The floor leader of Republicans in the House of Delegates hasn’t changed, but Del. Todd Gilbert will preside over a GOP minority when the General Assembly convenes in January.
Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, the current House majority leader, was chosen minority leader by an estimated 42 Republican delegates and delegates-elect who gathered in Richmond on Sunday afternoon to elect their leadership.
They also elected Del. Kathy Byron of Bedford as chairwoman of their caucus and Del. Jay Leftwich of Chesapeake as minority whip.
“The House Republican Caucus still needs to stand for something,” Gilbert said after the Republican meeting at the McGuireWoods law firm and consultancy in downtown Richmond.
“In short order, the voters of Virginia will begin to have buyer’s remorse about some of the things they asked for on Election Day.”
The top job was contested, but Gilbert prevailed in a silent vote over Del. Terry Kilgore, who was among the first to leave the meeting for the six-hour trip to his home in Scott County.
“I just thought we need a different voice to move the party forward,” Kilgore said, roughly 90 minutes after the private caucus meeting began on the 18th floor of the Gateway Building. “We’ll see what happens.”
Political redistricting was a dominant issue in the discussion, according to several participants. Republicans, who have used the decennial redistricting process to cement partisan control of the House for more than 20 years, now are looking to Democrats to live up to past promises of nonpartisan redistricting reform.
“Now is the time we find out whether they were sincere about that or not,” Gilbert said.
House Republicans were moving in the direction of nonpartisan redistricting reform before the election, he contended. “We hope our colleagues meant what they said all those years.”
Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, current chairman of the Privileges and Elections Committee, which presides over redistricting, said of Democrats after the meeting, “We’re going to hold them accountable for everything they do. I think we are a unified caucus coming out of this.”
House Democrats quickly attempted to use Gilbert’s election to highlight his financial backing by the National Rifle Association a day before the assembly is scheduled to return and immediately adjourn a special session that Gov. Ralph Northam called on July 9 to act on proposed restrictions on firearms.
Republican leaders in both chambers adjourned the special session after 90 minutes with a plan to return on Monday to deal with recommendations by the Virginia Crime Commission on gun violence remedies.
The commission completed its work last week without recommendations, but Gilbert already had said the House would not deal with gun legislation in the aftermath of elections that will give Democrats a majority of at least 54 seats in the 100-member chamber.
“Twelve days after Virginians overwhelmingly voted for action on gun violence, House Republicans have made the National Rifle Association’s Virginia point man, Todd Gilbert and his $226,500 of NRA money, their leader,” said Jake Rubenstein, spokesman for the state Democratic Party, in an email statement. “Good to see Republicans are learning from their massive defeats.”
Just over two years ago, Republicans held a two-thirds majority in the House, but voter backlash to the election of Republican Donald Trump as president in 2016 has given Democrats control of both legislative chambers, as well as the congressional delegation and the top three statewide offices.
The tone of the meeting on Sunday was “subdued, it’s fair to say, but resolute,” said Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, currently chairman of the Finance Committee.
Republicans are resigned to losing control of House committees, but they’re still waiting on the House Democratic leadership to make committee assignments and other organizational decisions.
Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, elected by Democrats more than a week ago as the next speaker, has begun to name committee leaders, including Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, as chairwoman of the Finance Committee to succeed Ware.
Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, will become chairman of the Appropriations Committee, succeeding Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk.
Jones was defeated for re-election in a district that had been redrawn under the order of federal judges to better represent minority voting power, especially in Hampton Roads.
“Everything’s going to be different,” acknowledged Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt, a member of Appropriations.
However, Gilbert said Democrats face the challenge of learning to govern after more than two decades in the minority.
“We know how to run the commonwealth efficiently and we know how to run the institution,” he said. “We will see how our colleagues do at either.”