The Woman Who Drove Old Dixie Down

Eileen Filler-Corn, Virginia’s first female—and first Jewish—Speaker of the House of Delegates, is playing a key role in dismantling the state’s Confederate legacy, statue by statute.
September, 22 2020
Eileen Filler-Corn, Virginia’s first female—and first Jewish—Speaker of the House of Delegates

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Late one night in July, workers entered Virginia’s old House of Delegates chamber in Richmond. Armed with power tools, they removed a life-size bronze statue of Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army, and busts of several other prominent Secessionists, including Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Once unanchored, the sculptures were bubble-wrapped and carted away to storage. To prevent counterprotests, the removal was not announced until the next day.

In Virginia, the epicenter of the Confederacy, if not its cradle, the removal of these sculptures truly marked “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”—a milestone along the historical journey that began with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox 92 miles away. Since the 1930s, Lee’s statue had stood on the exact spot where, in 1861, he accepted command of the state’s Secessionist army. The chamber is nestled in Virginia’s historic State Capitol, designed by Thomas Jefferson in 1785. It was where Virginia legislators cemented ratification of the Bill of Rights and where Virginia’s Secession Convention took place in 1861. The building itself served as the Capitol of the Confederacy until Richmond fell to Union forces in the spring of 1865.

The person who orchestrated the sweep of Confederate icons will go down in Virginia history as an embodiment of a deeply changed state and nation. Eileen Filler-Corn is the 401-year-old body’s first female and first Jewish Speaker of the House of Delegates. She is also the first Democrat in 20 years to serve in the role. The 56-year-old was selected by her colleagues when Democrats came to power in the House in November 2019, after a 20-year absence.

“Now is the time to provide context to our Capitol to truly tell the Commonwealth’s whole history.”

Over the course of a decade in the House of Delegates, Filler-Corn has forged a reputation as a consensus-builder, a legislator willing to reach across the aisle to find common ground. “That’s who I am,” she says. “That’s my personality.” But in politics, the balancing act between consensus-building and the power play is more of an art than a science. Political observers say Filler-Corn has proven herself adroit at both. “When you project ‘nice’ and calmly explain things, that helps,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “But inside she’s all steel.” Both the consensus-building and the steel were on display when Filler-Corn spoke afterward about the removal of the statues and busts from the old House chamber.

For her, it was a long overdue about-face from Virginia’s slave-holding and segregationist past. “Virginia has a story to tell that extends far beyond glorifying the Confederacy and its participants,” she said at the time. “The Confederacy’s primary objective in the Civil War was to preserve an ideology that maintained the enslavement of human beings. Now is the time to provide context to our Capitol to truly tell the Commonwealth’s whole history.’’

Filler-Corn represents Springfield, 12 miles south of Washington, DC down Interstate 95 and known for its “mixing bowl” tangle of elevated highway ramps. Founded as a saw-and-grist mill in the late 18th century, the town got its first boost in 1847 when the Orange and Alexandria Railroad placed a station there. Beyond a few nearby Civil War battles, it remained quiet and rural, until the post-World War II era real estate developers recognized its bedroom-community potential. For a time, Springfield bridged the gap between modern-day suburbia and loyalty to its Confederate past. But a surge of young professionals settling in Northern Virginia, attracted to modern apartments and condos and well-appointed single-family homes, has transformed the area. Much like other Washington suburbs, Springfield has become a beacon to immigrants, with its ethnic diversity reflected in its culinary diversity. In addition to the usual burgers and barbecue, family-owned restaurants serve up bulgogi, lomo saltado, momos, pupusas and more.

Like so many other young couples, Filler-Corn and her husband, Bob, settled in Springfield for the good schools and a healthy environment for raising children. She wasn’t born in Virginia—something her detractors like to point out—but in New York, and then raised in Princeton Junction, New Jersey. Her father was a physician, her mother a teacher. She had a Jewish upbringing: Her family celebrated Jewish holidays and she attended Hebrew school at a local synagogue. Judaism, she says, “is a big deal for me.” The concept of tikkun olam “motivates me,” she explains. “It’s one of the reasons I ran for office. I literally wanted to repair the world.” After high school, Filler-Corn went to Israel with the Hadassah-sponsored Young Judaea movement.

A bronze statue of Robert E. Lee (above) stood in the old House of Delegates chamber in the Virginia State Capitol (above right) until it was removed in July

A bronze statue of Robert E. Lee (above) stood in the old House of Delegates chamber in the Virginia State Capitol (above right) until it was removed in July. (Photo credit: Architect of the capitol, Wikimedia)

She attended Ithaca College and after graduating in 1986 worked for a losing Democratic congressional campaign in New Jersey. Undeterred, she moved to Washington, DC anyway and jumped on a merry-go-round of jobs on Capitol Hill and at the Democratic National Committee. She then went on to law school at American University, from which she graduated in 1993. She met Bob Corn on the Democratic political circuit in DC, and they married in 1989. Corn runs a business that helps Democratic progressive candidates navigate the nuts and bolts of voter contact and turnout.

Filler-Corn’s sense of suburban serenity was jolted in 1996 when a man crept up behind her in the parking lot of a shopping mall in Springfield and demanded her car keys. “I remember my heart pounding and the pit in my stomach growing as I frantically wondered whether he had a gun and how my story would end,” she wrote in an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Her six-month-old, Alana, was already in her stroller, but Filler-Corn desperately worked to remove two-and-a-half-year-old Jeremy from the family Jeep Grand Cherokee. She thought the assailant had a gun, but could not be sure. Filler-Corn extracted Jeremy just before the carjacker drove off, narrowly missing the stroller. “It was brutal,” she says.“The only thing that mattered was that the kids were fine.” Authorities later found the vehicle in Cincinnati as part of a drug bust, but the carjacker was never caught.

The horror eventually turned to motivation, and Filler-Corn became an advocate for gun violence prevention. She was Northern Virginia’s chief organizer for the Million Mom March on Mother’s Day 2000. Her organizing ability drew attention, and soon after now-U.S. Senator Mark Warner was elected governor of Virginia in 2002, he hired Filler-Corn to run his Washington, DC office. She stayed on for the four-year term of Governor Tim Kaine, who is now Virginia’s second Democratic senator, in addition to having been Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate.

Filler-Corn had never considered running for office herself, and like many young potential candidates, had to be cajoled. “I always thought the way to effect change was to work for someone who is a public official; I hadn’t thought I would do it myself,” she says. But Warner, Kaine and other leading Democrats encouraged her. “Eventually I said to myself, ‘You know what? I can do this!’”

She first ran for the House of Delegates in 1999 and lost. But 11 years later, she won a special election. At first, she focused on traffic jams—one of the region’s major issues—and then on securing two new stations in her district for the commuter rail line to Washington. With Democrats in the minority in the House, her heavy-lift agenda—guns, in particular was on indefinite hold. Collegiality and attention to bread-and-butter issues helped Filler-Corn win re-election and, in January 2019, the post of House of Delegates minority leader. So, when Democrats won control of the House that November, Filler-Corn was the logical choice for Speaker.

Eileen Filler-Corn, Virginia’s first female—and first Jewish—Speaker of the House of Delegates

Photo credit: Bob Brown, AP

She was just one example of growing diversity in Virginia’s once very white male House of Delegates. Virginia voters also elected the offspring of Indian and Palestinian immigrants and a Democrat whose father had emigrated from Israel. “The firsts are not lost on me—the first woman and the first Jewish person elected Speaker-designee in our 400-year legislative history—but it doesn’t define me,” Filler-Corn said when she was elected. “When I joined this body less than ten years ago, I was the only mom serving with school-aged kids. We have come so far since then.”
In her speech the day she became Speaker, Filler-Corn wasn’t bashful about marking the change in direction. “A new torch is being passed today,” she said, evoking John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech in 1961. “One that ushers in a modern era, representing all Virginians, learning from our shared experiences and moving forward in our collective prosperity.”

Like its Southern neighbors, Virginia’s government was dominated by segregationist Democrats from the end of Reconstruction to the 1960s. The South’s swing to the GOP started when Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, himself a third-party “Dixiecrat” candidate for the presidency in 1948, bolted from the Democratic Party for good. He supported Barry Goldwater, the conservative Republican presidential nominee of 1964, who as a senator from Arizona had voted against the landmark Civil Rights Bill that passed that year. Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson in a landslide but swept the Deep South states: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

Democratic power in Richmond didn’t entirely crumble. But between 1970 and 2018, Republicans split control of the governor’s mansion with Democrats. And Republicans have controlled both legislative chambers for the past 20 years, with the exception of 2008-2012 and 2014, when the state Senate was in Democratic hands. Republican control, however, couldn’t halt the forces that were decades in the making, ultimately flipping the balance in 2018.

An energized minority vote and moderate-to-liberal suburbanites helped turn several of the state’s long-Republican-dominated districts Democratic.

“Even if the state’s outer periphery is blue, its molten core remains purple. Democrats always have to worry.”

Ground Zero in Virginia’s Democratic upheaval is Northern Virginia, across the Potomac from Washington, DC. Once the domain of Pentagon military personnel and civilian employees, as well as government contractors, Northern Virginia is now filled with liberal-progressive young people who, like Filler-Corn, started out as Washington worker bees and fanned outward into the suburbs after marriage. The growth there has been phenomenal. Since 2010, Virginia’s population has grown 6.7 percent, with Northern Virginia accounting for nearly two-thirds of that growth.

The changing political map of Northern Virginia from 2015 (left) to 2019 (right). (Photo credit: Wikimedia, Nytimes)

By contrast, rural Virginia grew 1.3 percent, with population losses along the state’s southern border with North Carolina stretching to the Appalachian Mountains. Virginia overall has become more diverse; its population is 20 percent African-American, 10 percent Hispanic, and 7 percent Asian-American.

Filler-Corn’s 41st District is the Ground Zero within Ground Zero. The influx of college-educated homeowners into Springfield and environs, many from out of state, is an ingredient in the state’s changing political dynamic. Jews are a major part of that new critical mass. Of course, Jews have been in Virginia for centuries. David Isaacs, a Charlottesville merchant, sold Thomas Jefferson the twine he used to plot out the first University of Virginia building, according to Phyllis Leffler, president of the Southern Jewish Historical Society and a retired University of Virginia professor. “He even sold Jefferson a horse named Tecumseh,” she says.

The surge of Jews into Northern Virginia has not been the only force tipping the scales in a Democratic direction, but it is clearly a contributing factor. The region’s Jewish population more than doubled between 1980 and 2018—its 121,400 Jews representing a whopping 81 percent of the entire state’s Jewish population. The Jewish vote, of course, is not uniformly liberal and Democratic. But in a time of increasing disenchantment with President Donald Trump and the Republican Party’s inability to field more moderate candidates, Virginia’s suburban voters, Jewish and otherwise, are trending Democratic. Suburban votes put Hillary Clinton over the top in Virginia in 2016, a year in which other “purple” states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin gave Trump enough support to win the White House.

Elliott Fullmer, a political scientist at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, compares Virginia to Colorado—another state that is trending Democratic as growth in suburbs and college towns gradually outstrips the GOP’s traditional rural power base.

“The Democrats have shown themselves to be good at pragmatism,” says Fullmer, explaining they have occupied the political center by default as Republicans crab-walk farther and farther to the right. Fullmer believes Virginia Republicans hurt themselves by fielding hard-line conservative Ken Cuccinelli to run for governor in 2013. (Cuccinelli now spearheads Trump’s anti-immigrant policies at the Department of Homeland Security.)

The year following the failed Cuccinelli run, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost the GOP primary for his exurban-Richmond seat to hard-right neophyte and economics professor David Brat.

Cantor had risen to power as one of the “Young Guns” Republicans like former House Speaker Paul Ryan, who represented the new conservative wave. But Brat attacked Cantor as an “establishment” conservative and went to Washington for two terms before he lost to a Democrat with suburban-voter appeal, former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger. Cantor, still Virginia’s most prominent Jewish Republican political figure, said in an interview that Republicans have yet to adapt to the changing political landscape. “My party has not been able to step up and speak to the suburban voter in Virginia,” he says. Republicans’ failure to communicate their message to suburbanites is “bigger than Donald Trump.”

Meanwhile, under Democratic control, Virginia’s House of Delegates and Senate have passed bills that top the party’s agenda nationwide: a minimum wage hike, new protections for the LBGTQ community, decriminalizing simple marijuana possession, and removing regulations aimed at deterring abortion providers. The state made national headlines when legislators also approved the long-sought Equal Rights Amendment, abolished the Republican-favored voter ID requirement, and eased rules on voter registration and absentee balloting.

On the gun-violence-prevention front, Virginia followed the lead of New York and Connecticut in approving laws that limit handgun purchases, permit “red flag” petitions to judges for temporarily taking guns away from troubled individuals, and mandate universal background checks for private purchases at gun shows and elsewhere. Pro-gun activists mocked Filler-Corn’s leadership in passing the legislation with a reference to the 1996 carjacking. The Virginia Citizens Defense League posted a photo of her captioned: “Hi! I’m Eileen Filler-Corn. I was unarmed during a carjacking and it was very scary! I am getting laws passed so you will be unarmed too and can share my fear.”

Still, Republicans haven’t won a statewide office in Virginia since 2009. Although Republican conservatives who emphasize such Reaganesque themes as lower taxes and less government might prevail at some point, for now they are gasping for breath in a party dominated by President Trump. Even if the state’s outer periphery is blue, its molten core remains purple.

Democrats “always have to worry,” says Randolph-Macon’s Fullmer. “Virginia leans blue, but it’s not California.” Eric Cantor warns that Democrats and Filler-Corn herself may prove vulnerable if the party lurches to the left. But for now, Democratic control is safe: Filler-Corn’s House Democrats don’t face elections until 2021, their Senate counterparts not until 2023.

It has been no easy task to wrest Virginia away from its legacy of Confederate memorials, segregation and “massive resistance” to school integration (resistance that led one rural county to lose its schools for five years, from 1959 to 1964, rather than comply). Until 1997 the state song was “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” with lyrics glorifying slavery and containing words such as “darky” and “Massa.” Virginia didn’t suddenly stop being a rural state with a Southern legacy. The farmlands in the south still produce tobacco and peanuts. British-style fox hunting in Virginia’s “horse country” remains popular.

In May, the Democrats changed the law requiring state approval of any removal of Confederate memorials and statues, leaving it up to local jurisdictions to make those decisions. The change ignited as much controversy as it resolved. Nowhere is this as obvious as on Richmond’s vaunted Monument Avenue, a tree-lined grassy mall and historic district built to be a home for the 60-foot-tall Robert E. Lee statue, which was erected there in 1890. The street also featured statues of Generals Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart, President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis and naval commander Matthew Fontaine Maury. There had long been a movement to remove these statues, but it gained momentum after the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right rally that protested the removal of a different statue of Lee. In June 2020, following the death of George Floyd, protesters demanding racial justice toppled the Jefferson Davis monument and tried to pull down the one of J.E.B. Stuart. (A Christopher Columbus statue was also taken down and thrown into the James River. ) A month later Richmond’s mayor invoked his emergency powers to remove the remaining four Confederate statues. The Lee monument, however, which Governor Ralph Northam had ordered removed in June, is on state, not city, land, and when a lawsuit was brought to block the removal, a Richmond Circuit Court judge granted a stay pending the resolution of that suit. Meanwhile, the Lee monument, which has become an informal gathering place for protesters and passersby, sits covered in graffiti.

“The statue removals have won Filler-Corn and Democrats praise. To many traditionalists and Trump supporters in rural Virginia, however, Filler-Corn is emblematic of what they see as outsiders taking over their state.”

In Alexandria, across the Potomac from Washington, the removal of statues has run into less opposition. The state House decision prompted the United Daughters of the Confederacy to remove a statue of an unarmed Southward-facing Confederate soldier (named simply “Appomattox”). They took the statue down from the intersection where it had stood for 131 years, after Northam signed the legislation. The action “was historic,” said Allison Silberberg, a former mayor of Alexandria. Her effort to get the statue removed had been blocked by the state in 2016. Like its counterparts elsewhere in Virginia, “Appomattox” is in storage until leaders make a decision about what to do with it.

The statue removals have won Filler-Corn and Democrats praise. To many traditionalists and Trump supporters in rural Virginia, however, Filler-Corn is emblematic of what they see as outsiders taking over their state. But if her lack of Virginia ancestry is an issue, she doesn’t recognize it. “I’ve been in Northern Virginia my entire adult life,” she says. “If you’ve lived here more than 20 years, you’re a Virginian.”

Filler-Corn has also presided over less visible changes. For years, the House held weekly Christian-oriented Bible study sessions called the “Sunrise Caucus.” She has reinvented the 7 a.m. Sunrise Caucus as “The Speaker’s Interfaith Devotional” and invited speakers ranging from a Muslim imam to a Southern Baptist preacher. “Sometimes the speakers are connected to legislation, sometimes not,” Filler-Corn says. “It’s been really fascinating. People attending say they’ve learned a lot.”

Her first guest speaker was Rabbi Bruce Aft, her rabbi from Congregation Adat Reyim in Springfield. For Aft, now retired, it was the culmination of a relationship that began decades before when Filler-Corn answered his call for a volunteer parent to head up a preschool planning committee. He’s proud of what the Speaker of the House of Delegates is accomplishing in Virginia. “She’s the real deal,” he says, “a woman for all seasons.”

Opening picture: Filler-Corn hugs Rabbi Bruce Aft, who had offered the prayer at the opening of the 2020 Virginia General Assembly. (Photo credit: Steve Helber, AP)

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