Newly empowered Virginia Democrats promise action

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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, center, and Virginia House of Delegates speaker-designate, Eileen Filler-Corn, second from left, greet Democratic Legislators as he prepares to outline his legislative agenda at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, VA – A new era in Virginia politics began Wednesday, as Democrats took full control of the state house for the first time in a generation and promised to reshape many of the state's laws.

The 2020 legislative session kicked off shortly after noon with several history-making firsts as women and people of color assumed leadership roles previously held only by white men for the last 400 years.

And Gov. Ralph Northam received a warm welcome from his fellow Democrats during his yearly address to lawmakers — a remarkable scene given the widespread and bipartisan calls for his resignation in February following a blackface scandal.

“It's a proud moment to look out and see a General Assembly that reflects, more than ever, the Virginia we see every day,” said Northam, who has rebounded from his pariah status and won praise from Democrats for his new focus on addressing longstanding racial inequities in a state with a history of institutional racism.

Northam outlined a broad agenda Wednesday that includes changing the law to allow local governments to remove Confederate statues.

One of the House's first acts was to elect Del. Eileen Filler-Corn at the new speaker, the first woman to serve in that role. She is also the first Jewish speaker.

Her top deputy, House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, is the first black woman to hold that role, and the House elected Suzette Denslow to be the first ever female clerk. Ghazala Hashmi, who unseated a Republican incumbent to help Democrats flip the Senate, became that chamber's first Muslim female member.

“A new torch is being passed today," Filler-Corn said on the House floor.