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For the first time, a Black woman will represent Virginia in Congress

Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan speaks in Richmond, Va., in this file photo from Jan. 13.
John C. Clark
Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan speaks in Richmond, Va., in this file photo from Jan. 13.

Virginia Democratic state Sen. Jennifer McClellan cruised to an easy victory in Tuesday's special election for Virginia's 4th Congressional District, making her the first Black woman to represent the state in Congress. The race was called shortly after polls closed by the Associated Press.

In an interview Tuesday morning, the attorney noted her new district was also the first in Virginia to send a Black man to Congress, when voters sent John Mercer Langston to the House of Representatives in 1888.

"It blows my mind that we're still having firsts in 2023," McClellan said. "But it is an incredible honor."

McClellan beat out Republican pastor Leon Benjamin Sr. in a heavily Democratic district that stretches from Richmond to the North Carolina border. Her win narrows the GOP majority in the U.S. House of Representatives even further.

Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin called the election after Rep. Donald McEachin, a Democrat, died of complications from cancer weeks after his November reelection.

McClellan is a corporate attorney for Verizon and has served in Virginia's part-time General Assembly since 2006. She's known in Richmond as a close ally of U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and a policy wonk who mounted an unsuccessful run for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2021.

She sponsored a number of key bills passed by Democrats during their two years in full control of the state Legislature from 2020-21, including a law that mandates the decarbonization of Virginia's electrical grid by 2050 and one rolling back abortion restrictions previously passed by Republicans.

McClellan is used to working across party lines; she noted that she's been in the minority for 14 of the years she's served in the Legislature.

"The first step is really listening, trying to find common ground where you can and if you can't you just keep pushing until you get to the solution," McClellan said.

McClellan said she plans on keeping some of McEachin's staff.

Her opponent, Benjamin, embraced former President Donald Trump's lies surrounding the 2020 election and never conceded his own 23% loss that year to McEachin. He lost to McEachin by an even larger margin again in November.

McClellan will become the 30th Black woman to join this Congress, all of them Democrats.

Howard University political science professor Ravi Perry said McClellan's legislative acumen and record of bipartisan cooperation "will enable Democrats in Congress to get more things done," even in the minority.

"Given the history of struggle that Black women have faced in Virginia for centuries, her win tonight elevates the story and power and resilience of black women in politics," Perry said in an email.

Copyright 2023 VPM

Ben Paviour