Born and raised in Virginia, University of Richmond alum, Jennifer McClellan, ’94, served in the General Assembly for over 17 years and was instrumental in the passage of landmark legislation including the Voting Rights Act of Virginia and the Virginia Clean Economy Act. McClellan served in the Virginia House of Delegates from 2006-2017 and the Senate from 2017 until the most recent session. She made history on Feb. 21 when she was elected as Virginia’s first Black congresswoman in a special election to succeed Rep. Donald McEachin, who died in November. Just a few weeks after she was sworn into office, McClellan discussed her background, political career and new role in the House of Representatives.
The Collegian: You've lived in Virginia your whole life. Can you tell me a bit about your background growing up and what it’s been like staying in the state and representing Virginia?
Jennifer McClellan: I was born in Petersburg; I grew up in the Matoaca area. Our parents worked over at Virginia State so I grew up in the Tri-Cities area. I went to [the University of Richmond] and stayed here for law school and went to [the University of Virginia]. I was a huge history nerd and have a very deep understanding of our history and particularly how the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow still impact communities today. And so I've been able to take that deep understanding and love of Virginia and use it to make public policy that makes this a better commonwealth at the state level, and now at the national level, which is pretty amazing.
C: You’ve talked about your family, parents and grandparents, who faced discrimination in the Jim Crow era in some of your speeches. Can you expand on that and what role your family has played in your political career?
JM: They both grew up during the Depression and in the segregated South; my dad went back and forth between Nashville and Centerville, Alabama, my mom on the Gulf Coast and Mississippi. When I was growing up, they would tell me their stories of what that was like. My mom lived in a town where the only school for Black children was [operated by] the Catholic Church, but it only went to eighth grade, and she was the third youngest of 14 children. Born to a carpenter and as a domestic worker, she was the first member of her family that went beyond the eighth grade and ultimately graduated college and worked at a college. But along the way she faced a lot of discrimination. My father, my grandfather, paid poll taxes; my great-grandfather had to take a literacy test and find three white people to vouch for him just to be able to register to vote. They saw the worst of government in Jim Crow, and they saw the best of government through the New Deal and the Great Society. Those stories and my own study of history made me understand that you want to be a part of making the government a force for helping people and solving problems rather than a force that oppresses some for the benefits of others. So, that was sort of where I was when I showed up at [UR] in 1990 as a freshman. I immediately got involved with the Young Democrats and really started the work to elect people to make government that force for change, and that was sort of the beginning of my path.
C: How do you look back on your time at UR, and do you have any favorite memories?
JM: Right before this interview I just was watching the UVA.-Furman game, and it actually brought back a lot of memories. My freshman year, Spiders upset Syracuse, and I was a huge basketball fan; I was friends with all our basketball players. That's probably one of my fondest memories is the golden years of Spiders in the mid-to-early 90s. But when I got there, there were only four of us in Young Democrats so we all got an office. I was vice president the following year. I became president when the president pledged a sorority, and then the year after that was the 1992 presidential debate at the university and I got to work with the Bill Clinton campaign. I got invited by Hillary Clinton to sit with her at the debate, and that really was the beginning of my political journey. But also, while I was there, I was a charter member of Rho Rho, the Delta Sigma Theta chapter. So, I think those three very formative experiences really helped shape who I am today and the type of leader I am today. The ability to balance the personal and the social aspect of being a basketball fan, being in a sorority, but also balancing that with what ultimately became the beginning of my political career.
KC: How do you think your skills of being a lawyer translate into your political career?
JM: When you're a lawyer and when you're in law school, you're not taught the law, you're taught to think critically and to problem solve. I ultimately did traditional trial work and regulatory trial work, and you learn how to take very complicated issues and boil them down so that a jury or someone with no background can understand. That helps later when you're making policy about very complicated issues, whether it's the Clean Economy Act or reproductive health protection, that you can take very complicated issues and boil it down so that anybody can understand…And then when I graduated law school, it was right after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 passed, and my first job was implementing that. Up to that point, I had always seen how a bill becomes a law, but not how a bill is implemented. And seeing how the bill is implemented helps me understand as a legislator that words matter, and the choice of words you use really matters as to whether what you're trying to accomplish is actually going to get accomplished. That's the thing that helped make me the successful legislator that I became.
C: You've proposed several major pieces of legislation so far in your career. Are there any in particular that you're most proud of?
JM: The Voting Rights Act in Virginia, which I passed in 2021; and I think, not only given my family’s history, voting rights are sacred and so to be the legislator who has the first Voting Rights Act in the South, in the former capital of the Confederacy, is personally very satisfying. The Reproductive Health Protection Act also shows my persistence. I was the first member of the House to be pregnant while in office in 2010, and that was the first year we debated a mandatory ultrasound bill. It passed a couple of years later. I took a decade, but in 2020, I was the one to pass the bill to repeal that and other abortion restrictions. So, I was very proud of that, because it shows persistence. And then finally, I'd say the Clean Economy Act, because it was so transformative in addressing climate change, making Virginia the first state in the South to really lead the clean energy transition.
C: Switching back to the recent election, what does it feel like to make history and be elected as Virginia’s first Black congresswoman?
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JM: It's an incredible honor. It still blows my mind that we're having firsts in 2023. But it's not only an honor, but it's a responsibility to make sure that I'm not the last and that I am supporting and helping raise the next generation of Black women and political leaders in Virginia and across the country, and I'm loving every minute of it.
C: In winning the congressional election, you're also filling this seat of your late friend Donald McEachin. What is that like and how has that affected your outlook?
JM: When I was at [UR], I was the Sigma Scholar, and Donald and his law partner, Donald Gee, were mentors to the Sigma scholars. So, that's how far back I've known him. Then we got elected to the House of Delegates together. I succeeded him in the Senate, and we partnered on a wide variety of issues. He would often give me advice, particularly when I was making major decisions about my career. So, I think about first having to mourn a friend and not having him there when I made the decision to run and almost every day expecting him to call me. But I also know I will be able to not only carry on his legacy, but build on it, and I'm very proud of that and I think he would be too.
C: What do you hope to accomplish in your first term in Congress?
JM: I'm on the Armed Services Committee, and the defense authorization bill is up, so I really want to dig in and put my fingerprints on that. Also, the constituent services that I'll be able to provide and carrying on the same priorities at the state level to the federal level.
C: I know you were just sworn into Congress, but do you have any long term-plans to run for future offices?
JM: I learned a long time ago not to predict the future. This was not an office I expected to run for – I think my entire political career has been that way. I went to law school thinking I would be a lawyer to a congressional committee, and then I ended up being in Congress. So, I don't know, I have a heart for service and will focus on where I can do the most good for the most people. Right now, that's in the 4th Congressional District seat, and I'm going to focus on that and not worry about the future.
C: What do you enjoy doing outside of politics?
JM: Oh, yes – I love the theater and movies. Had I not gone into politics, I probably would have tried to become a professional actress. I still enjoy watching basketball. I don't play very well at all. But I'm a huge basketball and baseball fan and I like to travel with my family.
Contact city and state editor Katie Castellani at email@example.com.
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