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

Don Scott, speaker the Virginia House of Delegates, has had a meteoric rise in the Statehouse. The Delegates unanimously voted him in as speaker on Wednesday.
Shaban Athuman
/
VPM
Don Scott, speaker the Virginia House of Delegates, has had a meteoric rise in the Statehouse. The Delegates unanimously voted him in as speaker on Wednesday.

The Virginia General Assembly unanimously elected Democrat Don Scott as house speaker on Wednesday, making him the first Black speaker in the Virginia House of Delegates' history.

Del. Scott approached the podium to cheers and a standing ovation as he took the oath of office and began his term as the leader of the House.

"My first immediate emotion is just gratitude. I'm very grateful," said Scott, tearing up as he thanked his 88 year old mother and his wife, watching from the gallery.

"The historic nature of this moment is not lost on me," he told the House.

"I pray that it is a proud moment for all of us, as we nominate Delegate Don Scott as our next speaker of the house," said Del. Luke E. Torian in his nomination speech.

"Over 400 years ago, people who looked like Delegate Scott gave their sweat blood and tears to build this Capitol," Del. Torian elaborated. "And I would say that is probably only right and fitting and appropriate that 400 years later, a person of color, an African American, whose ancestors helped to build this capital now stands to help lead this House of Delegates."

From prison to politics

Scott says the Navy ships docked in his district, like the USS Kearsarge (LHD-3), are a reminder of a call to public service that started with his time in the Navy as a young man.
Shaban Athuman / VPM
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VPM
Scott says the Navy ships docked in his district, like the USS Kearsarge (LHD-3), are a reminder of a call to public service that started with his time in the Navy as a young man.

Scott, a 58 year-old Navy veteran and lawyer representing the Southeastern Virginia city of Portsmouth, quickly distinguished himself in the Democratic Caucus in part thanks to his unconventional path to the statehouse.

As a law student, Scott was convicted on a drug-related charge in 1994 and spent nearly eight years incarcerated in federal prison. After his release, Scott built a successful career as a trial lawyer in Portsmouth, which put him in the public eye and drew attention to his past.

In 2018, while in the midst of defending a city councilman accused of forgery, a local reporter learned of Scott's time in prison and contacted him for a story. Scott hadn't tried to keep his conviction a secret, but now it was widely known, and on the front-page of the Sunday paper.

"When you have a conviction, which I had a felony conviction that's now 30 years old, you never really feel comfortable," Scott told NPR, from his office in Portsmouth. "You always feel like you have to be careful on how far you can go and you put limits on yourself."

That changed for Scott when a friend reached out after reading the article.

"You're free now," Scott remembers the friend texting. "So whatever you want to do now, you can do it."

And what Scott wanted to do was run for office.

Scott credits the women in his life, including his wife, Dr. Mellanda Y. Colson Scott, for restoring his self-confidence and ambition after prison.
Shaban Athuman / VPM
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VPM
Scott credits the women in his life, including his wife, Dr. Mellanda Y. Colson Scott, for restoring his self-confidence and ambition after prison.

A platform built on personal experience

Scott won his first race for the Virginia House in 2019. He ran on a platform of criminal justice reform, shaped by his time on both sides of the legal system. Scott says, those experiences gave him another edge on the campaign trail, too.

"I used to always say the worst thing that will happen to me will not be losing an election," he muses.

Scott grew up in Texas; one of six children raised by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet. Scott remembers meals of mayonnaise sandwiches and long hours at the local library, which his mother leaned on for free childcare. The young Scott turned into a voracious reader, which he says contributed to him going to college.

After serving in the Navy as a surface warfare officer, Scott went to law school. It was there, in his last year, that a federal court convicted him of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute crack cocaine. Scott says that he was only picking up money for a dealer he knew, and had no intention of selling the drugs himself. He was sentenced to 10 years, and graduated from law school before heading to prison.

Released nearly 8 years later, Scott took a job in Delaware as a case manager on a workforce program for people on public assistance, and worked his way up the career ladder. Now married and with a young daughter, Scott says the constant travel was hard on his family. So he tapped his law degree, passed the bar exam and took a job in a firm, where he is still a partner.

As minority leader, Scott was tasked with retaking the state legislature during the 2023 elections. His stump speeches focused on abortion access and combatting internal threats to democracy.
Shaban Athuman / VPM
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VPM
As minority leader, Scott was tasked with retaking the state legislature during the 2023 elections. His stump speeches focused on abortion access and combatting internal threats to democracy.

Headwinds turn to headway in the Virginia Capitol

Scott entered the General Assembly in 2020 and started introducing legislation on criminal justice reform. He introduced nearly a dozen bills to change the commonwealth's parole, records expungement, and probation policies. But the freshman delegate quickly ran into a roadblock: his own Democratic party, which held the majority in the Virginia Statehouse at the time and killed Scott's bills, nearly all upon their first committee hearing.

Then, things shifted.

Not long into Scott's first term, the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked protests in state capitals across the country. Suddenly, the issues Scott had tried to tackle were top of mind in Richmond.

Scott revived some of his old bills on earned sentence credits and limited probation, which passed this time.

Going toe-to-toe with Virginia's conservatives

In legislative sessions, Scott's confrontational style full of quips and asides on the floor contributed to his quick rise within the Democratic caucus.

Early in 2022, Scott took on Gov. Glenn Youngkin after the Republican set up a "tipline" for Virginiansto anonymously report educators for teaching so-called "divisive concepts" like Critical Race Theory.

"What I've seen from his day one activities is not someone who is a man of faith, not a Christian, but someone who wants to divide the Commonwealth," Scott proclaimed to the Virginia House of Delegates, amid boos and jeers from the Republican side of the aisle.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin came to see Scott in his office after the Delegate criticized the Gov.'s policies on critical race theory.
Steve Helber / AP
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AP
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin came to see Scott in his office after the Delegate criticized the Gov.'s policies on critical race theory.

Scott took it in stride. "I know the truth hurts. I don't want to make you cry, like saying 'critical race theory,' because I know it hurts your feelings."

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

"I said, he ain't the principal and I ain't a student," laughs Scott. "If you want to see me, come over here. And to his credit, he came, he came to see me."

The exchange raised Scott's profile again, and less than six months later, he was chosen as house minority leader. After serving just three legislative sessions, Scott was now responsible for taking back the chamber from Republicans in the 2023 election.

Building on Black history at the Virginia Statehouse

Virginia Democrats did win control of the legislature last fall, and chose Scott as their nominee for speaker.

Before he headed to Richmond for the first day of the new legislative session, Scott gathered supporters in his district for a sendoff party.

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

"We didn't even see ourselves ever even raising our hand to run for speaker of the house, let alone achieve it," he recounted them telling him after his nomination.

"So I'm so grateful that I get the opportunity standing on those giants," Scott told the crowd. "And want y'all to, when you see me in the room, understand I carry all of y'all with me."

Scott also took a moment to recognize the enslaved Virginians whobuilt the state Capitol.

Don Scott thanks his supporters during a sendoff party in his home district, before heading to Richmond for the opening of the 2024 legislative session.
Shaban Athuman / VPM
/
VPM
Don Scott thanks his supporters during a sendoff party in his home district, before heading to Richmond for the opening of the 2024 legislative session.

"Every time I walk into that Capitol y'all - and this is true, I promise you - I see ghosts," he told the crowd.

"I see our ancestors who were in there, who were emptying people's urine and emptying the spittoons, building the buildings, breaking their backs while people made decisions about whether they were human or not."

That history continues with Scott's ascension as the first Black speaker.


Jahd Khalilis a reporter for VPM News

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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