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Hala Ayala vs. Winsome Sears: Virginia's next lieutenant governor will make history

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Virginia voters will make a historic choice Tuesday: They'll almost certainly elect the commonwealth's first woman lieutenant governor and the first woman of color to statewide office, cracking the glass ceiling in a state that has never elected a woman to its highest office.

Democrat Hala Ayala faces off against Republican candidate Winsome Sears for a role that is widely seen as a launching pad to the governorship — a role that's never been held by a woman, let alone a woman of color — in the state. 

"I want the children, when they see me, to say to themselves: 'Well, Winsome is there. If she can do it, then I can do it.' And then you know, we move on," Sears, who is a former state delegate, told USA TODAY.

But, she added, making history only goes so far: It's the governance that matters. "If all you do is shatter the glass ceiling, and then no one can trust you, then what's the point?"

The candidate who wins the race in Virginia will join three other Black female lieutenant governors in the nation, as Black women continue to transform their political power into leadership positions and aim for higher offices they have long been denied: No state in the U.S. has elected a Black woman as governor

Advocates have said with a record number of Black female candidates running for office, that glass ceiling could break in 2022.  

Nationwide, six Black women — all Democrats — have announced their gubernatorial candidacies in 2022: New York Attorney General Letitia James; South Carolina state Sen. Mia McLeod; former Oklahoma state Sen. Connie Johnson; Harvard Professor Danielle Allen of Massachusetts; activist and business owner Deidre DeJear of Iowa; and educator Deirdre Gilbert of Texas.

In Virginia, Princess Blanding is running for governor as a third-party candidate for the new Liberation Party this year. But she has received scant media attention and recent polling shows 2% of voters support Blanding. 

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Inside a tight race for 'the right' lieutenant governor 

In the final weekend of the race, both Ayala, a current state delegate, and Sears are participating in get-out-the-vote bus tours. 

A Christopher Newport University poll released Wednesday showed the two candidates in a statistical tie. Ayala has a one-point lead over Sears, 49% to 48%, which is within the survey's 3.5% margin of error. 

Another CNU poll released in early October showed Ayala narrowly leading Sears, 48% to 44%, which is within the survey’s 4.2% margin of error.  

"Since we polled these races in early October, Democratic leads have all but disappeared," the pollsters wrote.

Ayala, who has Lebanese, Afro-Latina and Irish ancestry, told USA TODAY in an interview that while "representation matters," the election isn't solely about electing a woman of color. 

"We must first and foremost elect the right woman of color to statewide office," Ayala said. "This is about the future of the Commonwealth. We must work very hard to continue the progress we built on," Ayala said.

Sears or Ayala will join a small but elite group of Black women who currently serve as lieutenant governor in only three states: Sheila Oliver of New Jersey, Juliana Stratton of Illinois and Sabina Matos of Rhode Island. All three are Democrats. 

"We can't be what we can't see," Ayala, who has served as a delegate since 2018, said. "I'm going to be the last woman in the room with the governor and discuss these policies that we all care about from our economics to our healthcare to our schools."

Sears, a Jamaican immigrant, was the first and only Republican Black woman elected to the Virginia House of Delegates.

"So I make history. So what? It's done," Sears told USA TODAY in an interview. "And now what the people want to know is, how are you going to govern? What are your policies? What are your issues? How are you going to serve us? Because that's what this is about."

The U.S. Marine Corps veteran is an ardent gun rights advocate who has said she values them as "an immigrant from a (third) world country."

"I have been able to talk to the immigrant population, because there's a different kind of issue there," Sears said. "I have been able to speak to Black voters, Asian voters, Latino voters and white voters ... I'm just myself. We talk about the issues. I don't talk about blackness like this, you know, Latino that. I just talk about the issues, because that's what I've always wanted, don't come here and try to peddle race to me. Talk to me as if I have some sense."

The two women differ on a host of other issues, from taxes to criminal justice reform. But Ayala and Sears agree on reforms to the education system.

Both candidates back a pay raise for teachers in the public school system. Ayala is focused on school infrastructure investment and reducing overcrowding in classrooms, while Sears promotes teacher recruitment and school choice.

Keauna Gregory, political director of Black to the Future Action Fund, an organization founded by Black Lives Matter Global Network co-creator Alicia Garza that empowers Black voters, said Virginians want a “proven leader” in power. 

“I think folks are excited about the history but they're more excited to put a proven leader and someone who has actually been able to get things done in that position,” said Gregory.

Along with increasing teacher compensation, Gregory also said Black voters, "want to know that when they send their children to school, they're getting an accurate retelling of history and that (it) is being done safely."

Voters across the political spectrum told USA TODAY they were excited Virginia will elect a woman of color as lieutenant governor. 

Barbara Kanninen, 58, chair of the Arlington School Board said "Just having any woman elected to statewide office is going to be a big thing in Virginia. It's terrible that it's true, but it is true.”

James Manship, 68, a George Washington impersonator and historian, said he's a friend of Sears and has known her for many years going back to his time in the Navy and Sears' service as a Marine. 

Manship was dressed as Washington at a  get-out-the-vote rally last Saturday for Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin. Holding a "Parents for Youngkin" poster, the Mt. Vernon, Va., resident told USA TODAY Sears is "a tremendous person." 

“She had a nice life up in Winchester and people said, ‘Winsome, would you please run for lieutenant governor?’ And she felt the call of duty to do so," Manship said about Sears. "That’s just the core of being a good citizen is when you’re called by your fellow citizens to serve, you do so. And that’s what Winsome is doing.” 

More: Barack Obama hits campaign trail in bellwether Virginia race as Democrats try to galvanize Black voters

The glass ceiling in statewide office 

The Virginia race could be an important springboard to getting more Black women into higher office and creating a pipeline for executive positions at the state and national level.

A joint report recently released by Higher Heights, an organization that helps elect Black women, and the Center for American Women and Politics found Black women are underrepresented as statewide executive level officeholders, holding only 1.9% of these positions. 

The researchers note no Black women won statewide executive elections in 2020 despite five Black women nominees on the ballot. 

“Over the last 10 years the work of organizations, the work of Black women, have been helping to shift the narrative around what leadership looks like," said Glynda Carr, president and CEO of Higher Heights, at a media briefing. "It is our greatest opportunity in the growth we've done, but it's also still the greatest barrier.”

More: Lack of party support and money, plus racism and sexism, mean Black women often lose statewide elections

Virginia Commonwealth University professor Jatia Wrighten said it's "absolutely exhausting" that Black women, who overwhelmingly support Democrats, consistently show up for the Democratic Party without receiving leadership positions in return. Other political scientists point out there is a growing level of dissatisfaction from Black women toward the Democratic party.  

“Black women are the difference in the Democratic Party. It's way past time for them to be to be recognized for that difference and not with some symbolic action. But real, substantive recognition with leadership positions," said Wrighten. 

The GOP has also acknowledged the need to appeal to voters from a wider variety of backgrounds, despite a mixed track record in attracting voters and candidates of color.

A Republican National Committee autopsy conducted after Republican Mitt Romney's 2012 election loss to former President Barack Obama stated the GOP needed to focus its efforts on attracting voters of color with a focus on Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander, African American, Indian American and Native American communities along with women and young voters. 

"Unless the RNC gets serious about tackling this problem, we will lose future elections," the report stated. 

Contributing: Deborah Berry