RICHMOND, Va. — On a December afternoon, Winsome Sears, Virginia’s elected lieutenant governor, stood on stage in the state Senate chamber, where she would soon preside. It was empty, but for some of the clerks and staff who were following him through a practice session, making points of spurious pace and order. Ms. Sears accompanies as clerks explained mysterious Senate protocols, although she sometimes brought up matters that were not in script.
“What if they’re making a ruckus?” Ms. Sears asked her teachers.
Then, a clerk pointed to the giant wooden gavel on Ms. Sears’ right hand, saying, You beat her. Ms. Sears smiled.
She stood here at all, it was an impossibility built on impossibilities. His campaign was a long shot, late to start, underfunded and overhauled frequently. The political trajectory that preceded it was hardly more auspicious: She had appeared on the scene 20 years earlier, winning a legislative seat, but after one term and a quick bid for Congress, disappeared from electoral politics. She appeared briefly in 2018, announcing a write-in in opposition to Virginia’s Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, but it earned her beyond a few curious mentions in the press.
Yet just three years later she’s lieutenant-elect, besting two veteran lawmakers for the Republican nomination and becoming the first black woman in Virginia’s history to be elected to statewide office. She will take office on January 15 along with elected Governor Glenn Youngkin.
On Ms. Sears’ victory, in news profiles and in the post-election crowd of conservative pundits, the focus has been on a rare combination of her biography and politics: a black woman, an immigrant and an emphatically conservative, Trump-boosting Republican.
“The message is important,” Ms Sears, 57, said over a Jamaican oxtail lunch with her transition team at a restaurant near the state capitol. “But the messenger is equally important.”
It’s the question that embodies Ms. Sears: is she a singular figure who won a surprise victory or spearheaded a major political reorganization, dissolving long-standing realities of race and partisan identities. Democrats say there is little evidence for the latter, and that Sears won a particularly Republican year with typical Republican voters. But Ms Sears stresses that many black and immigrant voters naturally favor Republicans on a variety of issues – and few are beginning to realize this.
“The only way to turn things around is to win the election,” she said. “And who better than me to help make that change? I look like the tactician.”
Ms Sears dated her own partisan epiphany to her early 20s. By that time she already had plenty of life experience: moving from Jamaica at the age of 6 to the Bronx to live with her father, who had come looking for work; Join the Marines as a lost teen and learn to be a diesel mechanic; Became a single mother at the age of 21. When she listened to the 1988 presidential campaign, debates on abortion and welfare, to her surprise, she was a Republican.
More than a dozen years passed since Ms. Sears, then a married mother of three children who ran a homeless shelter and attended graduate school, began her political career. At the urging of local Republicans, she ran for the House of Delegates in the majority Black District in Norfolk in 2001. The seat was held by Billy Robinson Jr., a Democrat, for 20 years; His father had placed him in front of him. A few weeks before the election, Mr Robinson spent a night in prison on charges of contempt of court. Ms. Sears won in an election-season surprise.
In the Legislature, it accommodated the political architecture and its unusual place in it: joining, then leaving, the Legislative Black Caucus; Voting credibly as a Republican, but calling for the Republican House speaker’s resignation earlier than many colleagues when news of his sexual assault settlement broke.
She did not run for re-election, instead launching an underdog campaign against Democratic US Representative Bobby Scott. Mr Scott returned to Congress, where he remains, and the House of Delegates seat returned to Democratic hands for good. Ms Sears was “done with the politics,” she said.
Her family moved to the small town of Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley, where Ms. Sears and her husband ran a plumbing and electrical repair shop. He served on a few positions on a committee of the State Board of Education and the Department of Veterans Affairs—and wrote a book called, “Stop Being a Christian Wimp!” Most of his focus was on caring for a daughter battling mental illness. In 2012, the daughter, Dijon Williams, was killed in a car accident along with their two young children.
While Ms. Sears was absent from politics, Barack Obama won the presidency, Trayvon Martin was assassinated, the Black Lives Matter movement sprang up, Donald Trump was elected and the neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, VA as a political example of Ms. Sears. Did. The black female Republican who represented the majority black district in Virginia did not run repeatedly.
That said, Republicans rarely tried to break old ties between black voters and the Democratic Party. That’s why he decided to run this year.
“I just took a look at the field, and said, ‘My god, we’re gonna lose again,'” she said. “No one was going to reach out to the different communities that needed to be heard: women, immigrants, you know, Latinos, Asians, blacks, etc.”
She stood on the right side of most of the field and was arguably the far right of three Republicans nominated for statewide office. She supports strict limits on abortion, calling Democratic abortion policies “rogue”; She advocates vouchers to help students pay for private school tuition and tighter restrictions on voting; And she insists that gun control laws don’t prevent crime — gun ownership does. a photo that went viral last spring, showing her holding an AR-15 while wearing the appropriate blazer-and-dress outfit for a Chamber of Commerce luncheon, propelled her as much to the Republican nomination.
Ms. Sears ridiculed the Left because they were too concerned with race, but often cites their politics as rooted in black history, Jim Crow emphasizing Marcus Garvey’s rhetoric on self-reliance in America as a Jamaican immigrant, that But insisting that Harriet Tubman took a gun and mentioned it. The infamous Tuskegee experiment used to explain opposition to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate. “If Democrats are always going to talk about race, then let’s talk about it,” she said.
She rejects the notion that the problems Republicans have attracted to black voters may go deeper than mere neglect. When Republicans nominated Corey Stewart, who has a history of engaging with Neo-Confederates, for the 2018 U.S. Senate race in Virginia, she was outraged. But he said it did not make him worry about the party. She continues to champion Mr. Trump, who has openly supported Mr. Stewart; In fact, she was the national president of a group called “Black Americans to Re-Elect the President”.
Jennifer McClellan, a Democratic state senator from Richmond, agreed that Democrats cannot assume that black people will show up for them in the election, adding that black voters, like any electorate, select candidates on the basis that Who are they going to help solve? Problem. But, she continued, much of what Ms Sears has said suggests she will be that person in the office.
Ms McClellan said, “Most black voters disagree with him on abortion, school choice, guns.” “They’re not necessarily the issues driving black voters anyway. It’s the economy, it’s health care, it’s widespread access to education.”
The evidence that this year’s elections have broken the core principles of race and partisanship is mixed. In any case, some Republicans worried that Sears’ hard-right politics could jeopardize her campaign strategy to attract more liberal voters. This risk was largely mitigated, said John Fredericks, a conservative radio host, by the fact that Ms. Sears’ general election campaign, which he called “a train wreck from start to finish”, never affected his politics. Didn’t raise enough money to air.
In any case, the attention was highly directed at the top of the ticket.
“This year’s election was all about gubernatorial candidates,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington. There were some big surprises in the exit polls, several political experts said, and Ms. Sears won her race by a margin that would have been expected of any Republican this year.
But there were some warning signs for Democrats, outlined in a post-election poll by the Democratic Governors Association. While Black Virginians voted overwhelmingly for Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee for governor, the analysis found a drop in Democratic support among black men compared to the 2020 presidential election. Democratic support also decreased significantly among Asian and Latino voters.
“We don’t see or need to be tied to any particular party,” said Wes Bellamy, a black political activist and former deputy mayor of Charlottesville. He will be watching Ms Sears closely, he said.
Lieutenant governors in Virginia are fairly limited in their responsibilities, but they have a public profile—and they almost always run for governor. If Ms. Sears advocates for policies that improve the day-to-day lives of black people and, more importantly, if she can persuade her Republican allies to follow along, Bellamy said , “I think she’s gold.”