Jade Harris and Trish White-Boyd both want to be something that we’ve never had west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Multiple somethings, even.
We’ve never had a woman as a state senator.
We’ve never had a Black senator.
And we’ve certainly never had a Black woman as a state senator.
If either Harris or White-Boyd were to win this November, that’s the double first they’d record.
The odds are not in Harris’ favor. The former Glasgow vice mayor is a Democrat running in a district that generally votes about 68% Republican. (She faces Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County.)
White-Boyd is in a better position to make history. The Roanoke City Council member is running against state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, in a district that historically has voted about 55% Republican. The Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit nonpartisan site that tracks money and other numbers in Virginia politics, ranks that seat as just out of its official competitive range. VPAP lists four Senate seats it considers competitive: District 17 in eastern Southside, District 24 on the Peninsula, District 27 in the Fredericksburg area, District 31 in Loudoun and Fauquier. (See VPAP’s chart for details on those.) Senate District 4 in the Roanoke Valley is rated as the most competitive district in the “leaning Republican” category.
I’ll come back later in this column to look more closely at this contest, but first let’s sketch out the history.
Once women won the right to vote in 1920, Southwest Virginia led the way in electing women to the General Assembly. The first two women elected — in 1923 — were Helen Henderson of Buchanan County and Sarah Fain of Norfolk. After them came Sallie Cook Booker of Martinsville in 1925 and Nancy Melvina “Vinnie” Caldwell of Galax and Henderson’s daughter, Helen Ruth Henderson, in 1927. For a few years, Southwest Virginia was more likely to elect women to the General Assembly than any other part of the state. Four of the first five women to serve in the legislature were from this part of the state. After that came a long dry spell — through most of the ’30s and all of the ’40s the legislature returned to being all-male. (I’m indebted to the wonderful book “The Campaign for Woman Suffrage in Virginia” by Brent Tarter, Marianne Julienne and Barbara Batson for all this research.)
We’ve had a few women elected since then from the western part of the state — in 1957, Charlotte “Pinkie” Giesen of Radford became the first Republican woman elected to the General Assembly, and my memory remembers Anne Crockett-Stark of Wythe County, Joan Munford of Montgomery County, Barbara Stafford of Giles County, Mary Sue Terry of Patrick County (who later became the state’s first woman elected to statewide office when she became attorney general in 1985) and Joan Jones and Shannon Valentine of Lynchburg. (If I’ve forgotten any from this part of Virginia, please let me know and I’ll update this.)
Nowadays, though, it’s far more common to see women elected from other parts of the state than it is anywhere in Southwest and Southside. The House currently has three female members from the western part of the state: Kathy Byron, R-Bedford County; Ellen Campbell, R-Rockbridge County; and Marie March, R-Floyd County. Two of those won’t be back — Byron is retiring and March lost her primary bid. It’s entirely possible that come January the entire delegation west of Campbell’s district will be all-male.
The region’s delegation could become less diverse at a time when the rest of the General Assembly — and the state at large — is becoming more so. On the other hand, the two most competitive districts west of Charlottesville involve women. In House District 41 in Montgomery and Roanoke counties, Democrat Lily Franklin faces Republican Chris Obenshain. And in Senate District 4, which covers most of the Roanoke Valley and part of Montgomery County, White-Boyd is running against Suetterlein.
No matter which party wins in November, the General Assembly that convenes in January will be our most diverse ever. A record number of women are running for the state Senate; although the numbers for the House are down slightly, it is still the third highest number ever. (VPAP has compiled all that information in this helpful chart.)
Meanwhile, Virginia also has a record number of Black candidates running. “With 13 Black candidates unopposed and another nine expected to prevail in districts that are rated as being favorable to them, the House is virtually assured of having a record 23 Black members, up from the previous peak of 18 in 2022,” the Richmond Free Press reports. “In the 40 Senate districts, there are 12 Black candidates running for seats, with at least six assured of winning either because they are unopposed or face opponents with less funding and name recognition.”
We’ve never had a female senator from west of the Blue Ridge. The westernmost woman in the Senate was Emily Couric of Charlottesville, who served from 1996 until her untimely death in 2001. Since the late 1800s — when there was a brief window of more progressive voting that got slammed shut by Jim Crow — there’s never been a Black state senator from west of Richmond and only one Black legislator in either chamber with a western address. Onzlee Ware of Roanoke served in the House from 2003 to 2013 (he’s now a judge). We haven’t exactly been all-white — Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, is of Palestinian heritage. Still, the fact remains: Every Black senator in Virginia in modern times has been from the eastern part of the state, not the western.
Women running for General Assembly seats in Southwest and Southside
Seven women are seeking House seats in Southwest and Southside:
- Del. Ellen Campbell, R- Rockbridge County, is running for a second term against Democrat Randall Wolf.
- Stephanie Clark is the Democratic candidate challenging Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County.
- Democrat Lily Franklin of Blacksburg is running against Republican Chris Obenshain for an open seat.
- Democrat Misty Vickers is challenging Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County.
- Democrat Patty Quesenberry is challenging Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County.
- Democrat Kimberly Moran is running against Republican Eric Zehr and Del. Matt Farris, R-Campbell County, who is seeking reelection as an independent.
- Democrat Jennifer Woofter is challenging Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg.
In the Senate, these women are seeking Senate seats in this part of the state:
- Democrat Trudy Berry, who didn’t make the ballot because a party official sent her paperwork to the wrong address, is running a write-in campaign against state Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg County.
- Democrat Renie Gates is challenging state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County.
- Democrat Jade Harris is running against Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, for an open seat.
- Democrat Donna StClair is challenging state Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg.
- Democrat Trish White-Boyd is running against state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County.
If Stephanie Clark of Covington, the Democratic candidate who is challenging Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County, should win — and that district is also quite Republican — she’d become the second Black legislator from west of the Blue Ridge, and the first Black woman elected to Richmond from this part of the state. If White-Boyd were to win, she’d make history in a slightly different way: The first woman from west of the Blue Ridge to be a state senator and the first Black state senator from west of the Blue Ridge.
Why did Southwest Virginia lead the way in electing women to the General Assembly and then elect so few in more modern times? That’s hard to explain. It’s easy to attribute that to the innate conservatism of the region, except there were certainly conservative women in the legislature from other places and the three we have in office now (Byron, Campbell, March) are all conservative. It’s not that we’ve had a lot of women run for the legislature and lose; we’ve had relatively few run, period. Are women in rural areas less likely to run than women in non-rural areas? That would make a fascinating study for somebody.
The lack of racial diversity in our General Assembly delegation is much easier to explain. Just one word will do in Southwest Virginia: Demographics. We have two counties west of the Blue Ridge where the Black population is under 1% (Craig and Dickenson). Virginia has 29 localities where the Black population is 5% or less; all but three of those are in the western part of the state. I’m sure some would also cite racism, but I’d point out this: Southwest Virginia in 2021 voted overwhelmingly for a Black woman for lieutenant governor, Republican Winsome Earle-Sears. Before the coal counties realigned from Democratic to Republican, they were considered a base of support for Democrat Doug Wilder, Virginia’s first (and so far only) Black governor. Southwest Virginia hasn’t been reluctant to vote for Black candidates, it just hasn’t had any of its own.
Southside is more complicated. The first woman ever elected to the state Senate came from Southside — Republican Eva Scott from Amelia County was elected in 1979 after serving eight years in the House. She was also known from her staunch opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and often said she was “conservative first, Republican second.”
Although Southside localities have large Black populations, the region has never elected a Black legislator in modern times. Danville and Martinsville are almost 50-50 Black and white. During the last redistricting, there was some talk of trying to unite those cities in a single House district that, with connecting territory, wouldn’t be a Black majority district but would be close. That didn’t happen, though, and the significant Black populations in Southside localities are outnumbered in legislative districts by white voters. It’s not until you could get farther east that mapmakers could draw Black majority or near-majority districts.
History, though, has shown that Black candidates don’t always need Black majority or near-majority districts to get elected. I haven’t been able to find the demographics of the district Ware represented but it covered much of Roanoke (which at the time was less than 30% Black) and part of Roanoke County (which at the time was about 3% Black). Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria and the House Democratic Caucus chair, represents a district that’s only 24.3% Black. If you look back through previous elections, you’ll find Black statewide candidates who have won some of the whitest counties in the state. Wilder took 59% of the vote in Buchanan County and 62% in Dickenson County in the 1989 governor’s race. Those were Democratic bastions then, now they’re Republican ones, which is how Earle-Sears took 84.5% in Buchanan County and 80% in Dickenson County in her 2021 lieutenant governor’s race. Sears ran better in the whitest parts of the state than the ones with the biggest Black populations. In Petersburg, which is 77% Black, she took just 14% of the vote.
Harris is running in a Senate district that’s just 6.2% Black and 86% white. Only four other Senate districts in the state have a higher white population and a lower Black population, according to the report that the court-appointed mapmaker who drew the lines filed with the Virginia Supreme Court. (Two of those other four districts are in the Shenandoah Valley, two in Southwest Virginia.) Her challenge may not be the district’s racial composition but its political composition. The mapmaker report filed with the Supreme Court says that district is the fifth-most Republican in the state, based on previous elections.
White-Boyd is running in a Senate district that’s 15.3% Black and 72.1% white. However, the overall political makeup here is much closer. Whether it’s close enough for a Democrat, white or Black, male or female, to win in November, we’ll find out.
The prospect of history may not be a reason to vote for (or against) someone, but this is the history nonetheless.