Jennifer McClellan Could Make History As Virginia's First Black Female Governor

"I know that this is not a moment to retreat to the past but to step boldly into our future," McClellan says in her campaign announcement.
Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D) is throwing her hat into the ring to become governor in 2021.
Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D) is throwing her hat into the ring to become governor in 2021.
Steve Helber/Associated Press

Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D) is jumping into the race for governor, saying the state is at a “critical crossroads right now about what direction we’re going to go.”

“We’re at an inflection point of four crises that we need to recover from,” she told HuffPost in an interview about her run. “We need to rebuild from an economic crisis, rebuild from a health crisis, rebuild from a reckoning of racial injustice and rebuild from a loss of faith... in the ability of government to solve problems. And we need to do it in a way that addresses inequality and doesn’t leave anybody behind.”

“If we are just recovering back to where we were on March 12, when the governor declared a state of emergency, that’s not good enough,” she added. “There are lives at stake.”

McClellan, 47, is the second candidate to officially declare on the Democratic side, joining state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy. Either woman would make history if elected in 2021, becoming the first Black female governor anywhere in the country.

Virginia has never had a female governor. But Virginia was the first state to elect a Black man as governor, so many are hoping that it follows up and elects the first Black woman as well. (Democrat Douglas Wilder, who served 1990-1994, remains the only Black person elected to the job in the state.)

McClellan has a reputation as an accomplished state legislator who has worked in the trenches and is known for bringing together progressive and establishment groups. In the Virginia General Assembly’s most recent session, 36 of her bills became law.

They include bills to make Virginia the first state in the South to give workplace protections to domestic service workers, transition the state to a 100% clean energy grid by 2045 and extend stronger protections for pregnant workers. She was also instrumental in the successful fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment as the chief sponsor in the state Senate. (Carroll Foy was the lead in the House.) Earlier, she was one of the leaders creating a state-based health exchange under Obamacare.

“Black women have been the backbone of our communities and our economy but have been relegated to the shadows or the back over the past 400 years.”

- State Sen. Jennifer McClellan

McClellan represented the Richmond area for 11 years in the House of Delegates and four years in the state Senate. She frequently points to the spirit of community service in her family ― a “family of educators and community leaders” ― as her inspiration.

McClellan has been a leader on racial justice issues in Virginia, as vice chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and chair of the Virginia Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission.

On criminal justice, McClellan has done work on parole reform and breaking the school-to-prison pipeline. She also supports making the disciplinary history of police officers public.

She shied away from backing the call to “defund the police,” noting that Virginia has to have a balanced budget, and “you have to look at it holistically and ask what are our needs and how do we allocate our resources so that the greatest needs are met.”

“I prefer to focus our resources on prevention and addressing the underlying causes ― which are, by the way, cheaper than waiting until they manifest themselves later in crime and then dealing with punishment and incarceration,” McClellan added.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) recently announced that a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in downtown Richmond would be coming down. McClellan lives near the statue and told The Associated Press that it felt like “an incredible burden has been lifted off my shoulders and finally I can breathe and heal.”

She said in her role on the commission, she has spent a considerable amount of time looking at these sorts of Confederate monuments and their history. Most were not put up right after the Civil War but were erected after Reconstruction in response to the rise of the social and economic power of Black people. Others went up during the civil rights movement.

“You have to have an honest conversation about that and what those monuments symbolize, but what they also do is trigger 400 years of trauma for Black communities,” she said, adding, “The localities where they are need to decide if they want to take them down. They should be able to take them down, or we at the commonwealth level should do so as well.”

The video announcing the launch of her campaign opens with a mention of King: “Across Virginia, people are echoing the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘Where do we go from here?’”

“I know that this is not a moment to retreat to the past but to step boldly into our future,” McClellan states. “We must rebuild our economy stronger, more inclusive, without leaving people behind.”

Indeed, “the past” is looming over the governor’s race. The major question is whether Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic governor who remains incredibly popular in the state, will jump in. He has made it clear that he’s still considering the move.

Others may also jump in. Attorney General Mark Herring, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney have all been talked about as potential candidates for the Nov. 2, 2021 election.

On the GOP side, state Sen. Amanda Chase is the only declared candidate. She’s a fervent supporter of President Donald Trump and has decried “the liberal, socialistic agenda that has taken control of the Capitol.”

Virginia has seen a remarkable shift in recent years, with the former seat of the Confederacy turning bluer and more diverse. Last year, Democrats won control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time in more than two decades.

Herring and Fairfax were considered leading contenders for the governorship, but they’ve both had to weather scandals.

Herring admitted that he wore blackface at a college party in 1980. His comments came after a racist photograph in Northam’s medical school yearbook page surfaced. (Northam is not running again due to term limits.) And last year, two women accused Fairfax of sexual assault in the early 2000s. He has denied the allegations.

McClellan said her run, and the outpouring of support for women and women of color, is not directly in response to those scandals.

“Black women have been the backbone of our communities and our economy but have been relegated to the shadows or the back over the past 400 years,” she said in her interview with HuffPost. “And again, whether it’s Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, or Ida B. Wells, or Shirley Chisholm, have said, you know, we’re going to keep pushing and keep striving for progress. We’re at a critical moment where we’ve broken through. ... So this is not something in response to 2019; it’s the natural progression of 400 years of just pushing through to lead.”

“This is a huge win-win for Virginia to have two incredibly effective leaders going toe-to-toe over just how much they have done to raise wages, advance racial and gender equality and reform corrupt state monopolies,” said former Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), a progressive who challenged Northam for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2017. “In the fight to be the next governor of Virginia and the first Black woman governor in America, the Jennifers are setting an exciting new standard for leadership and progress.”

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