history to take on this role and the first since Republican Morgan Griffith, a resident of Salem, who served in this capacity from 2000 to 2010. As the second-in-command behind the Speaker, the majority leader functions as the Speaker’s chief lieutenant for day-to-day management of the floor. 

And as the 2022 legislative session drew to a close last week, the longtime legislator with the thick Magnum P.I. mustache looked back at his first session in his new role. “It’s been a learning experience,” he said. “I’ve been here quite a while in the General Assembly, but being in control of the floor and trying to make sure that the trains run on time has been rewarding. It’s allowed me to be in a lot of leadership meetings that I normally wouldn’t be in.” 

Working in a divided government to advance the House GOP’s has been challenging, Kilgore said. “It is a trying environment, but I said the first day that everybody needs to step back and be nice to each other,” he said, flashing his signature smile. “Everybody needs to realize that we come from different views and different communities of interest, but being the majority leader puts me in the room where decisions are being made. It’s got me at the table when otherwise I wouldn’t have been at the table, and I think our Southwest delegation has really flexed its muscle this year, and really at the end of the day, when you see the budget and see what we have been able to get accomplished, it’s going to be good for Southwest Virginia.”

One of Kilgore’s biggest achievements as the majority leader during his first session was to preserve party unity inside a House GOP that comprises moderate lawmakers and culture warriors alike, said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington. 

“The most important thing for a majority leader is to keep the troops in line, and throughout this session you’ve seen a very disciplined Republican caucus,” Farnsworth said. “There are 52 Republicans and 52 Republican votes for Republican initiatives. The challenge for the ultimate success of legislation is of course out of the caucus’s hands because nothing gets to the governor unless the Democratic majority senate is willing to go along. But for the job that Kilgore can control, it’s worked out pretty well,” he said. 

While much of the more controversial and partisan legislation – such as election security measures or social issues like abortion regulation – has been blocked by Democrats in the state Senate, Kilgore said that Republicans were able to pass many items on Youngkin’s agenda. 

“I think he’s going to get most of his tax cuts when the budget comes out, he is going to get most of his standard deductions, the payments back to the taxpayers, plus the gas tax and the grocery tax (elimination),” Kilgore said. “And Glenn Youngkin drove the mask debate nationally, Glenn Youngkin drove the school debate nationally. I think that’s what we can gather from what he has been able to do. He got at the front end of that, and he drove that debate.”

To advance his goals, Kilgore has also not shied away from reaching out across the aisle. “The difference between here and Washington is that we have to get a budget, we have to get in and out within 60 days, and there are items that both sides want, both Democrats and Republicans want to move Virginia forward,” he said. “We may come at it from a different way but I think we all love Virginia. A lot of times at the end of the day we come together, maybe we don’t get all that we want, but the system here kind of forces you to work together the way it is set up, and I think that’s the way it should be.”

The General Assembly adjourned Saturday without finalizing its biennial spending plan. The body will reconvene at a later time to approve the budget.

Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, the only House Democrat from Southwest Virginia, said that he has thoroughly enjoyed working with Kilgore on matters affecting districts west of the Blue Ridge. “Terry does a good job with Delegate Terry Austin (a Republican from Botetourt County and a member of the House Appropriations Committee) in checking in with the delegation and certainly helping to evaluate regional priorities in the General Assembly,” Rasoul said.

Having someone with decades of experience run the House floor helps both parties, Rasoul said. “While many times there are partisan differences, people enjoy working with Terry, and as do I, because I believe that having good relationships on both sides of the aisle is important.”

But even the best bipartisan intentions were not able to overcome obstacles relating to some of the priorities declared by both parties. Take school construction – despite unanimous consent that a historically flush state budget has provided the legislature with a rare opportunity to take on Virginia’s crumbling school infrastructure, less than a handful of bills have survived by the end of the session.

According to data by the Virginia Department of Education the total cost to replace schools that are at least 50 years old would carry a price tag of about $25 billion. But despite a record surplus, lawmakers were unable to come together on a comprehensive grant program aimed at supporting underserved localities with a low tax base, particularly those in Southwest Virginia. 

What they came up with instead is a matching grant fund program – carried in the House by Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County – which would provide up to $2 billion in bonds to help localities repair aging and crumbling schools. Democrats have criticized the effort, arguing that it would force school divisions to spend the money and use up debt capacity that many localities don’t have.

But Kilgore considers the program a victory – should it remain in the budget that the General Assembly is set to vote on later this week. “The House is really pushing hard for it, I think that’s going to be a way to move forward,” he said. “While it’s not going to be enough, it’s the start of something that we should have started a long time ago, and it really helps rural Virginia.”

Kilgore acknowledged that especially the Southwest is in dire need of funding for school construction. “We have a lot of schools that need either remodeling, repairs or just another school built, and this is going to be a kickstart for us in Southwest Virginia,” he said of O’Quinn’s plan. “And at some point in time when this works there may be some other innovative ways to fund it, we just got to start. I think the state needs to play the lead role in that because most of our localities are cash-strapped right now.”

The House also failed to create a legal framework for the regulation of cannabis – an item that had been ranking high on the GOP’s agenda at the beginning of the 2022 session after Democrats legalized personal possession and home growing last summer without creating a full, legal marijuana marketplace. 

Back in January, Kilgore said in a news conference that lawmakers would be “working hard to come up with not only a regulatory environment, but also a policing environment before we move forward.” According to New Frontier Data’s U.S. Cannabis Report, in 2020 the commonwealth had the fourth-largest illicit market in the country, encompassing about $1.8 billion in sales, or 3% of the estimated $60 billion national market.

But by the end of February, House Republicans had killed legislation intended to kick start the legal sale of recreational marijuana in September, arguing that there wasn’t enough time to perfect the complex proposal. 

“It was just too much too soon, there were so many decisions that had to be made on marijuana,” Kilgore said in the interview last week. “I think we are going to step back with Governor Youngkin and his team and the legislature and get together to come up with a workable solution. Marijuana is still legal in Virginia.”

But Kilgore noted that some progress had been made with legislation sponsored by Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County, which would only permit licensed cannabis retailers to sell hemp or hemp-derived products that contain any form of THC (including delta-8, delta-9, and delta-10) to individuals 21 years and older. Senate Bill 591, which cleared both the Senate and the House, would also require each product to be properly tested for potency and purity – an effort to mitigate the number of mislabeled products in the state.

“All this delta-8 stuff, we don’t know what’s in there, it is dangerous to our kids, so we did address that. Hopefully it will get some enforcement behind that, with the Attorney General’s office or somebody has to go out and enforce that commodity because I’m afraid we’re going to wake up one day and we are going to see injuries or something to occur from that.”

Kilgore reiterated that Republicans had inherited the marijuana regulation issue from Democrats, but that they would move on it soon. “We’re not in a bad spot, I think by this time next year we will have a market moving forward,” he said. “We’re not going to go back and make it illegal, but we are going to have to control the market and enforce and regulate it. And that means somebody will have to test it and put a stamp of approval on it.”

Kilgore – who sits on the Commerce and Energy, Courts of Justice and Rules committees – also made some news with several of his own proposals that he filed for the 2022 session. 

Most notable are his efforts to terminate the township of St. Charles in Lee County and his attempted repeal of the charter of Pound in Wise County dealing with a significant loss of population and a lack of civic engagement. 

“St. Charles didn’t have anybody who was willing to step up and serve, and Pound was just, in their words, a hot mess,” Kilgore said, laughing. “Hopefully Pound can still turn it around, I gave them some time and told them I would work with them, I’d go over there, sit down with them, but for what they were doing they just had no excuse for not meeting and doing what they were supposed to do.”

Both the House and the Senate also passed a Kilgore proposal that started off as a way to require the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority to promote the deployment of broadband in Southwest Virginia. But House Bill 894 also requires the Department of Energy to consider the economic development of rural Virginia while minimizing the impact on prime farmland a key priority in updating its Virginia Energy Plan, and to identify strategies for promoting the development of advanced small modular reactors in localities in the commonwealth – an effort that even Democrats support.

“That bill really has morphed into a good opportunity for Southwest Virginia,” Kilgore said. “Those small nuclear modules, they are safe, they are the same thing that you run nuclear subs with, but you put three or four of those underground, and that can be clean and effective power for the grid,” he said.

While he may not have been able to accomplish all Republican goals for this year’s legislative session, Kilgore believes that Southwest Virginia has already won by having more prominent representation from the region serving as advocates for the Southwest.  

“I think the more we get people down there so they can see our way of life and the beauty of Southwest Virginia, our educated workforce, they say, oh my gosh, we can really bring some business here,” Kilgore said. “So we are going to continue to focus on bringing jobs here, and we have a lot of opportunities in the near future. We are going to keep working.” 

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.