Ward Armstrong hasn’t been in the House of Delegates chamber in Richmond during session since he was booted out as the Minority Leader for the Democrats and delegate for the 10th House District eight years ago. But he plans to end his hiatus in January, when he returns to see Eileen Filler-Corn sworn in as the new House Speaker when Democrats retake control of both the state Senate and the House of Delegates.
“She [Filler-Corn] called up after the election and said she was putting together a group of folks to help the new majority get settled in as the majority party and would I serve on the transition team, and I said, ‘Sure, be happy to,’” Armstrong said. “My buddy Dick Cranwell [former Delegate] and I are unindicted co-conspirators. She asked him as well, and I’m delighted at that. He was the majority leader and minority leader, and then I was the minority leader after him, and so we’re fast friends. We’re both on the transition team.”
On Nov. 13 speaker-designee Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax County) 41st District announced the list of key advisers that will help her transition into the office of the Speaker of the House of Delegates and the first woman to be elected to that position by her peers.
“People across the commonwealth told us they wanted to move our commonwealth forward, address our most critical challenges and ensure transparency for all Virginians,” Filler-Corn said. “I am truly honored to have guidance from these leaders from across Virginia to develop leadership to make our schools better, our communities stronger and our economy more fair.”
Armstrong says Filler-Corn is ready for the job. “I was the minority leader when she first ran and my best friend from the legislature is David Marsden. In fact, he and I are still very tight. … I talked with him today. He was in the House of Delegates, and when he went to the Senate, Eileen took his place.
“Now he [Marsden] had more to do with recruiting her to run for the House of Delegates than I did, although I was involved in that decision. She was a good candidate. She ran her own race and won her own race. I don’t want to imply that I had much to do with that. I didn’t. But still, she’s been a person that I consider a friend and have watched her grow and mature as a delegate, and I’m very excited about her being speaker. She’s going to be great.”
She will be sworn in Jan. 8, the required second Wednesday in January, at the capitol in Richmond.
‘A good 20 years’
Armstrong took part of an afternoon recently to reminisce about his time in Virginia politics before losing re-election in November 2011.
“I lost the election in the November 2011 term,” said Armstrong. “People say, ‘Do you miss it?’ And the short answer is ‘no.’
“It took me a year getting over not being there [Richmond], but what I don’t miss is being out somewhere four nights out of five. I think Rotarians and Kiwanians, and Boy Scouts and Boards of Supervisors are great folk, but you know – if you eat lobster four nights out of five, you’d get very tired of it. It does get tiring.
“I don’t miss begging for money, which is the absolute worst part of the job. I miss my friends, but most of the folks I served with have gone on to other things anyway. There’s a few that are left, but on the whole, we all have a shelf life. I had a good 20 years.
“I’m a baseball fan, and if you are a baseball pitcher, and you have 20 years in the majors you’ve had a good career. I’m not making the Hall of Fame, but I still had a little movement on my fastball when I left, so it was a good 20 years.”
Armstrong and his brother Morgan were partners in a Martinsville law firm when Armstrong began his political career.
“A.L. Philpott [former speaker] had died. He died during the campaign, during the election cycle, and the way the statutes were written and are still written, we had 10 days from the date of A.L.’s death to have a new nominee to be placed on the ballot, otherwise you couldn’t have anybody on the ballot,” Armstrong said.
“It had to be 30 days out, so there was a 10-day campaign as it were, for the nomination, and I ran against Bob Crouch [former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia], and we were pretty similarly situated. I was chairman of the 5th District Democratic Committee; he was vice-chair of the Democratic Party. We both had been involved in Democratic politics for years, and on a Saturday, 6,500 people came out, and I beat Bob by 200 votes. And I still think that’s a record for a ‘firehouse primary.’ It wasn’t an official primary; it was strictly a Democratic Party-held nominating process.”
“The candidate I ran against, a Republican nominee, was Naomi-Hodge-Muse [president of the Martinsville-Henry County NAACP], and I won. I had an opponent about every other time including Larry Roach [longtime insurance agent, now deceased]. I ran against Brett Geisler, who became a judge – he was a lawyer up in Carroll County. I ran against David Young, who’s on the Patrick County Board of Supervisors,” he said.
“I ran against a guy — and I can’t even remember his name – he moved into the area just to run against me, and he had no ties here whatsoever, raised no money, tried to create some airline and went bankrupt and defrauded a bunch of folks, and he still carried Carroll County [laughing]. He was a Republican, and I was a Democrat, and they [Carroll County voters] weren’t voting for a Democrat.”
A new district
While representing the 10th District in the House, Armstrong served on the Courts of Justice, Rules and Finance committees. In 2007 he was elected Minority Leader of the Democrats. During his tenure he opposed closing the “gun show loophole,” an exemption for one-on-one gun sales between individuals, from instant background checks.
“Carroll County is my district, and it’s home to one of the largest gun shows on the East Coast,” Armstrong said in 2008, noting even the Virginia Tech Shooting in 2007 that resulted in 33 deaths wouldn’t change his mind. “As legislators, we have to be dispassionate when it comes to the law.”
But Armstrong was defeated in 2011 while running for election in the 9th House District following the redistricting of 2010.
“They cut my district into three pieces, and so I literally had to move,” he said. “I went and lived up in my mother-in-law’s house. She was in a nursing home, and we still had our house in Bassett, and I lived there to run against [current Del. Charles] Poindexter. I actually was in the district that I would have been running against Don Merricks [former delegate], but Don and I had gotten to be good friends, and I didn’t want to do that.
“So I moved up there, and it [9th District] involved Smith Mountain Lake. It was a 37% Democratic-performing district. I raised a million bucks and still lost. I ran a pretty good campaign, and I moved the needle 11 points. I got almost 48% of the vote, but I will tell you – you can’t raise the needle any more than that [laughing], and you got to get 51% to win.
“So, if I had it to do over again, I shouldn’t have run. I maybe should have thought about running for Attorney General.”
Trump as a factor
There are several things that have precipitated the change in allowing Democrats to gain complete control in Richmond.
“The demographic changes in Virginia, particularly Northern Virginia, where there has been a huge influx of folks that weren’t born in Virginia and also a fairly multinational population too. … Asian-Americans, Korean-Americans, Hispanic, Latino, and it’s changed quite a bit.
“You could see it – if you watched the elections over the last 10-15 years, it was almost as if the ‘blue tide’ was moving outward both west into Loudoun County and south into Prince William [County]. Fairfax was already blue; in fact, the last Republican delegate that had a part of Fairfax got beat this last time.
“Number two is Donald Trump. As popular as he continues to be in rural Virginia, he is an anathema in Northern Virginia and in Richmond and in Tidewater. You’ve got a lot of federal employees up there, and they do not like Donald Trump.
“That was the huge tidal wave two years ago. The Democrats picked up 15 seats, went from 48 to 55, this time they picked up seven, but 15 seats two years ago, and it was laid at the feet of Donald Trump.”
But the Trump factor and demographics aren’t the total picture.
“The issues matter a little bit, too,” Armstrong said. “The shooting at Virginia Beach demands for some reasonable gun regulations. I think that a number of other social issues – the abortion regulations get a little out of hand, but you know they’re issues that are important, too. It wasn’t all just Donald Trump.”
Armstrong and other key advisers for Filler-Corn met in Richmond last week.
“She [Filler-Corn] divided us into three sub-committees, and Cranwell and I are on the one that deals with House rules and procedures – which is appropriate,” Armstrong said. “That was kind of our job, to oversee that.
“We’re going through the house rules to see which ones we think are good things and appropriate and which ones should be kept and which ones shouldn’t. Just because Republicans did it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad. In fact, they did some things that I think are good. For example. … Remember when Democrats lost the majority the first time, [and] it was a 50-50 split? So there was a power-sharing arrangement, and we did proportional representation, meaning that membership on the committees would be the same percentage of what the membership of the House was. That continued as Republicans took the majority.”
Armstrong was told about the recent comment by Del. Danny Marshall (R-Danville) in which he said he hoped the Democrats would remember the Republicans’ kindness and continue proportional representation.
“Before Danny [Marshall] gets too ideological, remember they [Republicans] carved me out of my seat in partisan redistricting, so let’s not get too virtuous. … But that having been said, yeah, I think proportional representation will continue,” Armstrong said.
‘A new day’
Going back to Richmond will be bittersweet, he said. He didn’t want to leave and has avoided going back for any reason because of the strong emotion he feels about the experience.
“The deal I cut with Eileen [Filler-Corn], I said I will serve on your transition committee, but I have one request,” Armstrong said. “She says ‘What is that?’ And I said I want to sit in the gallery on the day that you’re sworn in as speaker.
“I have not been back in the chamber when it’s been in session, and that was by design and by intent. I said when I leave, I’m gone. I told her that’s the only thing I ask. … I want to be there sitting in the gallery when you’re sworn in. She said, ‘Done. I’ll make that happen.’
Imagine, “the first female Speaker, the first female Clerk of House and the first female Staff Director of House Appropriations … arguably, the three most influential positions in the legislature.
“It’s a new day, and I think we should embrace it. I really do. I have two daughters and so I’m looking forward to it.”
Bill Wyatt is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at 276-638-8801, Ext. 236. Follow him @billdwyatt