Rising Stars in Richmond - Christopher Newport University


Jeion Ward (left) and Mike Mullin in front of Pope Chapel on campus at CNU

Rising Stars in Richmond

Two Captains for Life are making a big impact, bettering the lives of Virginians and serving the communities that surround Christopher Newport with inspiring leadership.

Above: Jeion Ward (left) and Mike Mullin

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Jeion Ward ‘95 has served in the House of Delegates since 2004, representing the broad swath of Hampton that constitutes the 92nd District. Since 2016, Mike Mullin ‘04 has represented the 93rd District, which includes the city of Williamsburg and parts of James City County, York County and Newport News.

Both districts are home to a wide range of historic places, from Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown Island to NASA Langley Research Center and Langley Air Force Base, and thousands of Virginians. And both delegates strive to represent them as bold leaders, determined to make the state a better place – not just for their constituents, but for all Virginians.

* * *

As they seek to transform Virginia, both Ward and Mullin have their own stories of transformation as a foundation.

Late at night during her studies to complete her bachelor of arts in English, Ward quietly played “Pomp and Circumstance” to herself. The traditional chords of commencement music served as motivation at 3 a.m., much needed after a day of cooking and caregiving for her family. In it, she found the strength to press on to comb over a paper for mistakes or analyze Madame Bovary.

“I just kept at it over and over again,” she said. “I was going to walk.”

Ward’s path to Christopher Newport was non-traditional. A 1972 graduate of the first integrated class of Warwick High School in Newport News, she married her high school sweetheart, James, and they had three sons, James Jr., Jason and Jeremy.

As the boys reached school age, Ward became an active force in her children’s education in roles such as PTA board member, band booster and athletics team mom. She also became a leader in the Hampton Federation of Teachers (HFT) union, working as a full-time teacher assistant.

It was then, with one child already in college, that she completed the first two years of her degree at Thomas Nelson Community College and transferred to Christopher Newport. As a Captain, she further developed her passion for literature and writing.

Those strengths serve her well today. She’s a sharp proofreader – don’t ask her to edit a letter you wrote if you don’t handle constructive criticism well – and she has strong opinions on modern grammar trends.

She recalls lessons learned in college even now when writing: “I just keep hearing my professors’ voices in my head all the time: ‘Where’s your transition sentence?’”

A dean’s list honoree every semester, Ward was inducted into the English honor society, Sigma Tau Delta, and joined Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., a community she maintains close ties with today.

Best of all, “Pomp and Circumstance” played, and this time it wasn’t in her head. She graduated magna cum laude in 1995 with her degree and a certification to teach middle school.

On graduation day, Ward, clad in her cap and gown, and her husband made sure to stop by her father’s grave to celebrate the realization of her dream. “He wanted me to go to college so badly,” she said. “So when I walked, I had his picture in my hat. I wanted to make sure he understood, I graduated like he told me to.”

After graduation, she continued her advocacy for teachers while working as a mother, becoming vice president and later president of HFT, a position she still holds today.

It was as that voice for teachers that she got to know then-Del. Dr. Mary T. Christian, who represented the 92nd District for 18 years until her retirement in 2003. Christian’s legacy as an educator and as the first Black person and first woman elected to represent Hampton since Reconstruction was renowned. It was she who sought out Ward to run as her replacement.

“I said, ‘I am not a politician,’” she said now, 17 years into her political career. “She said, ‘We need exactly who you are. You’re a spokesperson. You are a voice, and that’s what we need.’”

With the support of Christian and her political friends, Ward beat both primary and general election opponents and has staved off all other challengers in the eight elections since.

In 2020, Ward was named chair of the Labor and Commerce Committee, a consequential position that deals with everything from utilities to insurance to workers’ rights. She also serves on the Rules, Transportation, and Communications and Technology and Innovation committees. Her legislative assistant, Kourtney Brooks '19, is also a Captain.

When asked about her proudest accomplishment, Ward hesitates to single out a specific bill or moment. She finds it just as rewarding to help enact laws to allow the city of Hampton to trim overgrown shrubbery as it is to sponsor the legislation to raise the minimum wage across the state.

That law, signed by Gov. Ralph Northam in 2020, enables a series of raises to the minimum wage for almost every type of worker in Virginia up to $12 an hour by 2023, with further increases planned. The Wason Center for Civic Leadership’s State of the Commonwealth 2020 report found that nearly three-fourths (72%) of Virginia voters supported gradually raising the minimum wage.

Throughout her tenure, Ward has championed issues that she knows matter to members of her community, including extending the timeline for teachers to get recertified (she maintains her license, always ready to return to the classroom) and safer working conditions.

“Not everything we get done is in the headlines, but it affects a lot of people,” she said. “But that’s what’s important to me – representing the everyday person – teachers, children, workers, everyone.”

* * *

Mike Mullin knew he was going to be transformed at Christopher Newport when he first stepped on campus. A Fairfax native, he took a tour as a high school senior and visited a class about Shakespeare taught by Dr. Jay Paul.

“I’ve never seen a more robust and interesting debate on classic literature and the moral decisions behind that than I did when I sat in Dr. Paul’s class,” Mullin said. “When I arrived at CNU, I found an academic environment and discussion that I’ve never been a part of since, and it was beautiful. I couldn’t think of a better place to be able to learn how to think, instead of what to think.”

Once on campus, Mullin was busy. He double majored in English and history and was a member of the Honors Program, eventually writing a senior thesis about Tudor England. He served two years as editor-in-chief of The Captain’s Log and was politically active. He helped found the nonpartisan group Virginia21, designed to give college students a voice in politics.

Mullin always planned to attend law school after graduation, thanks in part to the influence of “Law & Order” marathons which gave him the dream to be a prosecutor at the age of 9. He completed his degree from Columbus School of Law at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. and again called Newport News home.

He worked as a criminal prosecutor in Suffolk and is an assistant commonwealth’s attorney for the city of Hampton.

In 2016, State Senator John Miller, a beloved former Christopher Newport administrator, unexpectedly passed away. The 93rd District’s incumbent, Monty Mason, decided to run for Miller’s former position, opening up the seat for a special election.

Inspired by Miller and a conversation he had around that time with his three sons, Mullin saw an opportunity to impact the community he loved.

“Every night I sit down with them and ask them two questions: what did you learn today, and what did you do for somebody else. Right before or after (Miller) died, Daniel, who is now 10, looked at me and said, ‘Dad, what did you do today for somebody else?’ And I didn’t have a good answer.

“I went to Starbucks, I went to work, I filed papers, and then I came home and had supper. I was sitting there and I don’t think that I made anything better that day. I existed. I didn’t have a good answer for Daniel. I had to change that.”

Mullin won the special election to fill the remainder of the vacant seat’s term, and again won the seat in 2017 and 2019. Once in office he quickly got to work, passing four laws his freshman year, more than any other new member of the House of Delegates. He earned new committee appointments over the years, and currently serves as vice chair of the Rules Committee and as member of the Labor and Commerce and Courts of Justice Committees. He’s won re-election in the highly competitive district every election since.

Mullin’s work as a criminal prosecutor has informed much of his efforts so far. He’s been a vocal supporter for criminal justice reform, finding ways to better serve the Virginians he sees going in and out of a system that can be unfair based on race, income and other inequities.

He’s backed bills designed to fix the “school-to-prison pipeline,” in which disadvantaged students are often harshly punished and removed from the public education system. In 2020 he sponsored a new law that allows prosecutors to drop charges they feel are unjust.

Mullin’s highest profile success has been sponsoring the legislation to abolish the death penalty, making Virginia the first Southern state to ban the practice. A February 2021 Wason Center poll found 56 percent of Virginia registered voters supported its repeal.

Eliminating a punishment which has historically been unfairly applied aligns with Mullin’s mission to fix the system in which he works every day.

“If there isn’t someone who’s willing to work within the system to change it, then how will it be changed?” he said.

“I don’t know a mechanism or a lever of change for a system that is systematically racist and unfair other than people within that system working diligently and daily to change it. If we just wipe our hands and say, ‘I won’t have part of this,’ we allow it to continue.”

Reforming that system gives Mullin a ready answer the next time Daniel asks, “Dad, what did you do today for somebody else?”

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