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‘Tireless fighter’ for social justice Rep. Donald McEachin dies at 61

Virginia Democrat is remembered as a ‘champion’ for the environment

Rep. A. Donald McEachin, D-Va., talks with reporters  in the Capitol in July 2019.
Rep. A. Donald McEachin, D-Va., talks with reporters in the Capitol in July 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. A. Donald McEachin of Virginia died Monday after a long battle with cancer. He was 61 years old.

McEachin was treated for colorectal cancer in 2014 and had been hospitalized several times since due to complications and side effects from his treatment. In 2018, he was treated for a fistula in his intestines that had resulted from a previous surgery.

McEachin, a Democrat who represented Virginia’s 4th District, was a solid liberal who regularly voted with party leadership and was a member of the centrist, business-friendly New Democrat Coalition. But he was also a vocal advocate on issues of social and environmental justice in line with the party’s more progressive members.

He said his views on civil rights and social justice had “tilted farther to the left” after he attended the school of theology at Virginia Union University, a historically Black college in Richmond. One of the few members of Congress with a seminary education, he earned a Master of Divinity degree there in 2008, more than 20 years after graduating from the University of Virginia School of Law.

After he came to Congress in 2017, one of McEachin’s main priorities was the environment. During the 117th Congress, all three of his committee assignments had that policy connection: He was a member of the Energy and Commerce panel, the Natural Resources panel and the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

Vacancies in the House are filled by special elections, which in Virginia are scheduled by the governor. Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, has not announced when the special election might occur, but they are often scheduled to overlap with the next, already scheduled election. In this case, that would be the primaries on June 20, 2023

‘A tireless champion’

McEachin’s colleagues expressed shock and sadness over his passing.

“Up until the very end, Don McEachin was a fighter,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., wrote on Twitter Monday night. “Even though he battled cancer and faced other trials in recent years, he never lost his focus on social and environmental justice. Tonight, Virginia has lost a great leader and I have lost a great friend.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Twitter called McEachin “a tireless champion for Virginia families and a force for economic opportunity and environmental justice.”

Pelosi also ordered the flags at the Capitol to be flown at half-staff in his honor. 

Fellow Virginia Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton called McEachin a “mentor” in a news release.

“Had it not been for Donald, I would not be in Congress today,” Wexton wrote. “As I considered making the decision to run back in 2017 and visited him on Capitol Hill, he left me with a parting note on which were written the words of Thomas Paine: ‘These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.’ Donald insisted that he and I were not ‘sunshine patriots.’ For his words of inspiration and belief in me, I am forever grateful.”

Youngkin also tweeted his condolences, writing, “It’s so sad to learn of the passing of [McEachin]. A valiant fighter until the end, he admirably served Virginia & worked tirelessly to improve the lives of his constituents & Americans. Suzanne & I are thinking of his family, friends, & community during this difficult time.”

McEachin was a co-founder of the United for Climate and Environmental Justice Task Force, a group of lawmakers focused on promoting legislation to reduce the impact of climate change and pollution on marginalized communities.

Climate change “affects all people, but communities of color and low-income communities continue to suffer disproportionately,” McEachin said. “It is our responsibility to pursue climate justice and serve the American people by implementing stronger [environmental] protections.”

McEachin also pushed to protect federal lands, particularly the Great Dismal Swamp in the eastern end of his district. He met with Army Corps of Engineers officials to help their efforts to restore the historically significant swamp after the area experienced flooding. “Slaves ran there to find their freedom and had little societies free from outside influence,” he said.

He was reelected to a fourth term earlier this month.

McEachin’s sudden death may affect the grim calculus for congressional control. To win the speaker’s gavel, Republican leader Kevin McCarthy needs a majority of the members voting that day, not necessarily the majority of the whole House, which is 218. Facing opposition from his right flank, McCarthy may need every vote he can get, and McEachin’s absence effectively means there is one less “no” vote to overcome. 

McEachin is survived by his wife, Colette, and three children, Mac, Briana and Alexandra.

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