Virginia Capitol Connections Winter 2023

Virginia Capitol Connections, Winter 2023 19 For Jennifer McClellan, Virginia’s Voting Rights Act was more than just a bill, it was a way to stand up for her community after a history of discrimination and disenfranchisement. McClellan’s grandfather was forced to pay poll taxes, and his father before him had to find three white people to vouch for him to be allowed to register to vote. They may never have imagined that their descendant would be the first Black woman to represent Virginia in Congress. Born in Petersburg, Virginia, McClellan grew up in the Matoaca area. Her parents lived through the Great Depression and segregation in the South, shaping her view of government as a force to improve people’s lives when used correctly. “When I was 11 I decided that at its best, government is a force for helping people and solving problems,” she said. “At its worst, government is a force for oppression.” Her mother was the first member of her family to go beyond eighth grade. Despite facing discrimination along the way, both of McClellan’s parents graduated from college and went on to work at Virginia State University, instilling a desire for education in their daughter. This upbringing made her particularly attuned to the ways that the history of slavery and Jim Crow impact Virginia communities today. When the city removed Confederate monuments including a statue of Robert E. Lee, McClellan felt that a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. As a Black woman unafraid to speak her mind, she joked that she would have been Lee’s “worst nightmare”. McClellan’s legacy was in the making long before she was elected to the US House of Representatives. She spent 17 years as a Delegate and later a Senator in the Virginia State Legislature. Representing her Richmond district, she passed an impressive 370 pieces of legislation including the Voting Rights Act of Virginia and the Virginia Clean Economy Act. The impact of passing this powerful legislation in the former capital of the confederacy was not lost on McClellan, who described voting rights as sacred. As a young legislator, she was able to bridge a generational gap to help her colleagues understand where she was coming from and push her priorities forward. “I needed to share my life experiences and perspective,” she said. “I couldn’t be shy.” In 2010 she became the first delegate to serve while pregnant, debating against a mandatory ultrasound bill. Her efforts to protect a woman’s right to choose culminated in the passage of the Reproductive Health Protection Act ten years later. Other legislators were respectful of her pregnancy, and she said that she is grateful for the network of people who support her as she balances public life with being a mom. “I nursed and pumped in places that Thomas Jefferson never envisioned,” McClellan joked. She now has two children and lives with her husband in Richmond. “At the end of the day, I’m still a mom,” McClellan said. “Having a support network is incredibly important.” While in the General Assembly, McClellan’s investment in her community extended beyond legislation to include arts, history, and culture. She served on the board of the Black History Museum and the Cultural Center of Virginia, along with the Children’s Museum of Richmond, and the Robert Russa Moton Museum. In 2021, McClellan ran for the Democratic nomination for Virginia governor. Despite losing in the primary election, the issues she brought awareness to shaped the race. Then, an unexpected tragedy shook up her political career. US Representative Donald McEachin, McClellan’s friend and mentor, passed away after a battle against cancer. He was only 61, having worked with McClellan throughout his time in office. McEachin was more than just a mentor to McClellan, she considered him a dear friend. They met while McClellan was a student at the University of Richmond, and she ran for his seat in the state senate after he left to serve in Congress. After mourning his death, McClellan decided to carry on his legacy by running to fill his vacant House seat. She launched her campaign with the support of the late McEachin’s wife, Colette. After a race against the conservative pastor and veteran Leon Benjamin, McClellan won a seat in the US House of Representatives with 74% of the vote. Since assuming office, she has served on the House Armed Services Committee and the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, continuing to be an advocate for her community. “I don’t just represent the 4th Congressional District, I represent Black women all over Virginia,” she said. “I take that responsibility very seriously.” McClellan is optimistic about the future of Congress, believing that most legislators are there to help their constituents. Although she left the General Assembly behind, her career in Congress has just begun, and she continues to be a rising star in the Democratic party. McClellan’s ancestors, who endured decades of prejudice, would be thrilled with what she has accomplished today. They would agree with the phrase she used to describe the passage of the Voting Rights Act- poetic justice. Kalina Kulig is an intern with David Bailey Associates. D B A V A . C O M CHRIS BAILEY 1108 East Main St., Ste 1200 Richmond, VA 23219 804-643-5554 office 804-432-3270 cell Another passion of James is protecting the world in which we live. That not only includes the land on which we live but includes all aspects of nature and the environment. As a farmer, he understands the issues that agricultural-oriented counties and families face. He tends to his land and cares for that of family members who can no longer actively farm or are living outside the area. That respect for our environment led him to share the leadership of the Sportsmen Caucus. Those of us that respect James and his values will miss him in Richmond. However, one can always drop by his farm, and he will hop off the tractor to greet you with a warm heart and a firm handshake. Senator Frank M. Ruff, Jr., represents Charlotte, Danville, Halifax, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Nottoway, Pittsylvania, and part of Prince Edward. James E. Edmunds, II from page 17 Jennifer McClellan Congresswoman, 2023 – Delegate 2006-2017 • Senator 2017-2023 BY KALINA KULIG