RICHMOND, Va. — It’s been nearly three decades since Virginia’s only woman to win a statewide race held political office.
That drought will end in November when voters decide whether Democratic Del. Hala Ayala or former Republican legislator Winsome Sears will be their next lieutenant governor. Either will make history as the first woman of color to serve statewide.
In interviews this week, after Ayala’s win in the Democratic primary Tuesday, both Democratic and Republican women expressed excitement about the race and frustration that it’s taken so long to get here.
“I’m thrilled we will be saying ‘Madam President’ come next year,” Republican state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant said, referring to how the staid chamber addresses the lieutenant governor who oversees it.
The lone female statewide officeholder in Virginia’s long history is Democrat Mary Sue Terry, who served as attorney general from 1986 to 1993.
“If a UFO came and stayed long enough to observe our situation, one gender has most of the power and the majority is second-class,” Terry said during a recent speech at a museum event, the Martinsville Bulletin reported. “There is something wrong with this picture.”
Barring some extraordinary turn of events, this year’s race will pit Ayala, a cybersecurity specialist who launched her political career in 2017 in response to the election of Donald Trump, against Sears, a Marine veteran who has made history as a woman in politics before. Each has cast the other as a radical or extremist.
Sears, who won the GOP nomination at a convention last month, got her start in elected office in 2001 when she stunned both parties by defeating a 10-term Democrat in an overwhelmingly blue district to become the first Black Republican woman elected to the House of Delegates.
She served just one term before deciding not to seek reelection. After moving, she unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott in a race The Associated Press described as “a campaign of raw invective.”
She went on to serve on the State Board of Education and more recently as the national chair of an organization dedicated to reelecting Trump. She’s also led a men’s prison ministry and served as director of a women’s homeless shelter.
The 57-year-old who immigrated to the United States from Jamaica in 1970 when she was 6 describes herself in part as “Christian. Wife. Mother,” in her Twitter bio.
Sears lives in the Winchester area, where she runs an appliance, plumbing and electric company. She will join GOP gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin and attorney general nominee Jason Miyares on their party’s ticket.
Staunchly conservative, Sears generally opposes abortion rights and gun control, and would support overhauling education funding to increase school choice.
In an interview Friday, she seemed unfazed about the possibility of making history again in November.
“Once you win, it’s history. What matters is going forward. What do you do with the office now that you have it? I’m going to be focusing on education,” she said.
Lieutenant governor, a position first in the line of succession to the governor, mainly involves presiding over the procedural flow of bills through the Senate and breaking tied votes, though the job can also be used to advocate on policy issues.
The role is often a stepping stone to higher office, and with the Senate closely divided, it’s an important one. Outgoing Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has broken ties on a number of bills of significance, including Medicaid expansion and marijuana legalization.
Ayala, a 48-year-old mother of two whose campaign said she was not available for an interview, will be looking to keep the position in Democratic control for a third term.
She won Tuesday’s competitive six-way primary, boosted by the support of much of the Democratic establishment, including endorsements from House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Gov. Ralph Northam.
In a statement after her victory, Ayala emphasized her personal story, including her father’s death to gun violence and a harrowing pregnancy during which she relied on Medicaid for health care.
“I understand the struggles so many Virginia families face because I’ve lived them,” she said.
Ayala, who is of Afro-Latina, Irish and Lebanese heritage, worked at a gas station while pregnant with her son before getting a college degree and starting a career in cybersecurity. She ran for delegate after helping organize the Women’s March on Washington after Trump’s election in 2016. She defeated a four-term incumbent, Rich Anderson, who now chairs the Republican Party of Virginia. She beat him again in 2019 when he challenged her.
She supports abortion rights and campaigned on a promise to expand paid family leave and tighten gun control laws. Filler-Corn said Ayala is smart and “fearless,” with a collaborative approach.
“Hala Ayala is closer to shattering one of the highest glass ceilings in Virginia elected office, which would be a triumph for the entire Latino community,” Nathalie Rayes, Latino Victory Fund president & CEO, said in a statement.
Ayala will be the only woman on the Democrats’ statewide ticket this year, joining incumbent Attorney General Mark Herring and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe ran away with the gubernatorial nomination contest, defeating four primary opponents, including state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, either of whom would have become the nation’s first Black woman governor if elected.
There will still be one woman in the marquee race: Princess Blanding, who is running as an independent, qualified this week to appear on the general election ballot.