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Don Scott becomes first Black Speaker in Virginia Legislature's 400-year history

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Soon after Virginia's General Assembly gavels into session tomorrow, it will have a new House speaker - Democrat Don Scott. He'll be the first Black speaker in the Virginia Legislature's 400-year history. VPM's Jahd Khalil recently spent time with Scott in his home district and brings us this profile on the politician's atypical journey to the highest seat in the Virginia Statehouse.

JAHD KHALIL, BYLINE: In 2018, Don Scott was a successful trial lawyer in Portsmouth, Va. He was representing a city councilman charged with forgery. That put him in the public eye.

DON SCOTT: A reporter wanted to do a story, said, hey, you've gone to jail before. Is that true? And I told him, yes. If you want to get the full story, come see me.

KHALIL: Scott told the reporter he was convicted on a drug-related charge while in law school in 1994 and was incarcerated for nearly eight years. It wasn't exactly a secret, but now the story was on the front page of the Sunday paper.

SCOTT: I remember receiving a text message from a good friend of mine. He texted me and said, you free now. So whatever you want to do now, you can do it. But it kind of did make me feel relieved, like, so now the people - everybody knows. So either they're going to be with me or they're not.

KHALIL: Scott's personal history being public knowledge presented an opportunity - to go into politics.

SCOTT: I used to always say, the worst thing that will happen to me will not be losing an election. So I think it gave me an advantage.

KHALIL: He won his first race for the Virginia House in 2019. He ran on criminal justice reform, shaped by his time on both sides of the legal system. Once there, he continued to advocate for automatic restoration of voting rights for former felons. His own rights were restored in 2013 by petitioning the governor. On the floor of the Statehouse, Scott employs a confrontational style, full of quips and asides.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The delegate has the floor.

SCOTT: Mr. Speaker, this thing has gone a little too far.

KHALIL: In early 2022, Scott laid into Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin for his policies on how race was taught in schools.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT: And so far, what I've seen from his Day 1 activities is not someone who is a man of faith, not a Christian, but someone who wants to divide the Commonwealth. I know the truth hurts. I don't want to make you cry, like saying critical race theory, 'cause I know it hurts your feelings. I just want to say...

(SOUNDBITE OF GAVEL)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The House will come to order.

KHALIL: Scott says soon after that, Youngkin, who often speaks about his faith, asked Scott to come to the governor's mansion.

SCOTT: (Laughter) I just laughed. I said, he ain't the principal and I ain't a student. If he want to see me, he can come over here. And to his credit, he came to see me.

KHALIL: Moments like these raise Scott's profile within the Democratic caucus. Less than six months later, he was chosen as House minority leader and was now responsible for taking back the chamber from Republicans. On the campaign trail, every stump speech mentioned abortion access and threats to democracy. He's reminded of this when he sees the ships just outside his office window and recalls his own time in the Navy.

SCOTT: And I tell people, like, I feel like this is a continuation of standing watch. You know, we stand and watch over our democracy. It doesn't end in the Statehouse.

KHALIL: Democrats did take back the whole Statehouse last fall and chose Scott as their nominee for speaker. Before he headed to Richmond, Scott gathered supporters in his district for a sendoff.

EUGENE SWENSON: A lot of them are community leaders. It's a lot of pastors in here.

KHALIL: Eugene Swenson runs gun intervention and youth programming in Portsmouth. When Scott saw him, he gave Swenson a fist bump.

SWENSON: That's actually what I love about him - not like about him, love about him. That he kind of makes sure that people that are forgotten about or the people that's all the way at the bottom, he makes sure that they get what they need too.

KHALIL: As Scott took to the podium, he took a moment to appreciate his rise from the child of a poor single mother to leader of America's first statehouse. And he expressed gratitude to the Black legislators who served before him.

SCOTT: We didn't even see ourselves ever even raising our hand to run for speaker of the House, let alone achieve it. So I'm so grateful that I get the opportunity standing on those giants. And I want y'all - when y'all see me in the room, understand I carry all of y'all with me.

KHALIL: And he recognized the enslaved Virginians who built the Capitol.

SCOTT: Every time I walk into that Capitol, y'all - and this is true, I promise you - I see ghosts. I see our ancestors who were in there, who were emptying people's urine and emptying the spittoons, building the buildings, breaking their back while people made decisions about whether they were human or not.

KHALIL: That history continues on the eve of Scott's ascension as the first Black speaker, and he made a request to those sharing in the moment.

SCOTT: I need y'all to pray for me 'cause there's a lot out there coming my way. I'm ready for it, I think. But I'm going to stay prayed up, and I hope that y'all will too. Y'all have a great night. Thank you, Portsmouth, Va.

KHALIL: General Assembly starts tomorrow. One of the first orders of business is the vote for Scott to take up the gavel.

For NPR News, I'm Jahd Khalil in Portsmouth, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jahd Khalil
Jahd Khalil is a reporter and producer in Richmond.