At first glance, Don Scott doesn’t come off as someone who can relate to the oftentimes hard life in rural Virginia. The U.S. Navy veteran, trial attorney and lawmaker from Portsmouth, who was just nominated by the House Democratic caucus as the first Black speaker in the legislature’s 404-year history, is rarely seen without one of his many fitted designer suits and alligator-skin cowboy boots. Pictures of his dark-blue electric 2022 Porsche Taycan 4S have made wide rounds on social media.
But behind the flashy facade is a humble and thoughtful man who says he is proud of his roots in rural Texas, who has done hard time in federal prison and, most recently, who has formed an unusual friendship with Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County.
“I’m country as hell,” Scott said, smiling, during a recent interview at his House minority leader office on the 14th floor of the new General Assembly Building in Richmond. His desk is bare, the bookshelf behind him is empty, and his belongings are packed up in numerous boxes scattered around the room, ready to be moved to his new, much bigger office down the hall.
As the designated 58th speaker of the House of Delegates, Scott is aware that many voters in the western part of the state are skeptical, even concerned about what his party’s recently regained control of the General Assembly will mean for their livelihoods.
But Scott, 58, vows that he will always take seriously and listen to the people in Southwest Virginia and Southside — including those who’d never vote for him.
“Southwest Virginia, Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, Southside and Central Virginia all benefit from the commonwealth. The rising tide is what lifts up the boats, right?” Scott said. “We are the commonwealth of Virginia. We’ve got to get rid of this parochialism and this animosity of one against another. I want to be just as focused on Southwest Virginia’s success as I am on Northern Virginia’s success, because at the end of the day, you have to be able to empathize with everybody.”
Hackworth, one of the most conservative senators in the legislature, who has tried to ban abortion altogether in Virginia, believes that Scott’s interest in the Southwest is genuine.
“When we first connected, I told him that I’m a businessman, and Don is a businessman, and that was the first point we connected on,” Hackworth said in a phone interview. “Whether you’re an attorney or a small-business owner, you have to run things, you have employees to take care of, and there’s still a lot of common ground where we connected. And he said, ‘Travis, I like you, I’d like to get to know you better.’”
Just recently, Hackworth invited Scott and his wife, Dr. Mellanda Colson Scott, a dentist in Norfolk, and their daughter to spend a long weekend with him and his wife, Angel, and their daughter. Scott accepted, and on the third weekend in December both families plan to tour the Pocahontas Exhibition Coal Mine & Museum in Tazewell County, hike the trails in the far Southwest, visit a finished stretch of the Coalfield Expressway and, they hope, see a few of the Rocky Mountain elk that were relocated into Buchanan County from southeast Kentucky.
“I want to show him what tourism has done to transform Southwest Virginia,” Hackworth said.
Naturally, the new friendship between the two lawmakers is also driven by mutual economic interests. Hackworth is hoping for more government funding for the 5th Senate District, which he represents, and other parts of the Southwest.
“We’ve done well with the limited resources that we have, but being able to have Don come down as the new speaker of the House is a unique opportunity,” Hackworth said. “We’re not asking for a handout, we’re asking for a hand up, just help us. The dollar value in Southwest Virginia is really good because we know how to stretch a dollar.”
There are plenty of nonpartisan issues for Republicans and Democrats to come together on, Hackworth added.
“We are miles apart on maybe some social issues, but other kitchen-table issues, those are definitely things that I think we can connect on, like cleaning up waste coal in Southwest Virginia and making it a better place for drinking water and the environment, education, housing, which we desperately need, and workforce development. All that is nonpartisan,” Hackworth said. “I think that these are the areas where I want to connect with Don. That’s the reason I asked him to come down, he accepted, and we are really happy to be able to do that.”
Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, said that Scott’s background and willingness to connect with Republican legislators from Southwest is unusual for a Democrat, but it could benefit both sides.
“Given the fact that the Southwest Virginia delegation is almost entirely Republican, the political influence of the region is greatest when there is a Republican majority. And because Democrats tend to do poorly in the region, a number of Democrats might not be interested in focusing on the region’s concerns,” Farnsworth said.
“But the incoming speaker’s background suggests more familiarity with the concerns of rural areas and an expressed willingness to reach out to the region, even if it doesn’t elect members who are Democrats.”
While Scott is proud of his country roots — he grew up in Jasper, a town of 7,000 in Deep East Texas about 40 miles west of the Louisiana state line — he said he feels comfortable moving in all population settings.
“I also spent a lot of time growing up in Houston, which means I know both rural and urban well,” he said in the interview. Upon graduating high school, he went to Texas A&M University, majoring in agriculture.
Following his undergraduate education, Scott served as a Naval officer until 1991, when he received an honorable discharge. He went on to obtain a law degree from Louisiana State University Law School, but shortly after his graduation in 1994, he was arrested by federal agents on a single charge of conspiracy to possess, related to a crack cocaine distribution ring.
Despite pleading no contest as a first offender, Scott was sentenced to 10 years in a federal prison, of which he served seven and a half.
More than 22 years after his release, Scott looks back at his time behind bars as a life lesson that has taught him important traits, such as empathy and relatability.
“I think there are some people who, when some adversity hits, they fold up,” he said. “I’ve been blessed to be able to overcome adversity, which gives me a different insight into what folks are going through and what they might need, to be able to empathize. I’m grateful to be in the role that I am, and I am also grateful for all my experiences, and for my mistakes and scars, because you learn from scars and then you can move on.”
Scott said he was among thousands of nonviolent felons who had their civil rights restored under former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, which eventually allowed him to run for public office. Scott added that he was “really disappointed” in Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who all but ended the restoration programs of his three predecessors — including McDonnell — that automatically restored the rights of at least some people convicted of felonies who have served their terms.
People with felony convictions seeking to have their rights to vote, run for office and serve on a jury restored are now required to file an application given to them once they are released, but critics have called this process arbitrary and less transparent, pointing out that several thousand Virginians have been removed from the voting rolls without explanation.
“I think he says one thing and does something else,” Scott said of Youngkin. “When he claims what his values are, he doesn’t make decisions in line with those values. So I’m always concerned when I see that type of hypocrisy.”
Scott said that under his leadership House Democrats will “look into how all of those people were disenfranchised. We don’t know where those people were, where those votes were, which districts they were in, but we are going to get to the bottom of that.”
While it isn’t known if Youngkin’s new policy has impacted last week’s election one way or another, Scott said that those affected deserve better either way.
“These people’s rights were restored by another governor, and then this governor comes along and takes them away,” Scott said. “They don’t know if they can get them back, they don’t know if a mistake was made. Even if they were notified, they don’t know what this means. Sometimes folks don’t know.”
Youngkin, Scott added, may not really understand the impact it can have on someone when they lose their civil rights.
“But I know what that means,” he added. “And I think when you do that and you play with people’s lives like that, you probably need to have some self-reflection on who you are and what you are doing, because that’s just wrong.”
However, Scott signaled that he does not want to see his life reduced to the image of the former felon-turned-politician who understands the system because he has lived it.
“I also want to talk about the fact that I’m a trial attorney, that I have a great marriage, a great family,” he said. “I’ve been vetted by my voters now three times in my district, I’ve been vetted by my caucus, I’ve been in leadership twice now. I think I’ve been blessed, and I am grateful to be in this position, because I don’t think you earn this kind of stuff. I think it’s only by God’s grace that I get to be in these kinds of roles.”
Scott was first elected in 2019 to represent what then was the 80th House of Delegates District, which includes Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Suffolk. He ran unopposed in the primaries and defeated James Evans, the Republican nominee, and independent candidate Ryan Benton with 66% of the vote.
Two years later, Scott won his second term in the House, topping Republican Deanna Stanton, again with 66% of the vote. Because Democrats lost their majority in the House during that election, Scott in April 2022 led a revolt to oust Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, the former speaker, from her leadership role.
A little over two months later, House Democrats elected Scott as their new minority leader, after fending off challenges from Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, and Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, who also competed for the leadership spot.
Just days after Democrats regained the House majority last week, Scott’s caucus nominated him for the chamber’s top job on Sunday. Within just four years, his rapid ascent to speakership was complete.
But Scott denies that it was impatience that put him on a fast track to the third highest office in Virginia. “I would not say that I’m in a hurry, I’m 58 years old, man, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, laughing.
“Look, I’m not impatient, I don’t know the plans of God the almighty,” Scott said. “I’ve been in a position where I have stayed true to my faith and my purpose, and true to my vision, and I have been propelled by, I believe, just trying to stay in that will and at the same try to serve as many people as I can to do the most good.”
Despite his short time in the legislature, Scott said that he isn’t worried that he may not have the experience and the skill set needed for his future role.
“I think I’ve demonstrated that I’m a pretty quick learner, I think that’s what it takes here,” he said. “I’m well read, I love reading the rules, I love knowing what’s happening. I think I’m prepared. But don’t get it confused, I know that I have much, much more to learn, I know that there are things that I don’t know that I don’t know yet, so I’m going to be a sponge to try to continue to learn as much as I have and to continue to be an asset to the commonwealth of Virginia.”
After Scott was nominated Sunday, outgoing Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah County, turned to X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, to assure his successor his full support.
“I want to congratulate Don Scott on being chosen by his caucus to make history as the next speaker of the House,” Gilbert wrote. “Serving as speaker has been the greatest honor of my lifetime, and I will work with the incoming speaker to ensure a seamless transition of the institution.”
Scott said in the interview that he is well aware of the historical significance of being the first Black American among Virginia’s 58 speakers of the House.
“I am grateful for this role, I know there were people who came before me who were Black and who probably were more talented and gifted than I am, probably greater orators, who never had this opportunity because of their skin color,” he said. “I know that I stand on the shoulders of giants and that my ancestors, who probably were here, had their humanity discounted during the time that this Capitol was being built. I think that I will always carry that with me.”
But at the end of the day, Scott said, Virginians want leaders who are “competent and empathetic, who have been going through some adversity in life, and I have. And that’s why I am grateful to be the first Black speaker, but I’m also grateful to be the speaker who just happens to be Black, and I think that’s a big difference.”
Despite Scott’s historical moment, he is aware that despite their gains in the legislature, Democrats still face working with a Republican governor who will likely scrutinize every piece of legislation they will send him.
Talking to reporters at Richmond’s Capitol Square on the day after the election, Youngkin said that the close election has shown that Virginians want both parties to work together.
“Virginia has historically moved back and forth from control of one party in the legislature to the other, the governor’s races with very thin margins, and we saw that on display again last night,” Youngkin said. “And I think what that reflects is the fact that we are a state that is very comfortable working together, across party lines, in order to get things done. That’s exactly what we have done over the course of the last two years, where we have worked with a legislature that has had a divided government, and we are going to continue to do this.”
While Scott agrees that last week’s Democratic victory doesn’t equate a mandate, he added that a lot of races that candidates from his party lost were very close. “I think this shows us that’s where most voters are, they want us to work together to get some things done, but they also want their freedoms that they rely on to be protected,” he said.
“I think that voters told us that they don’t like the government in our bedrooms, that they want people who are responsible gun owners and they want to continue to protect them,” Scott said. “Voters also told us that they want an economy that works for everybody. The fact that the governor would propose a billion-dollar tax cut in this environment for corporations while we still have schools that aren’t fully funded is a misplaced priority.”
Still, there are areas where Democrats and Republicans are likely to find common ground, Scott said.
“I think we can work together on things around education, around mental health, around stemming the tide of opioid addiction, around making sure that we have gun violence prevention and safety-focused, responsible gun owners,” he said. “I think those are the things that we can agree on with the governor, and we look forward to working with him on those things.”
The Republican defeat, Scott said, is Youngkin’s opportunity for “a reset and refocus” on Virginia.
“I think he had some other goals maybe, but now he gets the opportunity to really be a governor for everybody, as I view myself. I’m not the speaker for the Democrats or the Republicans, I am the speaker of the people’s House, and I take that responsibility very seriously, and I want to make sure I’m fair to everyone at all times, no matter what political party you serve in.”
Stepping into his new role, Scott vows to share his blessings with everyone in Virginia. “I think this country has been great to me, the commonwealth of Virginia has been great to me and my family, so the vision that I have for my own family, I want that for every family.”
And despite his personal setbacks and adversities in the past, Scott is determined to look forward. “I think persistence and resilience pays off in the end, and as Dr. King said, ‘It is best that the arch of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice, and I think we continue to bend a little closer to justice.’”