Donnybrook in South Hampton Roads

Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) Photo Credit: Washington Post

Sen. Lionell Spruill (D-Chesapeake). Photo credit: Newsweek

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

It had to get ugly, and it finally has.

The premier party primary election this year will be the Democratic primary in Senate District 18 (Parts of Portsmouth and Chesapeake), featuring incumbents Louise Lucas and Lionel Spruill. Redistricting threw them into a newly-drawn district that includes about 71,000 of Spruill’s current constituents and 61,000 of Lucas’s constituents. Reportedly, party leaders tried to prevail upon both of them for one to move to a new district with no incumbent. Both refused. This has promised to be a donnybrook from the beginning.

The recent flash point is the chairmanship of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee. George Barker (D-Fairfax) is currently a co-chair and is running for re-election as well. (The other co-chair, Janet Howell [Fairfax] is retiring.) Barker has his own electoral worries. He is facing a strong primary challenger in a redrawn district that includes only a small portion of his old district.

If re-elected, Lucas would have the most seniority in the Senate and the most seniority of any Democrat on Senate Finance. The rules of the Senate provide that the majority caucus designate the members of committees and the chair. Lucas has made it plain that she feels her seniority entitles her to be the chair of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, the most powerful Senate committee. (She is currently a senior member of the committee.) According to The Washington Post, Lucas earlier this year “said she’d consider Barker as a co-chair of that committee, but intends to lead it if she’s in office and her party prevails in November.”

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported today that Lucas is accusing her fellow Democrats from Northern Virginia of trying to push her out.  In a stream of tweets, she charged, “There are people working to shut Black leaders out of key positions…. Because I stand to be the most senior member of the Senate — in line to Chair the most powerful committee in the legislature (Finance) — some Democratic leaders in Northern Virginia are working to defeat me because they don’t think someone from ‘downstate’ should hold that position.… I will not step aside for colleagues with less than half of my seniority so positions like Senate Finance and Appropriations Chair go only to legislators from Northern Virginia.”

Apparently, the catalyst of this blast was a fundraiser that Spruill is planning in Fairfax County next month. Four Democrat Senators, including Barker, are listed as guests. All the guest Senators claim that their presence is a courtesy and is not intended to be an endorsement of Spruill and has nothing to do with the chairmanship of Senate Finance. Sen. Scott Surovell said that he had offered to be a guest of Lucas also if she had an event.

Lucas is outspoken and can be abrasive, but Spruill is no shrinking violet and also has a sharp tongue. (Early in his legislative career, he lost his seat on the House Appropriations Committee because he complained in a floor speech that the tactics of the Republican majority at that time “pisses me off.”)  There will be more fireworks to come.