Don Scott was a fiery partisan; as Va. speaker, he’s top negotiator

RICHMOND — Soon after Republicans mounted a rare challenge to the authority of House Speaker Don L. Scott Jr. (D-Portsmouth) during a recent floor debate, GOP bills and delegates began suffering more setbacks.

Several pieces of seemingly healthy Republican legislation — such as one increasing the number of free fishing days in the state, or another that changes the title of a department director to commissioner — “caught a cold,” in an old General Assembly euphemism, and wound up iced for the year. A couple of prominent GOP lawmakers lost plum assignments on House of Delegates committees.

“I don’t say that it was retaliation,” Scott said in an interview with The Washington Post that touched on his priorities and the lessons he’s learned so far from leadership. “Those things happen in the legislature.”

They tend to happen more often when someone crosses a speaker, a time-honored exercise of quiet power that Scott’s predecessors of both parties have wielded freely. Scott, the first African American to lead Virginia’s House in its 405-year history, is all too conscious that his conduct will draw extra attention because of his race. So he’s walked a careful line in his first session in charge — unafraid to use his gavel and dish out punishment, but cultivating a surprisingly cordial relationship with Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) and running sessions with a clipped efficiency.

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“As the first Black speaker … you don’t want to be criticized for being late and being behind every day,” Scott said, alluding to his sense that he needs to keep all the fundamentals above reproach. “So I’ve been very, very mindful of managing the members’ time to make sure they get in and out of session in a timely fashion.”

Toward that end, Scott surprised some in the Capitol by retaining House Clerk G. Paul Nardo, a longtime Republican staffer with deep knowledge of House procedures. With only a couple of weeks remaining before the scheduled March 9 end of his first session as speaker, Scott has drawn praise from across the aisle despite the occasional sharp jab.

“He’s kept things moving right along — he’s been very astute on keeping the floor moving and he’s doing a good job,” said Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), a former House majority leader.

Or as one Republican staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Scott candidly put it, “We know he’s going to [hurt] us, but he’ll do it by the book and we respect that.”

Perhaps no aspect of Scott’s speakership has been more surprising than his chemistry with Youngkin, whose efforts to woo national conservatives have often put the two men at sharp ideological odds. “A strong working relationship starts with a relationship,” Youngkin said in written comments when asked about the new speaker, whom he called a friend. “Speaker Scott’s willingness to invest significant time with me has been foundational (plus we both like Dr. Pepper). We may disagree on some issues, but he is committed to discussing and debating in a spirit of fostering collaboration and problem solving.”

Scott became one of Youngkin’s top critics soon after the governor took office in 2022, saying the Republican’s emphasis on race-related culture war issues such as banning critical race theory called into question Youngkin’s profession of Christian faith.

The tough partisan approach quickly vaulted Scott to the position of House minority leader when Republicans were in charge. But now that Democrats control the General Assembly, he said, his relationship with Youngkin has evolved.

“I think we have built a rapport unlike we had before, which was no rapport,” Scott said. “When I was minority leader, I don’t think I ever heard from the governor. But when I became speaker, we’re BFFs now,” he added with a laugh, using social media slang for “best friends forever.”

Scott said he and Youngkin text one another regularly, speak on the phone every few days and meet usually once a week. Youngkin attends a Wednesday morning prayer session that Scott hosts in the speaker’s office.

“We talk in a way that is friendly and is respectful,” Scott said. It’s important, he said, for leaders to have relationships across party boundaries so they can get things done for the public good. “We don’t need to be just adversaries. I think we have to be true to our core values and beliefs, but we have to be able to have conversations.”

It’s part of the arsenal in his professional life as a defense lawyer: You have to talk to negotiate. Many of the legislative priorities that Democratic majorities are sending to Youngkin’s desk will put the governor on the spot as he decides whether to sign, amend or veto them.

Scott ticks off a list of top bills that have already passed or are working their way across the Capitol: a ban on search warrants for women’s menstrual data; big increases in teacher pay; a prohibition on devices called “auto sears,” which turn a semiautomatic firearm into a machine gun; protecting insurance coverage of contraceptives; rejoining the multistate ERIC cooperative to share election data; and a charter change in Virginia Beach aimed at making its city council more diverse.

“I don’t think any of those bills are controversial,” Scott said, which might be news to the Republicans who voted against many of them.

But he knows that Youngkin will have ideas of his own. For example: Measures have passed both the House and Senate to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 by Jan. 1, 2026. “The governor has said he has some concerns about that,” Scott said. “But to his credit … he didn’t say he’d veto it on arrival. What he said is he will review any legislation that will come to him, which tells me that he wants to negotiate.”

A big factor keeping both sides at the negotiating table is Youngkin’s push for a $2 billion arena in Alexandria to serve as home for the Capitals and Wizards. The proposal needs sign-off from the General Assembly, which would have to create a state Sports and Entertainment Authority to oversee the project and its $1.5 billion in taxpayer-backed debt.

The version of the state budget approved by the House contains enabling language, but the Senate — led by powerful Finance and Appropriations chairwoman L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) — has so far nixed the idea.

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While lawmakers of both parties have groused privately that Youngkin’s administration needs to do more to curry legislative support, Scott said the problem seems obvious. He noted that only two Republican senators used their votes to object to the Senate budget that omitted the arena project.

“I think the governor is still trying to figure out how to deal with not only [Democrats], but with his own daggone caucus,” Scott said, adding that the arena’s fate is likely to be determined in a small House-Senate conference committee called to reconcile the state budget. “I’m not sure where the Republican senators stand. … So I think he has a problem on the other side of the chamber getting it to a place where we can negotiate it in conference.”

In the House, Scott said, Republicans and Democrats alike are ready to bargain. Though he rocketed to power by firing partisan broadsides, Scott has kept his comments in check every day as he presides over House floor sessions. Earlier this month, when Republicans contested a ruling by Scott that forced a vote on a draconian abortion ban introduced by a freshman GOP delegate, Democratic members whispered that no White speaker had been challenged that way in living memory.

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The race question “definitely came up from a lot of my members,” Scott said in the interview. “But I’ll be honest with you, I definitely do not care.”

The day after that incident, just as some of those Republican bills went down the drain and GOP delegates lost their assignments, the Virginia Republican Party posted a harsh statement on social media about Scott. Alluding to his unusual personal history — Scott spent nearly eight years in federal prison as a young man for carrying drug money for a friend — the GOP statement suggested he was soft on crime because he was buddies with drug dealers.

Republican leaders immediately apologized, and the staffer who was blamed for writing the statement was fired. Scott insisted in the interview that he could only laugh at the comment.

“It’s funny that they think I give a damn,” Scott said. “They’ve been saying this crap since I got elected … Like, it’s not going to stop me. All it does is motivate me. All it does is continue to inspire me when they do that kind of stuff, it just continues to make me work harder. So — thank you.”

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