The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As tributes to Rep. McEachin pour in, Youngkin weighs special election

Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) in 2021. (Steve Helber/AP)
5 min

RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin said Tuesday that he had not yet decided when to call a special election to fill the vacancy left by Rep. A. Donald McEachin, whose death Monday night came as a surprise despite the Virginia Democrat’s long struggle with cancer and the aftereffects of cancer treatment.

McEachin, who was 61, had represented Virginia’s 4th District, which stretches from Richmond to the North Carolina line, since 2017. Before that, he had served nine years as a state senator and eight as a delegate.

On Tuesday, a spokesman for McEachin said the exact cause of death was still unclear but referred back to a statement the office released late Monday noting McEachin’s battle with “secondary effects of his colorectal cancer from 2013.” The spokesman, Shahid Ahmed, described the congressman’s death as very sudden and unexpected.

Under state law, the governor calls a special election to fill the vacancy when a member of the House of Representative dies or resigns. The law does not specify how soon the governor must act.

Youngkin did not provide a timeline for when the decision would be made, noting he would consult with others about selecting a date.

Praising McEachin as “an extraordinary public servant” who fought “a very tough battle with cancer,” the governor said at a morning ribbon-cutting event, and then again at an economic development announcement in Arlington, that it was too soon to pivot to plans for replacing him.

“Today and for the next few days is going to be a moment to celebrate him,” Youngkin said at the Arlington event. “And we should all just step back and recognize what an extraordinary public servant he was for 23 years, both to the commonwealth and to the nation.”

The governor called on Virginians to “lift up his family with prayers.”

“We’ll have a moment then to get to the special election. I think that Virginians from his district deserve representation in Congress,” he added. “We’ll do something that’s responsible. But I want to first make sure that we’re appropriately celebrating and acknowledging his great contributions.”

Members of the Virginia congressional delegation — from both chambers and both parties — gathered on the House floor Tuesday evening as Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), the dean of the delegation, and Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) memorialized their friend and colleague.

Scott described McEachin as a “relentless champion for all Virginians” as well as a “trailblazing figure in Virginia politics,” noting he was the first Black nominee of a major party for attorney general and only the third African American elected to Congress from Virginia. Scott was the second.

Throughout his tenure, Scott said, McEachin was “resolute in pushing Virginia to lead the way in climate policy,” while recognizing the climate crisis as a moral issue and “using his skills as a trial lawyer to fight to ensure that the voices of the most vulnerable communities were heard and heeded.” Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) wiped away tears as Scott spoke.

“May we all seek to honor Donald’s life and legacy by working to build a future in which everyone has access to clean air, water and soil,” Scott said. “Madam Speaker, this body has lost one of its most dedicated public servants and fiercest advocates for justice and equality, and he will be deeply missed.”

Wittman said he and McEachin first met while they were in high school, as each attended rival Richmond schools. They later reconnected while serving in the Virginia House of Delegates. Despite their political differences, Wittman said he admired McEachin’s passion for solving Virginians’ problems, and how “he just loved the whole idea of giving of himself and putting others first.”

“Donald was indeed the quintessential public servant, the quintessential leader, the example for all of us in the Virginia delegation,” Wittman said. “Let’s all remember his legacy, his legacy of service, what he has done to uplift all of us, to make all of us better as members of this legislative body.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the White House and Youngkin ordered flags be flown at half-staff in remembrance of McEachin.

In a statement Tuesday, President Biden offered condolences to McEachin’s family, noting he got to know McEachin after his election to Congress in 2016 and describing him as a “fighter.”

“He fought for justice, for civil rights, and for communities that are often left behind,” the president said. “Thanks to Don’s leadership and tireless advocacy, we passed historic legislation to combat the climate crisis and advance environmental justice.”

Vice President Harris, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016 and joined the Congressional Black Caucus the same year as McEachin, said she would “miss his friendship and his advocacy and passion for improving our world for generations to come.”

In a statement late Monday, McEachin’s office said memorial arrangements would be announced in coming days.

McEachin, a lawyer and minister, was known as an impassioned champion for environmental justice and for policies to mitigate climate change, with keen attention to its uneven impact on disadvantaged or minority communities.

In keeping with those priorities, McEachin co-founded the United for Climate and Environmental Justice Task Force, while also serving on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Natural Resources Committee and Select Committee on Climate Crisis. He fought as well for preserving historic land and natural beauty, such as the Great Dismal Swamp in southeastern Virginia.

McEachin has publicly discussed his battle with cancer, and did so as recently as two weeks ago.

At a packed movie theater hosting a “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” viewing party, McEachin stressed to the crowd “the importance of early detection,” urging regular exams, as WTVR reported at the event.

“Don’t fool around. Don’t go through my journey,” McEachin said. “Go to the doctor.”

Teo Armus contributed to this report.