A Look At Sen. Lionell Spruill
By Lenard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
The primary election is not until next spring. But the campaign to determine which Democrat will represent their party in the 2023 general election in State Senate District 18 is well underway.
Two of the most powerful, and respected African American state Democrats Senators L. Louise Lucas and Lionell Spruill have been forced into a contest to answer that question.
Lucas and Spruill are among several Democrats and Republican House and Senate members who are drawn onto the same district with a member of their party.
The two long-time political allies and friends have been campaigning on their record of service to their community.
Lucas is now the longest serving member and President Pro Temp of the Senate and a member and chair of many important money and policy committees.
Spruill has been in the Senate since 2016, having served in the House for 22 years. He sits or chairs several powerful committees as well.
Both served locally prior to going the General Assembly.
It is not uncommon for highly ranked and regarded politicians to rise from humble origins, and among African Americans, from across the tracks in a racially segregated and poor to working-class neighborhood.
Spruill was one of 15 children born in South Norfolk, before it was merged into the city of Chesapeake.
His father worked as a laborer at the Dominion Paper Company.
Spruill was born with a speech impediment that caused an impairment in his vocal cords. He recalls that his impairment frustrated him to the point where he hurled curse words profusely and clearly as a teen.
“I recall at a May Day Celebration and a member of the school board visited our school,” he said. “My speech impediment got the best of me, but I did tell him that we needed new band instruments and not hand me downs from the white schools.”
Jim Crow tradition called for Black students to get discarded textbooks and other school equipment, including band drums from nearby white schools.
“We got old band equipment from Oscar Smith,” Spruill recalled in a recent Interview with the GUIDE.
“Their colors were Gold and Blue. Carver’s was Orange and Blue. But we still performed at football games and even parades.”
After high school, in 1965 Spruill enrolled at Norfolk State University majoring in music.
After two years he left NSU and landed a job at Potomac (C&P) phone company, the forerunner of Verizon, as a lineman, then installer, and later Central Office Tech.
By then, Spruill had moved his family to South Norfolk in a house along Atlantic Avenue, mostly Black and “across the tracks” in the neighborhood of West Munden after Chesapeake became a city.
“We had no sidewalks…only ditches,” he recalled. “When it rained the water would flood our yard and in the garages. This is when my interest in community service and politics began.”
Spruill said he and his neighbors organized the West Munden Civic League. It became the most active and largest in the city over time. It created the first block security unit in the city.
Lobbying before the Chesapeake Planning Commission and City Council, the organization managed to secure infrastructure improvement in their community. Spruill was selected to serve on the Planning Commission.
He networked with Dr. Willa Bazemore and Dr. William Ward, both noted Chesapeake politicians, whom he would eventually join on the city council with a goal to enhance South Norfolk and other parts of the city.
“Before I moved to West Munden, my family lived in the Broad Lawn Projects. I called a city official and complained about how cold it was in our home,” he said. “He could not understand what I was saying. He told me that when I finally moved out of the project, I should give him a call.”
Spruill, taking advantage of his health care benefits from working for the phone company, underwent a series of surgeries to correct his speech defect.
“Well, I did call that city official and reminded him of what I was trying to say when I was on council,” recalled Spruill. “I still had a little impediment but I told him to turn up the damn heat. He remembered me and I got it fixed.”
In 1994 a vacancy became available in the House of Delegates. The political establishment had supported Attorney Eileen Olds for the seat. When Spruill announced, he heard people say he was not ready “not House material.”
“I still had a speech impediment and I was direct, but I was effective in my community and the council,” he said.
He said some of his accomplishments during this time had involved garnering more funding for the schools, especially in South Norfolk; halting the building of apartments rather than single-family homes; implementing more recreation and infrastructure programs like water and sewer in the old Black communities like Crestwood.
“I built support on that and I worked hard in every neighborhood for votes,” he said.
And he won. But even he admits when he arrived in Richmond, his rough edges and naivete were evident.
He says he balanced it with a sense of fairness, listening to his advisors like Bill Ward.
By a straw vote, he was cast as 100 – the bottom — of the House pecking order. But he was not intimidated
“One of the first things I noticed from the first to the ninth floor of the House office building was no Black people were working in any job,” he recalled. “I asked around and began working to change that with other people.”
Spruill says he was a quick student of the system of seniority deal-making and power.
In 1994 Chesapeake had no Black judges. City leaders held the power to nominate candidates for the courts.
Spruill worked to have the rules changed where the members of the party caucus would pick them.
Chesapeake’s first three Black jurists were appointed.
The first was Bernard Goodwin, now Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court. The second was Rufus Banks, who still sits on the Chesapeake bench, and the third was his former political rival Eileen Olds.
At one point Spruill wanted to sit in a hearing on the powerful Appropriations Committee. But he was not allowed in the room.
“I did not understand why I am a Delegate, why couldn’t I,” said Spruill. “I didn’t even know what the committee did at first. I made a fuss about it and a member of the press overheard me complaining. Eventually, they changed and stopped barring members from entering the room when they were discussing budget issues.”
For years Norfolk State University and Virginia State University, two state-support HBCUs, were underfunded. At one point Spruill rose to speak on the floor and invoked race as the reason why there were such funding disparities. The existing Black leaders called him crazy.
Spruill says he got his way and got cozy with the existing members and eventually got a seat on the panel. One of the priorities was assuring that NSU and VSU received adequate funding.
When Senator Kenneth C. Alexander was elected Norfolk’s mayor, Spruill replaced him in a special election that year.
By then Spruill was a seasoned and respected state lawmaker.
“The State Senate, unlike the House, is a more congenial and professional body,” said Spruill. “We talk to each other. Often, we put policy and the need of the people above party. I have learned to work with the folks on the other side of the aisle. That’s how we get things done.”
He chairs the Hampton Roads Caucus, and like his predecessors, has convinced Democrat and Republican lawmakers to work in unison for the region not just their districts.
Despite resistance from most of the councils in the region, municipal elections are held dueling the fall general election to assure greater voter attention and turnout.
Spruill and Delegate Delores McQuinn sponsored the “Crown Act”, which protects the right of African American women to wear their hair as they wish on the job in Virginia. Now such legislation is working its way through the U.S. Congress and in other states, according to
Among his achievements, he worked to prevent residents of assisted living from being evicted by assuring they would have a hearing to plead their case.
Spruill is on the important Transportation Committee; chairs the Privileges and Elections Committee; and is a member of the Commerce and Labor Committee.
He was also elected to the Senate Rules Committee, a leadership committee in the Senate.
Photo: NJG Files