RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia voters on Tuesday elected Democrat Jennifer McClellan, a veteran state legislator from Richmond, to fill an open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where she will make history as the first Black woman to represent the state in Congress.
“We will make this commonwealth and this country a better place for everyone,” McClellan said in a victory speech at a party with supporters in Richmond. “I am ready to get to work.”
McClellan, 50, prevailed over right-wing Republican nominee Leon Benjamin in the special election for the blue-leaning 4th District, which has its population center in the capital city and stretches south to the North Carolina border.
The seat was open after the death of Democratic Rep. Donald McEachin, who passed away following a long fight with the secondary effects of colorectal cancer in November, weeks after being elected to a fourth term. McClellan’s election won’t change the balance of power of the U.S. House, which Republicans narrowly control.
“Historical. Had to be a part of it,” voter Rashida Mitchell said of the ballot she cast for McClellan on Tuesday afternoon. “She’s done great things for the city of Richmond, for the commonwealth as a whole.”
Prior to Tuesday, only 22 states had ever elected a Black woman to Congress, according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis of historical records. McClellan said breaking that barrier in Virginia carries extra weight because of her family’s history in the Jim Crow South.
Her father’s grandfather had to take a literacy test and find three white people to vouch for him just to be able to register to vote, said McClellan, a native of central Virginia. Her grandfather and father paid poll taxes and her mother, now 90, didn’t vote until after the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“It’s a huge honor, and responsibility, to ensure that I’m not the last,” she said in an interview last week.
An associate general counsel for Verizon, where she’s worked for 20 years, McClellan has represented parts of the Richmond area in the General Assembly for nearly as long.
At the statehouse, McClellan has cultivated a reputation as a deeply knowledgeable, widely respected consensus builder and legislator. A skilled debater with a polished, reserved style, she’s sponsored many of Democrats’ top legislative priorities in recent years, including bills that expanded voting access and abortion rights and legislation that set ambitious clean energy mandates.