Sen. Jennifer McClellan is one of 13 candidates vying to become Virginia’s next governor; the commonwealth has never elected a woman to the top post.
McClellan, D-Richmond, has helped shape Virginia’s changing political landscape for 15 years as a state legislator. She departed her 11-year post as a delegate representing Charles City County and parts of Richmond City and Henrico and Hanover counties when she won a senate seat in a 2017 special election.
McClellan now looks to the executive mansion.
“We need a governor who can rebuild our economy, our health care, our economic safety net, and help us move forward post-COVID in a way that addresses inequity and brings people that are impacted by these crises together to be a part of that solution,” McClellan said. “I’ve got the experience and perspective to do that.”
McClellan’s party has controlled both chambers in the legislature for the past two years, along with the executive branch. The Democratic trifecta has ushered in progressive legislation and undone decades of conservative policy.
“I have a full understanding of how we got where we are as a commonwealth, where we need to go and how to build that coalition of people to come together to do that,” McClellan said.
She has close ties with many of the issues she fights for, including domestic workers’ rights. McClellan comes from a long line of domestic workers. Every woman on her mother’s side of the family has been a domestic worker, the senator said.
“My mom was one of 14 children born during the Depression in the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. For her mother, her grandmother, her sisters, those were the only jobs available,” she said.
The General Assembly recently passed a bill spearheaded by McClellan that includes domestic service workers in employee protection laws.
McClellan said she wants to bolster Virginia as the state digs into another year of the pandemic. That includes a focus on education, health care and economic recovery and development.
McClellan said she wants to provide more funding for public schools, including raising teacher salaries to an average of $65,000. Legislators have cut Virginia’s education funding formula since the recession, according to a report from the Commonwealth Institute. The cuts include capping the number of school support staff paid for by the state.
McClellan plans to help stabilize and expand the childcare industry. The pandemic caused many childcare workers to lose jobs and day care facilities to close. The industry will continue to decline without public investment and policy reform, according to a University of California, Berkeley report.
The senator said childcare should be recognized as a public necessity. McClellan said she laid the groundwork for the Universal Child Care & Early Learning Plan during the 2021 General Assembly session. McClellan’s $4 billion plan calls for universal childcare by 2025 for babies and children up to age 4.
The governor recently signed McClellan’s SenateBill 1316, which exempts prospective childcare employees and volunteers from background checks if one has been performed in the past five years. The bill also prompts the Department of Education to establish a two-year pilot program that would move federal childcare subsidy dollars from an attendance-based to an enrollment-based model. If an emergency kept the student from attending, the facility does not get subsidy dollars under the attendance-based system, even though the facility already had financially prepared for the student. Childcare centers lost federal funding in the past year due to the pandemic and children missing more days than usual.
The pandemic has negatively impacted many small businesses and workers. McClellan said she will create a COVID Long-Term Effects Small Business Loan allowing small business owners to apply for a low interest, 30-year loan. McClellan wants to expand small businesses access to capital through increased funding partnerships with entities such as the Virginia Community Capital bank. She also promoted evaluating laws and tax structures to help “allow entrepreneurs to innovate and grow” their businesses in alignment with market trends.
The General Assembly in recent years has made efforts to improve workers’ rights, though several bills were whittled down or didn’t advance. McClellan wants to expedite the transition to a $15 minimum hourly wage, allow an estimated half a million gig workers access to unemployment benefits and remove barriers to collective bargaining. She would also like to pass a stronger version of a paid sick leave bill than the one the Senate amended this session.
Obstacles to the governorship
Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, said McClellan has a good chance of winning the governorship, but there are obstacles in her way.
“The big challenge that Sen. McClellan has in this contest is the fact that there's a former governor, Terry McAuliffe, who's also seeking the Democratic nomination,” he said. “Absent McAuliffe, she would be one of the leading candidates, but with McAuliffe in the race, it will be hard for any of the other Democratic candidates to compete with somebody who has already won a statewide election.”
McAuliffe worked “very hard” over the last several years to help create Democratic majorities in the legislature and has some IOUs to collect that will help his campaign, Farnsworth said.
Democrats will see a variety of issues they support in McClellan’s voting record, including civil rights, criminal justice reform, climate change and questions of equality, Farnsworth said.
“Experience is always a big plus when you're talking about a candidate for governor,” he said. “It's not a job that is a good place for on-the-job training. And that will also be one of her key assets.”
Other Democrats on the gubernatorial ticket are former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy; Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. Seven Republican candidates and one independent are also in the race. There are five female candidates representing three parties.
Only 44 women have served as governor, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, a part of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. Women have held those seats in 30 states.
McClellan said this political race is different from her other political campaigns because of COVID-19. Previously, candidates connected with people in person.
“We’ve had to shift to virtual events, which is both challenging and brings opportunities because I can talk to people from all across the state at one time, but it’s not quite the same,” she said.
A ‘new voice’
Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, a colleague and friend of McClellan’s, has endorsed her run for governor. She and McClellan have worked on bills together over the years pertaining to women’s issues, reproductive rights and voting rights.
One of her fondest memories with McClellan is the day the General Assembly passed legislation for Virginia to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The ERA is a proposed U.S. Constitutional amendment to provide equal rights to American citizens regardless of sex. Virginia became the 38th state to ratify it in 2020, though the Congressional deadline has passed.
Locke and McClellan were two of several lawmakers who sponsored legislation in the Senate supporting the amendment.
Locke said they had just delivered remarks in support of the ERA. Then the committee started its vote.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘Oh my god, this is really going to pass now,’ and at the end of the vote we hugged each other.”
Locke said McClellan is a candidate with energy, new ideas, and “a voice that Virginia needs to hear.” Locke said she didn’t need to be convinced when McClellan called to ask for her endorsement.
“It’s time for Virginia to move in a direction that’s not the same old thing over and over again,” she said. “She is a very strong individual who can bring … that new voice, that new energy to the governor's office. That’s what Virginia needs right now.”