By Alexa Epitropoulos | [email protected]
Charniele Herring can relate to the needs of many of her constituents because she’s been there.
Herring serves as chair of the House Democratic Caucus and represents Virginia’s 46th district, which extends from the George Washington Masonic Memorial to the city’s westernmost point, in the Virginia state legislature.
She was an Army brat, moving from place to place with her parents before ultimately settling in Northern Virginia in 1980. Later, when her mother, Carolyn Herring — by that time a single parent — was laid off from her job, the two spent months in a homeless shelter.
Carolyn Herring worked to ensure her daughter still made it to school
every day before pounding the pavement in her job search. She eventually landed a job and the two moved permanently to Alexandria, where they’ve remained since. Decades later, Charniele Herring is still inspired by the example her mother set and by the circumstances the two contended with.
“There’s no legal issue involved necessarily, but it caused me to be an advocate. First, as an advocate for children. As a child, I testified in front of a [White House] committee advocating for benefits for military children … I wanted to feel passionate about what I’m working for. I wanted to be an advocate for others. Law was the best way I could think of to do that,” Herring said.
Herring would eventually pursue law after first majoring in economics at George Mason University, which she attended through the state-funded STEP program. After graduating from George Mason, she earned her juris doctorate from Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law.
She initially didn’t have plans to go into politics and started a career practicing law in the D.C. area. Her career as an advocate, however, didn’t end. She served on multiple boards and commissions in Alexandria and was deputy chair for precinct operations in the West End for the Alexandria Democratic Committee.
“Holding office was nothing I aspired to do at all. I worked in the community. I was on the local Commission for Women, the president of the West End Business Association. I would go to Richmond to lobby about things I was interested in for our community and for Alexandria. Someone said to me ‘Have you ever thought of running?’” Herring said. “I said, ‘I’m busy. I have a job in D.C. as an attorney.’ But the opportunity opened up and I jumped in.”
Herring made the decision in 2009 to run for the General Assembly seat Brian Moran unexpectedly vacated. Susan Kellom, the former chair of the ADC, said Herring was prepared when the seat became open.
“I was not surprised that she was not only ready to go, but that she was organized. She’s a very, very capable person,” Kellom said.
Kellom said she saw Herring’s abilities up close when the two served together in their respective roles within the ADC.
“She is a wonderful person and she works with people and that’s what precinct operations is all about – finding people to get people out to vote, motivating them to do what needs to be done,” Kellom said. “She is true to her own beliefs and true to what she says. She’s a very loyal person. She’s a very considerate person. She’s a very discerning person. She’s able to really understand people and talk to them in ways that inspire them to do what needs to be done and she makes people feel like she really understands where they’re coming from.”
Kellom said that, at least in part, is because she does understand.
“I truly believe that what happened to her taught her to be empathetic. It taught her to understand what people can go through and that it’s important to listen to them,” Kellom said. “It’s a terrible shame the way she learned those lessons, but she did learn. She learned how to care about other people, she learned that other people need respect and assistance when things are not going their way.”
Herring said her path to leadership hasn’t been entirely smooth.
“The nature of what I am, a woman and a black woman, it’s an obstacle by the way people perceive me. I’m the first. I was the first [African American] to be elected [chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia], the first woman to chair a caucus. It’s not been an easy road to accomplish what I have,” Herring said. “There’s a sort of perception that the role of the black woman is to support other politicians, to be the one casting the vote, organizing voters to get them to the polls. That has been an obstacle every step of the way.
It’s not insurmountable.”
“I prove them wrong. I don’t pay attention. I can see eyes [roll] up into their head, but I ignore it and I persist on because, ultimately, it’s not about me. It’s about the interest that I have – I always think about the homeless children that exist that don’t get to go home when the last bell rings in school. Or the people sitting in hospitals with a loved one who aren’t able to afford health care,” Herring said.
Herring said the moments she’s proudest of are advocating for affordable housing issues and in 2012 advocating against a version of the mandatory transvaginal ultrasound bill that would have originally required a woman seeking an abortion who was early in her pregnancy to go through a surgery to transplant the device detecting the age of the fetus.
Former Gov. Bob McDonnell signed another version of the bill into law that allowed women to choose an external procedure in lieu of the surgery.
“Whether you be pro-choice or anti-choice, that bill struck a chord for a lot of people because they thought it was an intrusion into a woman’s health care decision,” Herring said.
Herring said her rise to party leadership within the commonwealth
was gradual. She slowly worked her way up the ladder, first serving as party whip of the Democratic caucus in 2011 and becoming chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia in 2012. She held that position for two years, before being elected head of the caucus in 2015.
“It was a long process. I became the whip in 2011 of the caucus and restructured our whip system so we had committee whips and kept a close eye on legislation. I became the state party chair at the end of 2012 and that was an exciting time. From state party chair, I developed skills and learned things about political operations that helped me in my election as a caucus chair. It was a slow process, but I’ve hopefully brought with me those skills and knowledge I learned along the way, serving each position, whether it was as whip or as chair of the caucus. Hopefully that translated into some success,” Herring said.
Lauren Harmon, who was executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia in 2013 when Herring served as chair of the party, can attest to that.
“She’s someone who doesn’t just talk about her values – she’s actually lived them,” Harmon said. “It’s incredible to have a chairwoman who would really bring that ethos to the work we did as a party. She would talk Democrats and non-Democrats about what matters to them, what’s important in their daily lives.”
Harmon said Herring’s greatest strengths are her knowledge of the party, her focus on people and her ability to empathize.
“I would say she is someone that digs in. She’s not just content to have a surface-level understanding of what’s going on … She wants to be alongside folks. That’s something I really appreciated,” Harmon said. “She’s someone who is incredibly passionate. She has this incredible story of experiencing homelessness and all these other things. She brings so much empathy as a party leader. That’s a characteristic I wish we could see more of.”
Susan Swecker, who succeeded Herring as chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia and still serves in that role, said she has known since she first saw Herring speak in 2008 that she had potential as a candidate. The two now work closely together as chair of the party and chair of the caucus.
“We’ve had a long relationship actually and at varying different levels. I really love working with her in this leadership position with the party and her being caucus chair. I’ve watched [our] numbers grow,” Swecker said.
In their more than a decade of knowing one another, Swecker said she’s seen Herring grow as a candidate and as a leader.
“She has a very compelling story – it’s a story about how everyone can make it and that’s a story she tells and it never gets old – how she quickly rose in the ranks of the Democratic Party and its leadership,” Swecker said. “I think she is a very excellent speaker. She’s quiet but forceful in her own way. She has a nice demeanor, but she’s very strong … She never veers from her core ethics.”
Now in her ninth year in the House of Delegates and in her third year as caucus chair, Herring has a number of issues she wants to tackle.
“One of the biggest issues is affordable housing. The most I can do at the state level is making sure we have policies that can help with that. It’s a shame that teachers, firefighters and police can’t live here. We certainly have some living here, but having affordable housing is still important. We have the issue of our schools and having enough room for students,” Herring said. “All I can do is keep doing what I’m doing at the state level.”
When asked if she’s eyeing any runs for higher office, she answers that nothing further is in the works – for now.
“Right now I like what I’m doing. I like representing Alexandria city. I love serving in the General Assembly and love being chair of that caucus. It’s been an incredible experience. I love their honesty with me. It’s really refreshing,” Herring said.
She said she’s continuing to push for a new identity for the Democratic Party as a whole. That, she says, is the only way the party will see gains, both within Virginia and nationally.
“I hope we stay unified. We must remain a big tent party if we’re going to progress. I hope that people will understand that Virginia is diverse in its regions and in different views,” Herring said. “I hope we continue to be a big tent party and make sure we embrace every Democrat. That’s the only way we’re going to stand and increase.”