Louise Lucas of Portsmouth and Janet Howell of Fairfax County were elected to the state Senate in 1991.
Both are Democrats.
Both wanted to sit on the influential Senate Finance Committee. Howell was placed on the committee years before Lucas. Howell is now a budget conferee, a leader of that committee. Lucas is still waiting.
Lucas used that comparison this week as a main example of what she describes as the disparate treatment she and other black lawmakers experience from their own Democratic party. She said she feels disrespected.
Her angst came to a head this week when she agreed initially to cast a vote with the Senate Republicans in their choice to fill a seat on the state Supreme Court. She candidly discussed her actions and conversations she's had behind closed doors with other lawmakers in an impromptu interview with the Virginian-Pilot and The Washington Post.
Her concerns, she repeated, go far beyond the Supreme Court seat.
“There were underlying things that gave birth to the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said. “This week I just got totally, totally, totally fed up.”
Lucas also directed many of her comments at Minority Leader Dick Saslaw of Fairfax County, whom she said is too cozy with Republican Majority Leader Tommy Norment and fails to resolve grievances of some Democratic senators.
Saslaw, 76, has been in the General Assembly for 40 years. He's said he's been elected Democratic leader six times.
It’s not unusual, he said, for a lawmaker to question his leadership and acknowledged that "probably I could have done a better job in communicating" work done behind the scenes.
He also said he considers Lucas a friend. "She’s entitled to her opinion. I think most of the people think I’m doing a pretty good job. In fact, I’m pretty sure they do."
Saslaw and Howell and Lucas and Sen. Mamie Locke of Hampton, who chairs the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, all discussed the issue together this week with Gov. Terry McAuliffe. After Lucas initially voted with Republicans in a committee vote on their choice for the Supreme Court seat, McAuliffe convinced her to reverse her position.
On Wednesday morning, Lucas and Locke met with McAuliffe and Lucas said she told the him that Saslaw's leadership style needed to go. Locke declined to comment for this story.
“As a member of the Black Caucus I feel like a lot of our issues are not addressed and they’re like secondary,” Lucas said.
“It’s like, 'We’re going to take care of you. You just sit there and vote like we want you to vote and everything’s going to be OK.' I don’t think so. We need to be heard. And a lot of us have not liked the way we approach some of these issues, and judgeships being one of them. We’re not listened to.”
Lucas is among five black senators in a group of 40 who conduct business in a Capitol chamber steps from the room where Robert E. Lee accepted command of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Now 72 and a senator for 25 years, she was once a 14-year-old dropout with a child, and by 21 a mother of three.
She entered an apprenticeship program at Norfolk Naval Shipyard and became the first female ship fitter there, and often also the only black person in the room. She earned two degrees and formed her own company, Lucas Lodge, which operates group homes for adults.
She was elected to the Portsmouth City Council first before winning election to the state Senate. Her district includes parts of Chesapeake, Suffolk, Franklin, Isle of Wight County and other areas.
She said she shared some of her biography with her Democratic colleagues on Wednesday, in a meeting where she said she was crying.
"Ain’t nobody gave me a damn thing, that’s what I said to them," she said. "And I don’t want you to give me a damn thing but I demand that you respect the fact that I got my ass here the same way that you got yours here."
She said the past five years have been unacceptable, recalling an obscenity-laced “screaming match” with Norment in the Senate lunchroom from which she left in tears.
She said she had hoped to be appointed to the newly-created Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission – the legislation for which she sponsored with Republican Sen. Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach. She said votes were there for both of them to sit on the commission, which oversees transportation dollars in Hampton Roads.
“First chance Tommy got when he had enough votes to get me off, he took me off and put himself on,” she said. “He had a conflict of interest so he had to come off. But rather than put me back on he put Kenny Alexander on.”
She said she was stung that a Hampton Roads senator with far less experience would get the plum assignment. Alexander is from Norfolk.
Jeff Ryer, a campaign consultant to Senate Republicans who acts as Norment's spokesman, said Norment denies Lucas' recollection of that lunchroom fight and called it "a prevarication."
He said Norment did not keep Lucas on the transportation commission because Norment, of James City County, wanted a representative from the Peninsula.
"To ensure the Peninsula did have Senate representation on HRTAC, Senator Norment opted to serve personally," Ryer wrote in an email.
As for Saslaw, Lucas said for years, he has told her he would speak with Norment about her concerns. Saslaw never reports back, she said.
“Saslaw’s been saying to me, ‘Well, you and Tommy need to learn to work together.”
On Tuesday she said she did just that when she bumped into Norment and agreed to support the GOP's choice for the Supreme Court, Judge Rossie Alston Jr. In return, the Republicans agreed to nominate Portsmouth Circuit Judge Kenneth Melvin to Alston’s appellate court spot. Lucas wanted Melvin to get the seat. Later, after McAuliffe spoke with Lucas, she reversed her vote and supported the Democratic party's choice for the Supreme Court.
"I was disappointed in what had happened," McAuliffe said Wednesday. "As soon as I found out about it I asked her to come visit me."
McAuliffe said he asked Lucas: “Why didn’t you come talk to me, Louise?”
Lucas said she explained to McAuliffe that she didn't come to him because she'd been trying to address her concerns with Saslaw.
“She had issues, unrelated, with the caucus,” McAuliffe said.
Lucas said McAuliffe told Saslaw that they need to end their divisions.
Lucas said she should have gone to the governor.
“All this stuff’s been going on before he got here. But still, I could have taken it to him. I know him well enough so that I could have done that. ”
She said for a while she started thinking that something must be wrong and quietly let her grievances build.
Said Lucas: "You start thinking, what?
"What is going on here?"
In response to Lucas's comment about the timing of when she was allowed on the Finance Committee, Saslaw said Howell did get that assignment first.
But he said Lucas didn't ask. In 1997, he recalled, a spot on the finance committee was contested between Howell and the late Sen. Yvonne Miller of Norfolk. Miller was also a member of the Black Caucus and had joined the Senate years before Howell.
"Janet was the first out of the box to ask, and then Yvonne got asked, and it was a contest," Saslaw said. Howell was selected.
When Republicans controlled the Senate, they had power over committee appointments but when Democrats regained control in 2008 Lucas was placed on the finance committee, he said.
This story originally appeared on PilotOnline.com