Virginia set to elect first woman of color for lieutenant governor

As Washington turns its attention to Virginia’s gubernatorial election next week, lieutenant gubernatorial candidates Hala Ayala (D) and Winsome Sears (R) are looking to make history as the first women to hold the position in the commonwealth.

Ayala and Sears would also become the first Afro-Latina and Black woman, respectively, to hold the second-most powerful position in the former capital of the confederacy.

While much of the national media’s attention has been fixed on the tightening polling between gubernatorial candidates Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin, polling between Ayala and Sears has also been tight.

A Washington Post/Schar School survey released on Friday showed Ayala leading Sears among likely voters 50 to 46 percent, but within the survey’s four-point margin of error.

Whoever wins lieutenant governor’s race result will likely have an impact on policymaking in Virginia. Current Lieutenant Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) has cast 52 tie-breaking votes in his role as president of the legislative body.

But their history-making candidacies are where most of Ayala and Sears’ similarities end. Both women are embodying their respective party’s platforms as the parties prepare to make a play for Virginia ahead of Tuesday’s statewide elections, in what is widely being viewed as a bellwether for the 2022 midterm elections.

Ayala has echoed Virginia Democrats’ message of the need to defend their progress in the Old Dominion, pointing to the need to uphold abortion rights, gun control, and Medicaid expansion. The Democratic nominee was first elected to public office in 2017 when she became one of nine women to win their elections to the House of Delegates that year.

“We were going to be the firewall and that’s what we did — Medicaid expansion, teacher pay raises, working for working families, raising the minimum wage,” Ayala told The Hill while taking a break from a day of campaigning in Newport News, Va., last month. “We had an agenda.”

Ayala, who previously worked as a cybersecurity analyst at the Department of Homeland Security, decided to run for the House of Delegates after organizing for the first Women’s March in 2017.

“It hurt so much to see someone like him get elected to office,” Ayala said, referring to former President Trump. “So I picked up my sneakers and clipboard, we organized for Virginia.”

But the gathering at the first Women’s March was not enough for Ayala, who then decided to quit her job and run for public office with $68 in her bank account and no health care.

The 2021 campaign represents something of a full circle for Ayala, who credits former President Obama’s 2008 presidential bid for inspiring her to get involved with politics.

At a rally with the former president and the Virginia Democratic ticket earlier this month, Ayala noted that she would not be standing on the stage as a lieutenant gubernatorial nominee were it not for Obama’s campaign slogan “yes we can.”

When asked what sparked her initial interest in politics, Sears credits her Jamaican grandmother.

“She demanded of her political leaders that they represent her and represent her well,” Sears told The Hill over the phone earlier this month. “I saw her make those demands.”

Like Youngkin, Sears, who served as the vice president of the Virginia Board of Education, has made education a centerpiece of her campaign. Youngkin and Sears have specifically pushed the issues of school choice and parents’ rights over school boards.

Sears often invokes her own father, who she said was “lifted” out of poverty through education.

“My father came to America with a. $1.75 from Jamaica,” she said. “What did he do? He took any job he could find, he put himself through school, and he began his American dream and he’s now comfortably retired.”

Sears, who emigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica as a young child, served as an electrician in the U.S. Marine Corps. She told The Hill that she initially wanted to become a campaign manager on a political campaign. However, in 2001 she defeated longtime Democratic incumbent Del. William Robinson in Virginia’s 90th district.

That same election, Sears made history as the first Black female Republican, first naturalized citizen delegate and first female veteran to serve in the House of Delegates. Twenty years later she could make history once again, but she says she doesn’t care about that.

“Yes, it’s history, but that’s you know, that’s one day—it’s gone,” she said. “What are you going to do after you’re elected? That’s what we want to know. And what I want is for Black children, Latino children, Asian children, white children, whoever, to see me and say ‘Winsome is there. If she can do it, I can do it,’ because I hope that they will not think I did something special to get there.”

Sears made waves in September after she fired the majority of her campaign staff 55 days out from Election Day. She explained her decision to The Hill, arguing that leaders have to make “bold” and “difficult” decisions.

”I just decided that we’re at a certain point in our campaign, certain decisions had to be made,” she said, before quipping that “it must be a slow news day.”

Unlike the gubernatorial and attorney general candidates, Sears and Ayala have not come face-to-face on the debate stage. However, the debates over vaccine mandates and abortion rights, in particular, have raged in the news media’s coverage of the race.

In September, Sears told Newsmax that she would support heartbeat abortion legislation amid the fallout over a Texas law that bans abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

“Well, I can tell you that would be me, that I would support [it],” she told the conservative network.

Her campaign quickly walked back the comments, saying that Sears recognized that the legislation could never get the votes to pass through the state’s General Assembly.

But Ayala took the opportunity to hit Sears, arguing that Sears would not protect fundamental rights as governor. 

Vaccine mandates have also proven to be a point of contention in the race, with Ayala and her Democratic allies supporting them and Sears and Republicans pushing back.

Sears’s own COVID-19 vaccination status became a question as a result of a CNN interview earlier this month when she refused to say whether she had received the jab.

“My life is very public. It’s just the way it is. But I want to hold certain things close,” Sears told the network, adding that once people inquire about vaccination statuses it becomes a “slippery slope.”

“What are we going to ask for now HIV status? What else are we going to ask for?” she asked.

Ayala immediately went on the offensive, saying she hopes Sears “gets the vaccine if she hasn’t already.”

“We’re not going to stand by and allow it to continue,” Ayala said. “So we need to get vaccinated. We definitely need to follow CDC guidance. And I don’t think this has to do with any politics. This is about public health and safety.”

Sears then issued a tweet encouraging people to get vaccinated but said no one should be forced to get the vaccine. Sears hit Ayala and the news media in the same thread, saying the media was trying “to carry the water for the failing McAuliffe-Ayala ticket and it won’t work.”

However, both candidates say they believe they will likely be seen as a figure to look up for young people looking to get involved in politics if elected in November.

“It’s about, again, leading the way for the next generation of leaders. It’s about planting those seeds and those good policies,” Ayala said. “Having a woman on the ticket? Hell yeah.” 

Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump Glenn Youngkin governor's race 2021 Hala Ayala Terry McAuliffe Virginia Winsome Sears
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