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'Too long in coming': Portrait of former Speaker Kirk Cox unveiled in House

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Jay Pearson, House of Delegates sergeant-at-arms, unveils the portrait of former Speaker of the House Kirk Cox.

Former Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, honored in the House chamber where he served for 32 years, paused for a moment after addressing his successor, Speaker Todd Gilbert, as “Mr. Speaker.”

“It’s weird, isn’t it?” asked Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, who had just been sworn in as the 57th Speaker of the 203-year-old legislative body, which convened on Wednesday with a Republican majority.

But Cox, a Republican from Colonial Heights who worked for decades to hold the title for just two years, responded, “It’s a thrill for me to be able to call you that.”

Stranger still, Gilbert was flanked at the speaker’s rostrum on one side by a portrait of former Speaker Bill Howell, R-Stafford, who was present for the ceremony, and on the other by a portrait of Cox, completed more than a year ago but unveiled in the House chamber on Wednesday.

“This was too long in coming,” Gilbert said.

The portrait by Philadelphia artist Garth Herrick depicts Cox with a picture of Shepherd Stadium, a Colonial Heights landmark where he played baseball; a book about Chesterfield County; and a commemorative tie from the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation he received in 2007 for the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown.

Cox, in an interview before the ceremony, called the photograph of Shepherd Stadium “my special thing” in the portrait, which had been privately unveiled 13 months ago — during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic — but never formally hung during the two-year term of Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax.

Filler-Corn became the first woman in Virginia history to serve as speaker after Democrats took control of the chamber, ending Cox’s reign after one term.

“I would have liked it to have been longer,” he acknowledged in an interview after the ceremony, which was attended by his wife, Julie; four sons; and first granddaughter, Lila Grace.

Cox won re-election to his House seat in 2019, though the district became more Democratic-leaning following court-ordered redistricting to correct the effects of racial gerrymandering in 2011. But in Virginia’s second electoral wave since the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president, Republicans lost control of the House that they had ruled, holding two-thirds of the seats only two years earlier under Howell.

“I worked so hard to win my election,” he said. “To lose the House was difficult.”

Howell, who served as Speaker for 15 years before retiring at the beginning of 2018, attended the ceremony with his wife, Cessie, but made no formal remarks.

“I’m just watching,” he said before the House convened.

But Howell had nothing but praise for Cox .

“He’s just a wonderful guy,” he said. “All the years I was speaker, he was my right-hand man.”

After Democrats won the majority, Cox served a final term before declining to run for re-election last year. He sought the Republican nomination for governor and finished fourth in the race. Glenn Youngkin, who won the nomination, defeated former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in November and will be inaugurated as Virginia’s 74th governor on Saturday.

“I think Glenn is going to be really good,” Cox said of the incoming governor.

There had been talk after Youngkin won the GOP nomination of Cox serving as his secretary of education, but that didn’t happen, so his long career in public service has come to a pause, if not an end.

Cox admitted feeling nervous as he spoke from the unfamiliar vantage point of the chamber’s center aisle, reserved for special visits to the chamber.

A teacher for 30 years, he recalled bringing his high school government class students to the Virginia Capitol and the House chamber — never to the U.S. Capitol.

“I always took my classes here because this is the oldest legislative body in the new world,” he said. “This is where it all started.”

Cox never lost his reverence for the institution or his appetite for the work of a legislator. He was a longtime member of the House Appropriations Committee and attended his final meeting of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the General Assembly’s watchdog, on Tuesday.

“Please don’t ever consider one day you spent here not as an absolute privilege,” he said. “This is the people’s house.”

Cox was introduced by Del. Mike Cherry, R-Colonial Heights, who just had been sworn in as a new delegate from the district the former speaker represented.

He was lauded by newly installed House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, who teased Cox about his devotion to the New York Yankees and quoted Yankees slugger Babe Ruth.

“’You just can’t beat a person who never gives up,’” Kilgore quoted the Bambino, “and that’s Kirk Cox.”

The moment held particular meaning for Gilbert, who served as House majority leader after Cox became speaker and then led the GOP back to power after one term as minority leader.

“I’m going to take the privilege of the moment to thank you personally for this opportunity,” he told Cox, “because I’m quite certain that had you not given me the opportunities to shine on the floor as your deputy, I would not be in this position right now.”

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