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‘Pragmatic progressive’ to be Virginia’s first Black woman in Congress

State Sen. Jennifer McClellan wins special election for McEachin's seat

State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Va., won a special election Tuesday for the remainder of the late Rep. A Donald McEachin's term representing Virginia's 4th District.
State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Va., won a special election Tuesday for the remainder of the late Rep. A Donald McEachin's term representing Virginia's 4th District. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

State lawmaker and lawyer Jennifer McClellan will be the first Black woman to represent Virginia in Congress after easily winning a special election Tuesday in the Richmond-area 4th District.

A Democratic state senator, McClellan was leading Republican Leon Benjamin Sr., pastor of New Life Harvest Church, 67 percent to 33 percent when The Associated Press called the race at 7:22 p.m.

McClellan, 50, will be in the minority party in the House, but the self-described “pragmatic progressive” said she learned to find common ground with lawmakers across the aisle after beginning her first term in a Republican-controlled state House of Delegates at age 33.

“That’s where I learned if I’m ever going to get anything done, I need to understand where these white, male Republicans over 50 are coming from and why they believe what they believe, and I have to not be afraid to share my perspective,” she said in an interview.

McClellan will serve the remainder of the term of the late Rep. A. Donald McEachin, who died on Nov. 28, less than three weeks after beating Benjamin by 30 percentage points.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s December order that the special election be held this week led to a hasty two-week Democratic primary campaign that McClellan won with 85 percent of the vote. Her path to the House was cleared by support from the state’s Democratic establishment and groups such as the New Democrat Coalition Action Fund and the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC.

“She’s going to be a great member of Congress,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said on Feb. 17 ahead of the election. “Jennifer’s election would mean the first Black female member of Congress from the Commonwealth of Virginia, and that’s a historic moment.”

Democrats initially worried that McClellan’s departure could give anti-abortion legislators a majority in the state Senate, but Democrat Aaron Rouse flipped a seat last month that had been vacated by freshman GOP Rep. Jen Kiggans’ defeat of Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria in November.

McClellan’s victory marks the second time she has succeeded McEachin. In 2017, she won a special election to fill his state Senate seat after he was elected to Congress.

McEachin and McClellan had worked together in the state legislature when he was a senator and she was a delegate, and they continued to keep in touch. During her campaign launch in December, she said that their last conversation centered around reproductive rights, an issue she previously championed and plans to focus on in Congress. She also hopes to work on environmental justice, another policy area where she said they had collaborated in the past.

“The last time we were together in person was at a ribbon cutting for a solar energy plant in Charles City County, a part of our districts which overlap,” she said in an interview. “That is an area that he was very well known for and I would like to carry on that legacy.”

McClellan was born in Petersburg, Va., and graduated from the University of Richmond with bachelor’s degrees in English and political science. She earned a law degree and went on to work for a Richmond-based law firm before becoming an attorney for telecommunications giant Verizon.

Laura Weiss contributed to this report.

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