By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
State Senator L. Louise Lucas is President pro tempore of the Virginia Senate, the first African American woman to secure that post.
She also has the longest tenure in that body, and is the second highest ranking elected Black official in the state.
Over her 30-year political career toward obtaining such power, she built it with other firsts and her will to overcome challenges and people underestimating her ambitions and abilities to perform in positions of power and responsibility.
Now Lucas, who represents the current 18th Senate District, faces another political challenge. Both she and state Senator Lionell Spruill have been drawn through redistricting into a newly designed 18th Senate District that will bring them in competition in a June 2023 primary election. Voters will decide which one will represent Democrats for the new 18th District seat when the General Election is held next year n November 2023.
This situation resulted when the responsibility of performing the state’s post Census redistricting was thrown into the lap of the State Supreme Court. Now over half of the current state senate is running against a colleague.
The redrawn 18th district covers over 60 percent of Chesapeake and 40 percent of Portsmouth.
Lucas and Spruill both have storied political careers and a broad range of support in Hampton Roads and beyond.
Both admit the hard choice that voters will have to make between the two.
This has energized their ambitions to succeed during recent interviews with GUIDE. (Please see New Journal and Guide, September 22-29, 2022 for our interview with Sen. Lionell Spruill.)
Lucas was the first Black woman elected to the first majority Black city council in Portsmouth in 1984.
The late James Holley was mayor and she was part of the shifting dynamics in the region’s largest majority Black city.
Lucas was born in Douglass Park, and later when her family moved to Cavalier Manor, she was known as the loud and brassy “home girl”, as stories in the GUIDE described her. She has not strayed too far from that description, one that people find admirable or the opposite.
A product of Portsmouth’s I.C. Norcom High School, Lucas was one of first Black women in the Apprentice Program at the Shipyard where she secured a position in the draft shop and then Nautical Engineering Tech before she became the first in her family to get an undergraduate degree in Industrial Education and a Master’s Degree in Urban Affairs from NSU.
She was also the first woman President of the Portsmouth NAACP, where she said she honed her interest in social justice and equality.
In 1985 while serving on the city council, she became the first woman appointed Interim Executive Director of the Southeastern Tidewater Opportunity Project (STOP), before she was selected executive director of the organization.
It was around that time that the mother of two small daughters and a son she lost to a tragic car accident, was almost sidelined with heart palpitations.
But she would not allow it, and overcame her health challenge.
After a stint on the Portsmouth council, Lucas upset the incumbent of the 18th Senate District, the largest one in the state at the time which was a mix of rural locales and urban Portsmouth in 1991.
“I was the second Black woman elected to the Senate,” she recalled. “Yvonne Miller was the first. Thank goodness for that because she kept me on the straight path.”
A year later she left the position as head of STOP, INC.
Now having served more than three decades in the Senate, her continuing tenure positions her to become the first African American to chair the powerful Senate Finance Committee.
Lucas’ current station in life is a far cry from her humble beginnings. Along with her vast political career, she is also a successful entrepreneur.
“I have always been underestimated,” she said. “But when allowed to demonstrate my skills I far exceeded those low expectations. I am an overachiever because I always worked hard.”
Democrats have a one-seat majority in the Senate. Despite the complicated scenario that the most recent redistricting has created, the party needs to hold on to the 18th and other districts to continue their control of that body.
Both Lucas and Spruill said they will not take political alliances nor their standing in the Senate for granted.
They are keenly aware of the enormous power they will wield to benefit their respective district and Hampton Roads, also.
Lucas and Spruill have launched their campaigns early to win the party’s Spring Primary next June, to determine which of the two will be on the ballot against the GOP candidate in November of 2023.
Like her challenger, Lucas has been attending a long calendar of political and civic gatherings. Chatting with folks and shaking every hand in reach, both have been careful about hurling any barbs or charges against each other.
There is little light between Lucas and her opponent on their support of the party’s agenda.
When asked to speak, both Lucas and Spruill are eager to talk about how their chairmanships and influence in the State Senate give them the best chance to serve their constituents.
They are quick to point out their plans to funnel much-needed state funding for education, transportation, housing, and other needs in the region, not just the 18th District.
For years Lucas led the fight to legalize casino gambling in Virginia. Lawmakers said it would be a form of entertainment and generate revenue for many cash-strapped locales.
Now Portsmouth is set to open its casino by the first of next year.
Norfolk is still developing plans while Bristol and Danville have theirs up and operating in temporary spaces.
To curb the high incarceration rates, especially among young Black men, Lucas led the fight for legal personal possession of an ounce of weed. She also supported medical marijuana and opened various shops which sell Cannabis, including her native Portsmouth.
Conservative Republican Glenn Youngkin was elected governor last November and the GOP has a slight edge in the House.
The Republican Governor and House leaders support rolling back abortion rights now that Roe Vs. Wade which provided federal protection was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court
Democrats fear that some of the criminal justice reforms Democrats championed and erasing the references to the idea of equity and civil rights in the state department’s policy statements.
The State Senate where the Democrats have a slim majority was the firewall against such regressive efforts.
Lucas said she was the “brick wall against Youngkin and the Republican and we need to keep it standing with me in the Senate.”
Lucas said that once she is securing the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, she will work on plans to steer millions back to Hampton, especially for higher education and transportation, and fight the impact of global warming along the coastline.
“If they look at my record, they know I have brought home the bacon,” she continued. “I have voted to support women’s rights, criminal justice reforms, and K-12 education, not just in Hampton Roads but statewide.”
“I don’t think the people of the 18th district of the region would stand to lose all leadership,” said Lucas.
“The voters have a clear choice.”