Don Scott to become Virginia’s first Black House speaker as Hampton Roads’ legislators take center stage

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Two legislators from Portsmouth are poised to step into powerful positions when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

That’s good news for Hampton Roads, said Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and international affairs at the University of Mary Washington.

“When you have in your local delegation people in leadership, that can be very helpful,” he said. “You can see policies shaped in ways that advantage the region.”

On Tuesday’s Election Day, Democrats held the Senate and flipped the House of Delegates. House Minority Leader Don Scott is slated to be the next Speaker of the House. Scott, an attorney and veteran, will be the chamber’s first Black speaker.

“I cannot express enough how humbled I am to be named the next Speaker of the House by my colleagues,” Scott said in a Saturday statement. “It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve as the House Democratic Leader and I look forward to bringing that passion to the Speaker’s office.”

Jesse Richman, associate professor of political science and international studies at Old Dominion University, said the speaker can wield considerable influence and power.

“There are significant powers of the office in terms of helping to shape how the chamber operates and what it prioritizes,” he said. “Then there’s the informal powers of the office, which are about the ability of a given leader to effectively coordinate the actions of members of their party and the broader chamber.”

A wave of retirements by longtime legislators this year also opened up opportunity.

Sen. Louise Lucas, first elected in 1992, is slated to lead one of the statehouse’s most powerful panels.

After winning reelection Tuesday, she became the most senior member of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee. Lucas, a Democrat, issued a statement over social media thanking her supporters.

“I am so excited to have been re-elected to a ninth term in the Senate of Virginia and with our now clinched Democratic Majority to be the next Chairman of Senate Finance and Appropriations!!!,” she wrote.

Lucas previously told The Virginian-Pilot she was looking forward to her new role as chair.

“I think a lot of people (in Hampton Roads) will be happy because they’ll feel that I’m looking out for their interest,” she said.

Legislators from Northern Virginia have headed the Senate finance committee for decades, Lucas explained. She said this gave their region an advantage during budget negotiations, which are spearheaded by the committee and its counterpart in the House. Another Hampton Roads delegate, Virginia Beach Republican Barry Knight, holds a top seat there.

The much coveted Senate position even caused an intra-party squabble last summer, with Lucas accusing several Democratic legislators from Northern Virginia of supporting her opponent in the primaries to undermine her campaign and prevent a Hampton Roads lawmaker from taking the chair. The legislators denied her allegations.

“It’s time for Hampton Roads to shine,” Lucas said. “This is bigger than me.”

While legislative leaders still have to consider every region’s needs, Farnsworth said its true leaders can highlight the needs of their constituents.

“There’s an old saying in politics, that if you are not at the table, you are not going to be fed,” he said. “The reality of what looks to be a very Hampton Roads-focused leadership will mean increased attention for the region’s priorities.”

In his statement, Scott said voters sent a clear message on Election Day that they wanted a state “that moved forward.”

“That is exactly what I intend to do as your next Speaker,” Scott said.

But while Scott and Lucas will have significant roles, Farnsworth added that all Democrats will be reined in by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

“It’s still important for Democratic majorities to recognize that they have to come up with things that are palatable for the governor,” he said. “We are talking about an environment of divided government where compromise may be difficult.”

After the GOP failed to gain control of the statehouse, Youngkin emphasized the need for both sides to find common ground to see through any legislative priorities next year.

“We’re going to have to find a way to get things done. I’m optimistic that we can, but the key thing is that we have to both be committed to doing that,” he said during a news conference Wednesday.

But Farnsworth noted that Lucas and Youngkin have often “locked horns” over the past two years.

“One might expect continued discord going forward,” he said.

Lucas often mocks the governor on social media, where she’s amassed more than 90,000 followers on X, the platform previously known as Twitter. Shortly after Democrats took back the General Assembly, she was at it again, posting a series of memes reveling in the party’s win. One showed her and Youngkin’s faces imposed on characters from the cartoon strip “Peanuts” and the words “I told you so, you blockhead” scrolled across it.

Richman agreed it will be challenging for Democrats moving forward.

“Not only is there a Republican governor but it looks like these are the narrowest of possible majorities,” he said. “A lot will depend on the skills of leaders as they negotiate and nature of the deals that are worked out. Hopefully for the good of the commonwealth we will see bipartisan collaboration.”

Katie King,