A tumultuous period for Virginia’s state government could ultimately result in a big promotion for a University of Richmond alumna.

Several Virginia Democrats told The New York Times on Feb. 9 that Jennifer McClellan, a UR graduate and Democratic state senator currently representing the greater Richmond area, may be viewed as a replacement for Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.

Fairfax, who was recently accused of sexual assault by two women, faces an uncertain future. If he resigns or is removed from office via impeachment, Gov. Ralph Northam would likely get to select his replacement. Fairfax has denied the allegations.

Northam himself has had to defend controversial comments on abortion as well as a racist photograph from his medical school yearbook. A few days after Northam's photograph surfaced, Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface as an undergraduate college student. All three men, the top three elected officials in Virginia, are Democrats.

If Fairfax, an African American, is the only one forced out of office, Democrats worry it could send the wrong message to voters -- especially given the racial nature of Northam and Herring’s cases, according to the Times article. 

“To show a firm grasp of the obvious, the optics would be difficult and the substance would be difficult,” state Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, told the Times. 

The solution, some in the party say, would be to appoint McClellan -- an African-American woman who has served in the General Assembly for 14 years.

Dick Cranwell, a former top Democrat in the House of Delegates, called McClellan an “exceptionally good” choice for Fairfax’s potential replacement during an interview with the Times. Two members of the UR community who know her agree.

Dan Palazzolo, a longtime professor of political science who specializes in Virginia politics, taught McClellan when she was an undergraduate.

“She would be an excellent statewide elected official,” he said, emphasizing that many people in McClellan’s party have long viewed her as one of a handful of current legislators who would be effective candidates for statewide office.

Palazzolo said McClellan had been heavily involved in politics even as a college student. “She had a vision as an undergrad to be a state senator,” he said.

One of Palazzolo’s classes, PLSC 395, requires students to spend a minimum of 20 hours per week interning with a senator or delegate during the annual General Assembly session beginning each January. McClellan’s office takes a UR intern every year, Palazzolo said, and the senator talks to his class as a guest speaker following the session’s conclusion.

“I think the question for her has always been whether to invest that kind of time [in becoming a statewide official],” Palazzolo said. “She enjoys her role as a legislator and she’s making a difference in the community.”

Senior Rebecca Seeger interned for McClellan last year as part of Palazzolo’s class. She agreed that McClellan would be an effective statewide official. 

“I admired her even before I worked in the office,” she said. “Working in the office just reinforced how seriously she takes her work. I think the state would really benefit from her representation.”

Seeger said some of her responsibilities as an intern had included helping McClellan’s outreach efforts, corresponding with the senator’s constituents and tracking legislation. 

“As a politician, she’s extremely committed,” Seeger said of McClellan. “She’s extremely passionate about her work. She obviously remembers her roots at U of R, even all these years later.”

McClellan’s office declined a request for an interview, citing the senator’s busy schedule during session. Instead, McClellan offered a written response through staffer Ngiste Abebe.

According to McClellan's statement, her political career began at UR. She became president of the College Democrats and had the opportunity to meet future First Lady Hillary Clinton and other prominent members of the party during the 1992 presidential debate held on campus between George Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. The connections she made during the debate helped her land internships with various statewide campaigns, she wrote.

When the General Assembly isn’t in session, McClellan works as an assistant general counsel for Verizon, according to her website. After her graduation from UR, she attended law school at the University of Virginia. She is a member of the Virginia State Bar and the Virginia Bar Association’s board of governors.

Contact writer Riley Blake at riley.blake@richmond.edu. 

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