Who is Jennifer McClellan? Legislator makes history as 1st black woman elected to Congress in Virginia

Jennifer McClellan.

Then-state Sen. Jennifer McClellan at an event in Richmond, Va., in December. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Jennifer McClellan history made, and became the first black woman elected to the United States Congress in Virginia. McClellan won a special election in the Fourth Congressional District, defeating Republican Leon Benjamin.

She is set to fill the seat for the Democratic Rep. Donald McEachinwho died of colon cancer in November, just three weeks after being re-elected to his fourth term.

“This district over a hundred years ago sent John Mercer Langston to Congress as the first African-American Virginian,” said the Virginia state senator the night of her victory. “This city helped send the other one, Bobby Scott. Then we sent Donald McEachin. That’s quite a legacy. And I look forward to building on that legacy.”

Here’s a look at who McClellan is and what her victory means for Virginia and the country.

McClellan comes from a legacy of service and distinction

McClellan speaks from a pulpit in support of the Equal Rights Amendment.

McClellan at a news conference on Capitol Hill in 2021. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

McClellan was born Dec. 28, 1972, in Petersburg, Va., to community leaders and educators. Her father, James McClellan Jr., was a professor at Virginia State University, a historically black college. Her mother, Lois McClellan, worked as a counselor there. McClellan’s parents, both raised in the segregated South during the Jim Crow era, became active in the civil rights movement. In 1901, her great-grandfather forced to take a reading and writing test in Alabama and had to have three white people vouch for his character so he could register to vote. In 1947 her father paid a Tennessee opinion poll.

“My parents lived in Arkansas, Kentucky and then Virginia between the 1950s and 1969 and were very active in the civil rights movement,” McClellan said in a campaign advertisement. “But they also felt the trauma of Emmett Till being assassinated, of Medgar Evers being assassinated, of Martin Luther King being assassinated.”

“It’s poetic justice to think about what not only my family has been through, but what our country has been through,” she told the Washington Post. “Being the first black woman from Virginia, which was the birthplace of American democracy, but also the birthplace of American slavery.”

McClellan is a wife and a mother

The congresswoman-elect hugs her daughter at her election party in Richmond, Va.

The congresswoman-elect hugs her daughter at her election party in Richmond, Va., on Tuesday. (John C. Clark/AP)

Along with being the first black woman elected to Congress in Virginia, in 2010 McClellan was the first Virginia delegate to serve in a legislative session while pregnant and give birth while in office. She currently lives in Richmond with her husband, David Mills, and their two school-aged children, Jackson and Samantha. Her wedding in 2008 was officiated by her mentor, Its. Tim Kaine.

McClellan has credited his dedication to public service to honoring his family and the future legacy of America.

“What struck me now, when Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were murdered, I felt the same trauma that they felt.” she said of her parents and grandparents in her campaign ad. “And I realized that I’m fighting the same battles that they fought and my grandparents fought and my great-grandparents fought. And I realized that I have to do everything in my power to keep my children from to fight that battle.”

McClellan has continued to push for social justice through civic service

Jennifer McClellan speaks at a meeting.

McClellan to a rally for an economic recovery and infrastructure package that prioritizes climate, care, jobs and justice in 2021 in Williamsburg, Va. (Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images for Green New Deal Network)

McClellan first entered Virginia politics in 2006, winning a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, where she represented the 71st District until 2017.

In January 2017, she was elected to the Virginia State Senate in a special election to fill the Ninth District seat vacated by McEachin’s election to the United States House of Representatives.

As a state senator, McClellan passed Voting Rights Act of Virginia in 2021 — the first voting rights law ever passed in a Southern state and modeled after the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. She has also repealed remnants of Jim Crow-era laws in Virginia by repeal of outdated segregation laws from 1901-1960, still in state code until 2020. McClellan also led the effort to make Virginia the 38th state to ratify Equal Rights Amendment; passed Virginia Values ​​Act, a bipartisan victory that “protects LGBTQ in employment, housing and public spaces”; and adopted legislation to repeal the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. She has also passed the Reproductive Health Protection Act and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, reformed Virginia’s criminal justice system, and expanded access to child care and tenant rights and protections.

In 2021, she ran for governor, but lost the crowded primary race to Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who eventually lost to Republican Glenn Youngkin. Had McClellan won, she would have been the first woman elected governor of the state.

McClellan also serves as chairman of Virginia’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission—a bipartisan agency of the Virginia General Assembly—through which she honors King’s legacy by promoting community engagement, economic and social justice, and racial healing. Now she looks forward to building on her own legacy representing the state of Virginia.

“It still blows my mind that we have the first ones in 2023,” McClellan told NBC News. “My ancestors fought really hard to get a seat at that table, and now I not only want a seat at the table in Congress, I want to be able to bring the political table to communities that never really had a voice before .”

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