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McClellan projected to become first Black woman to represent Va. in Congress

Virginia state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond), center, with supporters outside John Rolfe Middle School in Henrico County on Tuesday. (Parker Michels-Boyce for The Washington Post)
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State Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan defeated conservative pastor Leon Benjamin to become the first Black woman to represent Virginia in Congress, the Associated Press projected Tuesday.

McClellan (D-Richmond) bested Benjamin in his third bid for the 4th District seat, vacated after the death in November of Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D), whom McClellan has described as a longtime friend and mentor.

McClellan, 50, was widely expected to prevail in the deep-blue, Richmond-anchored district, which stretches to the North Carolina border. But within the broader arc of history, in a city still contending with its Confederate past — in a country still reckoning with the consequences of slavery, segregation and “massive resistance” — McClellan said she felt the weight of the victory.

She was thinking, she said in an interview, of her parents, who grew up in the segregated South; her father and grandfather, who paid poll taxes; and the women in her family who for generations faced barriers to participating in American democracy.

“It’s poetic justice, thinking about what not only my family has been through, but what our country has been through,” McClellan said. “To be the first Black woman from Virginia, which was the birthplace of American democracy but also the birthplace of American slavery. And to be someone who … fought my entire adult life to address the lingering impact that slavery and Jim Crow has had on America and on Black communities. … To be able to do that on a national scale is an incredible honor.”

She said she viewed her election as a responsibility, as well, to younger generations of Black women in Virginia who can look at her and see what’s possible for themselves.

Live results for Virginia’s 4th Congressional District special election

For McClellan voter Unicia Buster, the moment mattered.

“It’s important for our young Black women to see that they’re represented in government, so they have hope for the future and so they see they can achieve the goals they dream of,” said Buster, 45, who is Black. “When you don’t see yourself in the system, you don’t have faith in it, particularly government.”

McClellan will be entering the most diverse Congress in history, leaving a General Assembly that in recent years has also elected younger and more diverse lawmakers in a reflection of a changing Virginia. But McClellan first rose in the House of Delegates at a time when young women in general were less common in the Virginia legislature — making her someone who “really has continued to break the mold for women leaders, and especially Black women leaders, in Virginia,” said Alexsis Rodgers, the chairwoman of the 4th Congressional District Democratic Committee. She also recalled how McClellan created breastfeeding space for women in the statehouse; McClellan was the first pregnant woman to serve in the Virginia House.

“It’s significant,” Rodgers, now running for McClellan’s Senate seat, said of McClellan’s election, “because when Black women like Jenn are elected to office, they bring their perspectives, and the perspectives of our families, to the table.” It’s a perspective that Rodgers said has too often been missing in the higher echelons of politics.

To date, only three Black men, including McEachin and Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, have represented the state in Congress. Scott — who had the distinction of being the first Black Virginian elected to Congress since Reconstruction — said that while he celebrated McClellan breaking “a historic barrier,” he believed voters were more eager to see what history she could make as a legislator.

“More important is what she does after she’s elected,” said Scott, a Democrat who campaigned for McClellan this year.

Former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder, the first Black man elected governor in the United States, echoed Scott, saying the milestone only becomes significant based on what the candidate achieves once in office, not based on the milestone alone.

“If you had a ticket with that on it, what would it get you? What would it buy?” said Wilder, who has followed McClellan’s career since meeting her while she was an eager college student at a 1992 presidential debate. “So to the extent of saying someone who has been in the vineyard and been laboring in the fields for progress and advancement of people is now moving to another level, who happens to be a woman, who happens to be a woman of color — surely it’s progress, but the job still needs to be done.”

McClellan, a corporate lawyer, brings roughly 17 years of legislative experience in the General Assembly to Congress, having first been elected to the House of Delegates in 2005.

She won a breakneck Democratic primary, a campaign that lasted just a week, against three other candidates in December, after McEachin’s death. Her opponent this time, Benjamin, a socially conservative pastor who seized on national themes in his campaign — such as fighting inflation and crime — had previously lost to McEachin twice by double digits.

McClellan built her campaign on major legislative initiatives that she has led in recent years, ranging from the Virginia Clean Economy Act to the Voting Rights Act of Virginia, the first state voting rights act in the South. And while vowing to continue McEachin’s legacy on environmental justice, she also pledged to continue to pursue women’s rights issues, such as access to abortion and reproductive health care.

McClellan’s efforts on women’s rights also have included issues that disproportionately affect women of color, such as leading legislation creating protections for domestic workers.

That legislation, Rodgers said, is an example of how diverse perspectives matter in politics, because “Jenn comes from a family of domestic workers,” allowing her a degree of understanding and closeness to the issue that Rodgers said even liberal men in the legislature did not always grasp.

Multiple voters at the polls Tuesday said they admired McClellan for her support of public education.

“I think she’s always been about education. She cares about us,” said Kerry L. Richardson, a second-grade teacher in her late 30. McClellan has shown up in person at local teacher forums and built up a great level of trust, Richardson said.

“She’s very genuine,” Richardson said, adding that the historic nature of McClellan’s candidacy also resonated with her as a Black and Latina woman.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), McClellan’s longtime mentor, said the range of legislation McClellan has led makes her well suited to join Congress.

“It’s not like she has just tried to master one thing and keeps plowing the same field — she really masters the breadth of domestic policy in the legislature,” said Kaine, who officiated McClellan’s wedding. “And I would say in particular her work on the voting rights bills that have transformed Virginia from one of the toughest states to vote in America to one of the most convenient states to vote in America, I think that’s a real hallmark of her ability to forge coalitions, focus on the details and just get the work done.”

Voting rights have been — and, McClellan says, will remain — a core focus of her legislative work. To “tell you how big a nerd I am,” she said, she recently published an academic article on the history of voting rights in Virginia in the University of Richmond’s law review. But the issue is also personal for the lawmaker, who has told stories from the floor of the Virginia Capitol about the barriers to voting that her family faced for generations.

She remembers the first time she told her colleagues about the literacy test her great-grandfather had to take, in seeking to combat a Republican bill requiring photo identification to vote in Virginia.

“My life experience was built on the life experiences of family members who either were prevented from voting or had to jump through a whole lot of hoops to be able to vote. … And I realized I have to tell these stories,” she said. “I have to make people understand why this is so important.”

Less than 10 years ago, the very district that is sending McClellan to Congress was redrawn after a federal court found Virginia’s congressional map unconstitutional for packing Black voters into the neighboring 3rd Congressional District, said Julian Maxwell Hayter, a leadership studies professor at the University of Richmond whose research has focused on voting rights within Virginia. McEachin’s election in 2016 came after the 4th District — in which racial minorities are now the majority — was redrawn.

Those changes, Hayter said, have made it less surprising that voters have been electing more diverse candidates in the district — but no less important.

Still, he and others also saw McClellan’s milestone as a reminder of progress yet to be made.

Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears (R) became the first Black woman elected to one of the three top state leadership positions in 2021. That year McClellan and Jennifer Carroll Foy also ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor in hopes of shattering that ceiling for women, though both lost to Terry McAuliffe.

“I think oftentimes individuals forget that we are still having our firsts,” said Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), who leads the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus with McClellan and who briefly competed against her for the Democratic nomination. “And she’s the first Black female — but only the fourth Black period. And so we are not far along by any stretch of the imagination.”

For McClellan, that flip side of the milestone has been sobering.

“I often say, I am fighting the same fights that my parents, my grandparents and my great-grandparents fought. But I keep fighting this fight so that my children don’t have to fight them,” she said. “And I think for me, that that sums up the significance of this moment.