Virginia Rep.-elect Jennifer McClellan (D) is poised to make history when she is sworn into Congress, becoming the first Black woman to represent the commonwealth on Capitol Hill.
The nature of her historic win wasn’t lost on her. McClellan told The Hill that during her campaigning, she was “very aware” of what a win would mean not just for her, but also for Black women across the nation.
“It still blows my mind that there are firsts in 2023 but it is a tremendous honor and a tremendous responsibility,” McClellan, 50, said. “It’s an honor knowing that I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams and I stand on their shoulders. To be the first Black woman from Virginia, the birthplace of both American democracy and American slavery and massive resistance, is poetic justice.”
McClellan’s political rise has been a gradual one, serving in Virginia’s House of Delegates and state Senate. In 2021, she came in a distant third place in the state’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, losing to former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).
But nearly two years later, McClellan is looking to hit the ground running in Congress with an eye on expanding voting rights and improving education.
“She’s going to be one of the younger people in the delegation and she’s in a relatively safe seat,” said veteran Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth. “I expect her to move up in Congress because people are going to love her work ethic and they’re going to love working with her.”
Throughout her time in the state legislature, McClellan has focused on progressive policies, from expanding abortion access to ensuring that Virginia became the first state in the south to pass a comprehensive voting rights act.
Now, she wants the federal government to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In 2013, the landmark Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court ruling gutted protections from discrimination guaranteed by the law. As a result, strict voter enforcement laws arose, including voter ID laws, which had previously been barred and which disproportionately impact Black Americans.
Voting rights, McClellan told The Hill, are “sacred” in her family.
Both her parents grew up during the civil rights movement, and voting wasn’t easy to do.
“My dad paid poll taxes to vote, and his dad paid poll taxes. My great grandfather had to take a literacy test and find three white men to vouch for him to be able to vote,” McClellan said.
The right to vote, she added, is how Americans are able to participate in the government — and how the government upholds its promise to be by and for the people.
“I learned very early as a delegate in the Virginia House of Delegates, everybody’s political views are shaped by their life and what they know,” McClellan said. “As more people who lived during Jim Crow are dying, we’re losing those stories and we’re in a battle right now over whether they’ll be taught in our schools. So being a voice to bring those stories and those perspectives to the halls of Congress is really important to me.”
McClellan has also homed in on energy and environment related issues, notably brokering a compromise between environmentalists and Dominion Energy.
“While she’s clearly what I would consider a center-left Democrat, she also has the capacity to work across the aisle at times because of her personality,” Holsworth said.
While Virginia’s 4th Congressional District is considered a safe seat for Democrats, McClellan shattered expectations in her campaign to replace the late Rep. Donald McEachin (D), defeating her opponent by 50 points.
“That was a statement of how fired up people are no matter what the stakes are,” said Gianni Snidle, communications director for the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus. “Truly it seems they want to make their voices on Democratic values.”
But McClellan also said her win is helping close an “imagination gap” that doesn’t see Black women in political seats.
“I think recognizing what I faced in that race put an imagination gap because people had never seen — and I think [Georgia gubernatorial candidate] Stacey Abrams saw this — people have never seen a Black woman in the role,” she said. “They couldn’t imagine that and yet, all across the country, there are Black women who are doing amazing things and are just as qualified or just as capable as other candidates who have succeeded. And I think we just need to stretch our imagination a little bit and support them.”
Democratic strategist Atima Omara said that some of this perception is starting to change as a result of the 2016 election and voters’ desire to see a more reflective democracy.
“I feel like the attitude of the culture has shifted, certainly in the last six years, as I think people really started thinking about what does representation look like with the 2016 election and how can we make our democracy more reflective of that,” said Omara, who ran for a seat in the Virginia General Assembly in 2014.
But the imagination gap still persists, Omara said, in part because of a “deep bias” about what Black women should be doing. Omara points to the praise Abrams received for her organizing, but the admonishment that followed her when she expressed interest in potentially being President Biden’s vice president.
“People admire a Black woman when she does the labor, when she does the work in service,” explained Omara. “But when she dares to step out and say, I am qualified to lead this organization, this company, to represent you in Congress … folks start to question your ability because how dare you put yourself forward, you are supposed to be in service, not leading.”
Now, Omara said she expects to see McClellan use her time in Congress to further the legacy of McEachin, who was an advocate for environmental justice, among other things.
But McClellan has also led on advocating for abortion access during her time in the legislature and on the campaign trail.
Earlier this month, Republicans in the House of Delegates defeated an effort led by McClellan to allow Virginia voters to decide whether abortion access should be enshrined in the commonwealth’s constitution. While the effort was rejected, it will likely leave a mark going into November’s elections.
“It is something the Democrats are going to run on in all of the suburban competitive districts this year,” Holsworth said.
McClellan told The Hill that she plans to continue this effort in Congress.
“I was very instrumental in expanding access to health care and reproductive health care here in Virginia,” McClellan said. “Passing the first bill in the south to remove barriers to access to abortion, and that’s something that we need to do at the federal level now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe.”
McClellan said even with her historical win, there remains a responsibility to ensure she is not the last Black woman to make history — in her state, or across the country.
“I think the first step is to support the Black women that are leading at the state level, at the local level, in the party, who are building a bench and are building the experience needed to run at higher levels. And then when they step forward to run, pay homage to that experience and work.”