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Karen Duncan: Some Thoughts On the Virginia House of Delegates “Palace Coup” Against Former Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn

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by Karen Duncan

“When you strike at a king you must kill him.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson said it first. Then Omar, on The Wire updated it; “You come at the king, you best not miss.”

Well, yesterday, several Virginia House of Delegates Democrats – led by Del. Don Scott of Portsmouth – went after the “queen,” in this case former Speaker, Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, who was serving as Minority Leader since Democrats lost the majority last November. Del. Scott and his cabal certainly struck the queen. But they also missed. Instead, Del. Scott did not become the new king, because he actually isn’t very skilled at counting votes, an important political leadership skill. So, even though he could get the leader deposed, he couldn’t get himself installed in her place – at least not for now. Nor could he take down the queen’s second in command, Del. Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria). Which leaves a problem for the other members of Del. Scott’s team, specifically Del. Sally L. Hudson (D-Charlottesville). It may even be a problem for Del. Charniele Herring who survived the palace coup. I’ll get to that later.

Meanwhile, after having failed, in a closed-door session, to secure the votes for Minority Leader, Scott left – for now at least – empty handed. So did Hudson, who is now unlikely to replace Herring; and a third member of their team, Del. Dan Helmer (D-Fairfax), who was supposed to be Scott’s vice chair for outreach. Scott had recently stepped down from that position to mount his coup attempt.

As news of Eileen Filler-Corn’s stunning ouster began leaking out, it caused a ferocious blowback from the grassroots and the activist base. Recall that Filler-Corn made history two years ago as the first Jewish woman (the first woman ever, in fact) to be elected as Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates. It was a point of pride for Democratic women and for the Jewish community. More broadly, Filler-Corn was not just popular but beloved among many in the Democratic activist base.

In the end, Del. Scott succeeded in ousting Del. Filler-Corn in a closed-door, secret ballot by a close vote of 25 to 23 (if Filler-Corn had received just one more vote, she wouldn’t have been ousted). The optics of all this look terrible for Democrats, who frequently make fun of Republicans for authoritarianism, lack of respect for democracy, closed doors and secret meetings. Several clichés come to mind here, including  the Washington Post slogan “democracy dies in darkness”; and also the saying, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” The fact is, nothing begs for bright light and disinfectant more than what happened yesterday, which was an “ugly day,” as accurately described by Del. Dawn Adams (D-Richmond), quoted in the Roanoke Times.

Yes, it was ugly. It was ugly because it was secretive. Beyond roiling the base over deposing a popular leader, the manner in which it was done brought disgust to activists who volunteer countless hours to win elections, as well as to small donors who often dole out their hard-earned money in regular increments to help fund campaigns. Those small donors, more than most, are trying to offset big money and lack of transparency. The least they expect of public servants is clarity when they vote on matters important to them.

They didn’t get that yesterday.  Beyond their frustration is the unanswered questions the day brought. Why did it happen?  Nobody involved would give a coherent reason or specific answers to what they would have done differently and what they would do differently (let alone better!) go forwarding. Neither Del. Scott nor anybody else on his team publicly told us what their plan for victory in the future would be. Nor could anybody tell us why they picked this particular moment to push for a major leadership shakeup. After all, back in December – just four months ago – the House Democrats held their caucus leadership vote and elected Filler-Corn as Minority Leader. Why did they wait four months to blindside everybody at the important “veto session” to push to undo that vote?

This palace coup was so swift, in fact, that delegates, even after it succeeded, did not vote Del. Scott into the Minority Leader’s chair. Instead, the Democratic caucus pushed back and demanded more time so others would have a chance to mount their own campaigns to become leader. That screams of inexperience on Scott’s part, and lack of real leadership ability.

When you depose your leader, you ought to make sure you have enough support to achieve your actual goal. Del. Scott didn’t know that he didn’t have enough votes to carry him to victory. That’s not leadership, which requires some ability to count; it’s political incompetence. I mean, could you imagine that most supreme example of leadership, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, ever allowing a vote in that other House where she didn’t know exactly how many votes she had? I can’t either. A successful leader – Minority Leader or Speaker –  always knows that going in.

Not only did Del. Scott not get elected Minority Leader, but his group failed to remove their other target, Del. Charniele Herring, which leaves her challenger, Del. Sally L. Hudson (D-Charlottesville) hanging. But the fact that only Filler-Corn was removed made it look so much more like she was the only real target. That’s a humiliation that her many supporters won’t soon forget. And it, unfortunately, puts Del. Herring in a very awkward position. If this just melts away and there is no further vote – if Del. Herring becomes Minority Leader by default, that throws suspicions on her too – perhaps unfairly, but it does. I would suggest it’s very much to her advantage that this new vote take place quickly and that she not attempt to run for the top leader spot. She should stay where she is, simply so there is no appearance that she benefitted in any way from this. She has too bright a future now to get stained by this clumsily implemented caper that only brought scandal and division.

As it is, the optics of this grew worse as the day progressed yesterday. Because everybody was in the dark, rumors flew.

The first set of suspicions had progressives and establishment activists lobbing accusations at each other, thinking this was an ideological uprising with one side seeking to drive Virginia and the Democratic Party either further left or further to the center. But as people’s posts on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, and comments and replies on both soon showed, neither side wanted Filler-Corn gone. This was not a new salvo in the left versus center wars. Filler-Corn’s support was broad and deep in both groups.

There was even a rumor in Richmond that the environmental organization Clean Virginia was behind the effort, – a rumor quickly quashed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. They pointed out, and I verified, that, in fact, Del. Scott’s biggest donor is Dominion. Whatever my personal disagreements with Clean Virginia’s tactics, I know they are principled. They’d never back somebody who took $124,900 from Dominion Energy. So, we can put that divisive and untrue accusation to bed.

The beauty of social media is the ability it gives ordinary people to verify or debunk rumors with a few clicks of a mousepad. It gets us talking to each other. It can bring public clarity where there was private confusion. It shines a light in darkness.

The truth is, “Democracy Dies in Darkness” is more than a cliché or gimmicky slogan. It’s true. The delegates who staged this “palace coup” are our public servants. We pay taxes to fund their salaries in Richmond. And as donors and volunteers we help fund and fuel their campaigns. They owe us transparency. They owe us clear statements and a coherent plan for how they are going to achieve victory in future races. They owe us a full airing of their grievances and their reasons for doing this. And I’ve got to tell you, right now, it looks more like blind ambition than any commitment to a differing governing philosophy. It also looks like the work of those impatient to move ahead before they’ve learned the ropes and those who don’t have the ability to learn or get ahead honestly.

It also looks like “Dunning-Kruger effect.” That, of course, is where people don’t know what they don’t know, and are less competent than they think they are. Otherwise, this failed “palace coup” wouldn’t now be tearing the party apart right now. How bad is it really?

In today’s Washington Post Metro front page, the story “below the fold” was about Glenn Youngkin’s messy veto session. The story “above the fold” was about the Democrats’ coup. Which is the exact opposite of how you’d want it, if you’re on the Democrats’ team. Instead, Democrats should be united in wanting the conversation to be all about the (many) bad things the incompetent, extremist, vindictive new governor did. Instead, the conversation is now heavily about Del. Filler-Corn’s removal and how the Democrats are “in disarray.” In short, this situation has made Democrats look weak and foolish to voters not united in opposition. That is political malpractice by any measure.

Going forward, I would certainly suggest that the vote for a new leader be held openly and with a transparent process. We should know – in advance, not just a couple days before as in this case – who is running, why, what their plans are, how they plan to achieve them, etc.  And the vote should be open, too. I would recommend this be done sooner rather than later – as soon as possible, given some reasonable time for challengers to Del. Scott to mount their bids. But don’t take too long, because continued uncertainty only weakens and divides us further.

After yesterday’s vote Del. Marcus Simon tried to put a positive spin on the proceedings by saying to Laura Vozzella and Gregory S. Schneider of the WaPo,  “We are a big happy family, and like all kinds of families, sometimes dinner table conversations can get loud.”

Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s true. After this fiasco, we are most definitely *not* a happy family. We are not even an unhappy, dysfunctional family. We are actually an angry activist base that feels betrayed by lack of respect from our leaders and a lack of transparency. Fix this! Fix this fast!

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