PETERSBURG, Va. — One of the first things Jennifer Carroll Foy wants you to know about her history-chasing run for the Democratic nomination for governor is that she learned to fight for the underdog in her hometown — a tough, poverty-stricken city of struggle and broken homes.

Fellow candidate and state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan says she, too, learned to stand for social justice where she grew up — a supportive community of families, Black academics and civil rights pioneers who preached equality and achievement.

Remarkably, both women are talking about the same place: Petersburg, a city of about 32,000 just south of Richmond with a deep history and a long list of modern-day problems.

Petersburg has become an unexpected star of this year’s Democratic primary, which features five candidates vying to run for governor against Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin. Both Carroll Foy and McClellan are seeking to become the first African American woman elected governor of any state, running in part on their ties to the city with the largest concentration of Black residents in Virginia, at more than 77 percent.

The contest has drawn attention to the issues facing Petersburg, which are profound. In 2016, it nearly went bankrupt and considered cutting police, fire and school services. Its longtime industries are gone; its school system — which is some 90 percent Black — struggles to meet state standards. While residents from wealthier surrounding counties have flocked to the city’s coronavirus mass vaccination site, city officials say less than 30 percent of Petersburg adults have so far gotten a shot — about half the statewide rate.

There are poorer parts of Virginia, and there are neighborhoods in some urban areas that are arguably more blighted. But Petersburg manages a rare combination: It suffers the systemic urban issues of poverty and neglect while also coping with a hollowed-out economy like the coal towns of Appalachia.

“In many ways, it looks more like parts of Southside and Southwest Virginia even though it is today essentially a suburb of Richmond and part of a metro area, which has had one of Virginia’s strongest economies for decades,” said Hamilton Lombard, a demographer at the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia.

In the governor’s race, Carroll Foy, in particular, cites Petersburg’s plight at every turn as a stand-in for the worst problems facing the state, regularly mentioning its gun violence, child poverty and substandard schools.

But some in the city worry all the talk of what ails Petersburg amounts to an unfair portrayal. The city has rebounded from its brush with financial death and now has a budget surplus. Its ancient downtown — which two centuries ago rivaled Richmond’s — has a burgeoning restaurant scene. Warehouses are becoming chic apartments and a nascent pharmaceutical industry is starting to bloom.

“I’m very offended by this idea that Petersburg has been forgotten, as if there are not people on the ground fighting for this community every day,” said Del. Lashrecse Aird (D), who represents the city in the General Assembly and has not endorsed in the primary. “That description of Petersburg has been shared and leveraged for personal benefit without telling the complete story.”

Petersburg Mayor Samuel Parham, though, says he’s not worried about the attention.

“I like this governor’s race,” he said, “just because it definitely shines a light on Petersburg and where we’ve been and where we’re going.”

Two Petersburgs

Nine years, a river and a set of railroad tracks separate the childhoods of McClellan, 48, and Carroll Foy, 39.

McClellan’s parents both worked at the historically Black Virginia State University — her father a professor and administrator, her mother running a program that helped disadvantaged kids get into college and survive there. Though generally considered part of Petersburg, VSU is just across the Appomattox River — and the railroad tracks — in Chesterfield County.

The adjacent areas of Ettrick and Matoaca were havens for a Black middle class that fled Petersburg as the city’s woes deepened in the 1980s and 1990s.

McClellan was born in Petersburg, and the city was where she shopped, took dance lessons and met other kids through the Jack and Jill social group for Black children. But she spent much of her childhood on the VSU campus, surrounded by Black role models who were focused on education. She attended an integrated high school in Matoaca.

Through her father’s role with the NAACP and his preaching at a Presbyterian church in the city, McClellan also was exposed to Petersburg’s prominent role in the civil rights movement. Wyatt Tee Walker, a local pastor, co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was a frequent visitor to the city in the 1960s.

McClellan’s sister Julie McClellan, 55, recalls being awed by the guests at her parents’ cocktail parties.

“We grew up around a smart, intelligent, education-focused, socially active group of people involved in the civil rights movement,” she said.

They also grew up in a place steeped in Confederate heritage, still scarred by a prolonged Union siege and where one of the main roads is named for the Crater — the ill-conceived Yankee plan to explode a hole in Confederate lines that led to a slaughter of Black Union soldiers.

“You had that dichotomy” — civil rights and the Civil War — “and that’s what I grew up in, trying to reconcile those two sides of the same city,” Jennifer McClellan said. She is far more likely to cite her parents’ lessons about civil rights and social responsibility in her campaigning than her experiences in the city.

McClellan went on to the University of Richmond as an undergraduate and the University of Virginia for law school. Her roots in Petersburg, she said, steered her toward public service, and she has represented Richmond in the General Assembly for 15 years, first in the House of Delegates and, beginning in 2017, as a senator.

By the time Jennifer Carroll Foy was in school, Petersburg had changed.

In the mid-1980s, the Brown & Williamson company shuttered the tobacco processing plant that had been the heart of the city’s economy. Other manufacturers also fled, and at the same time, the city’s poor neighborhoods became gripped by a crack cocaine epidemic.

Carroll Foy’s parents met at Petersburg High School but never married. Vice Mayor Annette Smith-Lee grew up with them and recalls how Carroll Foy’s father was a standout on the neighborhood basketball court and a hard worker at a local chemical plant but died young in a motorcycle accident.

Carroll Foy was raised primarily by her grandmother, who worked to keep her safe from the crime and violence that became an epidemic as the city’s economy spiraled downward.

“I remember . . . having my grandmother telling me I have to be back on the porch before the streetlights came on,” Carroll Foy said.

After her grandmother suffered a stroke and could no longer work as a home health aide, Carroll Foy and her family struggled to scrape together enough money to pay the bills — a scenario familiar to many of that generation in Petersburg.

“We saw the huge dark side of growing up here,” said Parham, the mayor, whose sister was close friends with Carroll Foy in school. “We were really just barely surviving, and it took a huge toll.”

But Carroll Foy — tall and athletic like both of her parents — was ambitious and determined to escape to something better. “She was just so driven,” Smith-Lee said.

When the Virginia Military Institute began admitting women in the late 1990s, Carroll Foy, who was in the high school ROTC program, resolved to go. She went to a local barber to have her head shaved and became among the first Black women to graduate from the demanding military school.

She went on to get a master’s degree from Virginia State and a law degree from Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. Her professional life has mostly been in Prince William County, where she served as a public defender and was among the wave of Democrats who won seats in the House of Delegates in 2017. Carroll Foy quickly showed impatience to get ahead, raising her profile by sponsoring Virginia’s effort to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the House (McClellan carried the Senate version of ratification) and resigning from her seat last year to run for governor.

A steep climb

Both Carroll Foy and McClellan face a steep climb in their quest for the Democratic nomination, which will be decided in a June 8 primary.

Former governor Terry McAuliffe holds a big lead in fundraising, endorsements and polling, while Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Del. Lee J. Carter (Manassas) are also competing for attention.

The first official debate of the campaign was held at Virginia State University last month, which led all the candidates to pay tribute to Petersburg and local leaders. In another debate, Carroll Foy attacked McAuliffe over his performance during Petersburg’s budgetary crisis of 2016 and 2017.

“When Petersburg, Virginia, was falling on hard times . . . the community asked for help from Governor Terry McAuliffe and he chose inaction,” Carroll Foy said during the May 6 debate in Bristol. She said he was among the “politicians of the past who turned their backs on us.”

McAuliffe countered that he had sent the state’s finance secretary to help the city sort out its books and also described efforts to make Petersburg’s school system a model for a program to provide free meals to students. The city has the second highest percentage in the state of K-12 students who qualify for free or subsidized lunch.

Petersburg’s budgetary plight caused McAuliffe and the General Assembly to establish new mechanisms for the state to identify localities in financial crisis and get them help before they fall into catastrophe. The system helped avert similar problems in Bristol in 2018.

June Jennings, Virginia’s deputy finance secretary, said the state did all it was legally able to do to help rescue Petersburg.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had another locality in as dire straits as Petersburg was at that time,” Jennings said.

The city hired outside consultants to help restore its fiscal health and has seen its bond rating restored. But as problems of crime, abandoned houses and outdated school facilities continue to linger, city leaders are wrestling with the way forward.

Parham complains that state officials are not as attentive to Petersburg as they are with more prosperous parts of the state.

He cites the city’s predicament with two hotels: One, an abandoned Ramada Inn, greets visitors just off the highway with nine stories of broken windows and graffiti. City leaders don’t have the resources to tear it down. The other is the historic Petersburg Hotel downtown, empty for decades, full of elegant columns and marble trim, which a developer can’t get enough funding to renovate.

“It’s baffling to me,” Parham said. Other parts of the state are able to get public resources to build new facilities, he argued, but an old city like Petersburg has a hard time winning help to manage aging infrastructure.

“It shows the whole disparity of an African American city like Petersburg that is doing everything it can trying to pull itself up by the bootstraps, but we are really plagued by things out of our control,” he said. Parham has endorsed Carroll Foy for governor, saying he believes she would help her hometown.

On the other hand, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) recently joined Parham and other officials to announce a new pharmaceutical manufacturing facility that will add 156 jobs adjacent to a site that had already announced a $125 million expansion.

“I’m somewhat offended” by Carroll Foy’s focus on Petersburg’s problems, said Darrin Hill, who owns a hair salon and serves on the city council. “There’s much more to Petersburg than just that . . . A lot of our problems have been systemic for years, but we’re turning a corner now.”

In an interview, Carroll Foy acknowledged that many people are working to improve the city but said she faults the state for not doing more to help.

To some, the mere presence of McClellan and Carroll Foy as legitimate candidates is a positive development for Petersburg.

“It just shows the history and richness and talent of the young people that came up through the school systems,” said Anita Coleman Wynn, who grew up with McClellan and works at VSU. “Who would’ve ever thought that you’d have two young, beautiful, intelligent African American women from here running for governor at the same time? That’s outstanding.”