Del. Charniele Herring has traveled around this country, but the first African American woman to chair the Democratic Party of Virginia says, “I just love Virginia; it’s been very good to me,” Ironic words coming from this great-great-granddaughter of a Lynchburg slave who today leads the state’s political party that once upheld segregation in the former capital of the Confederacy.
While past transgressions may be in the back of her mind, Herring is passionately pushing for a different, more diverse future in Virginia’s rapidly changing political landscape. Not only must this savvy young woman retain her own seat representing a district in Virginia’s House of Delegates covering parts of Alexandria in the fall elections, she must also be the party spokesperson and spearhead upcoming campaigns with tough statewide elections for governor and all the seats up for grabs.
Tall order, but Herring says she’s up to the task. She is even “optimistic,” predicting that Democrats will pick up a few seats if “we can turn out the diversity” that’s changing the demographics of the swing state with candidates who “are more reflective of Virginia.” These victories, she adds, will be despite Republicans attempts to redistrict the election districts in their favor.
Judging from the impressive way she handled complex issues against Republican surrogates during recent broadcast debates on D.C.-based news outlets like the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU-FM and News Channel 8, it’s clear why she has become party chair so quickly. In the latter where she was speaking in support of the 2014 gubernatorial candidacy of Democrat Terry McAuliffe, Herring pounced to correctly refute claims being made about the role Republican gubernatorial candidate Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli played in forcing restrictive measures on abortion clinics in the state.
“I thought, oh, no; reproductive health rights; you don’t want to go there with me,” Herring said in a later interview with the AFRO. She chairs the Legislative Reproduction Health Caucus.
As minority whip, she surprised some of Virginia’s old guard. “I don’t let the fact that there are a lot of men around affect me; I thrive in competitive environments,” said Herring, who is one of 18 African Americans in the state legislature.
However, she added, “there’s nothing wrong with compromise.” Herring has also been able to claim some bipartisan legislative victories such as working with Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell in passing legislation to help the homeless as well as the landmark transportation package to ease congestion.
The ole’ boys club in Richmond aside, Herring has faced bigger challenges before. A casual observer could easily assume that the attractive, friendly Herring hails from a privileged suburban family where her only concern might have been getting good grades. Not so. Though she doesn’t exploit her personal challenges like some politicians, Herring is quick to let you know, “when I was in high school, I was homeless.”
The 43-year-old Herring was born in the Dominican Republic into an Army family, but by the time her parents divorced and her mother moved them into a shelter, they were living in Virginia. It was an educational program at George Mason University which Herring credits for literally changing her life for the better. That extended lifeline is the reason why she feels so indebted to the state and so committed to giving back to other vulnerable Virginians, she says.
Herring says, “I believe in a basic sense of equity and fair access for everyone to succeed.”
Today, she and her mother share a home in the west end of Alexandria. Besides her mother, who she credits with setting an example of tenacity and perseverance against all odds; and an older brother, now a doctor, who she credits with instilling her with competitiveness; she credits her professional mentor, prominent D.C.-based attorney Natalie O. Ludaway with pushing her toward perfection and simply “speaking up for what I believe in.”
Ludaway said, “I can’t call Charniele a young lawyer who is up and coming, a rising star; I think she has achieved … and wants to make a change for the better.” Further, Ludaway said Herring is confident, energetic and hardworking, and to some she seems soft-spoken. “Some might underestimate Charniele and take her desire to help people as a weakness,” but that would be a mistake.
Herring notes that she’s been involved in politics since she was 13 and her mother took her on Capitol Hill to testify in favor of health care benefits for military children. A graduate of George Mason University and Catholic University’s law school, Herring was elected to represent her district in a special election in December 2009, to replace Brian Moran who was running for governor that year.
Although she says, “It’s really sad in 2013” to be touted as the first African American woman to chair the Virginia state democratic party, also ”it’s certainly been an honor.”
Veteran journalist Adrienne Washington writes weekly for the AFRO about relevant issues in the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia. Send correspondence to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.