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‘A critical moment in our history:’ McClellan announces run for Va. governor

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Sen. Jennifer McClellan

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, on the Senate floor. 

For years, Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan has been talked about as a future gubernatorial candidate. 

The future, she says, is now. 

McClellan, D-Richmond, a veteran state legislator and corporate attorney for Verizon, is formally announcing her run for governor today, with about a year to go before the 2021 Democratic primary. 

In an interview this week, McClellan said Virginia is at a “critical crossroads” that calls for someone with “a clear understanding of where we have been.”

“We will be sort of weathering and recovering from an economic crisis, a health pandemic, a reckoning with racial inequity and a crisis of faith that people have in their government,” McClellan said. “This is a critical moment in our history.”

Coming from a family with a history of civil rights activism, McClellan, a 47-year-old mother of two, said she doesn’t want her own children fighting the same fights.

She said she was struck by something she heard during a group discussion last year about issues facing Generation Z. A young woman said she and her peers saw President Barack Obama leading the country when they were kids, but more recently “all my generation has seen is regression.”

“And she said ‘It really makes me and my generation ask, why bother?’” McClellan said. “And it was like a slap in the face. And I looked at her and I thought, if your generation loses hope, then we are lost as a commonwealth and as a society. I cannot leave a world where they have no hope. And that is what is pushing me to run now.”

McClellan is the second Black woman to officially enter the gubernatorial field. Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, announced her campaign last month. Part of the newer, younger generation of Democrats that helped flip control of the General Assembly over the last four years, Carroll Foy highlighted the historic nature of the effort in a country where no Black woman has been elected governor of any state.

McClellan, who has served in the General Assembly since 2006, was understated when asked how her identity might factor into the 2021 campaign.

“I am not running to make history by being the first Black woman elected. I am running to make history because we’re changing the trajectory of Virginia to rebuild in a way that breaks down systemic inequity,” McClellan said. “Who I am today, my personality, my leadership skills, how I think, all of that is a function of my parents and how they raised me. So I can’t divorce myself from it. Nor do I want to. I’m proud of it. But I am not running to be the first Black woman governor of Virginia. I’m running to be the governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia who happens to be a Black woman.”

In her campaign launch video, McClellan emphasizes the need for continued improvement in health care, education, voting rights and rebuilding an economy “without leaving people behind.” Even before the pandemic hit, McClellan said, the economy “wasn’t doing well for everybody.”

“First, we need to understand that workers and business are intertwined and their success is intertwined,” McClellan said.

When asked about the state’s right-to-work law, which limits the power of labor unions by prohibiting mandatory union membership or payment of dues as a condition of employment, McClellan indicates there are parts of the law she supports and parts she doesn’t. 

She said she’s focused generally on “the ability for workers to be treated fairly,” but doesn’t believe anyone’s job “should be conditioned on whether they are or aren’t a member of a union.” But employees in unionized workplaces who are receiving the benefits of union advocacy, she said, should be contributing to that effort. 

“That’s too deep in the weeds for anybody to want to talk through,” McClellan said. “But that’s the conversation that we need to have.”

McClellan’s day job as a regulatory lawyer for Verizon hasn’t been particularly controversial in the past, but it could become a campaign issue as progressive voters and some Democratic politicians adopt a more adversarial approach to corporate power.

McClellan, though, can point to a sizable policy record that includes efforts to defend abortion access and the rights of pregnant women (she also broke ground as the first delegate to be pregnant during the legislative session), curb the school-to-prison pipeline and expand affordable housing. In this year’s legislative session, she served as a chief Senate sponsor on landmark clean-energy legislation and a resolution ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment, a long-stalled proposal to put gender equality in the U.S. Constitution.

McClellan is among the chorus of Democratic legislators calling for police reform in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the nationwide unrest that has followed. In Virginia, some of the liveliest protests have taken place in her Richmond district, prompting McClellan to say she’s been “disturbed” by the Richmond Police Department’s aggressive attempts to control them.

“We need transparency and accountability for police misconduct. We need to address where there are police departments that have a history of either brutality or racism or violence. We need to look at why,” McClellan said. “But why are we sending the police to be first responders to a mental health crisis? And not giving them the tools, if they show up in the crisis, to de-escalate it?”

McClellan served in the Virginia House of Delegates from 2006 to 2017. In late 2016, she won a special election to fill the state Senate seat left open by U.S. Rep Donald McEachin, D-4th, who was on his way to Congress.

With her lengthy experience in Richmond and deep connections in Democratic politics, McClellan is expected to be a strong contender in what could be a packed field.

In addition to Carroll Foy, McClellan’s potential competitors include Attorney General Mark Herring, who has already said he intends to run, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who left office in early 2018 but is considering trying to return for another four-year-term.

Gov. Ralph Northam cannot run for reelection due to the state’s term limits.

Anti-establishment Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, is the only major Republican candidate to formally announce a gubernatorial run.

Asked about the prospect of McAuliffe getting into the race later in the cycle and crowding out other contenders with his name recognition and ability to raise money, McClellan said she’s “not running against anyone” and will instead focus on putting out her own vision for how Virginia should be run.

“I know that this is not a moment to retreat to the past,” she says in her launch video. “But to step boldly into our future.”

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