Top Virginia senator announces governor run

Top Virginia senator announces governor run
© Greg Nash

Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D) said Thursday she will seek the Democratic nomination for governor, entering what’s expected to be a crowded field ahead of the 2021 election.

McClellan, who has represented Richmond in either the House of Delegates or the state Senate since 2006, launched her campaign with a video touching on the effects of both the coronavirus pandemic and racial injustice on Virginia. She said she would lead the state into the future through investing in education, improving the state’s health care system and rebuilding its economy in the wake of the crisis.

Her campaign hopes to make history: If elected, McClellan would be the first African American woman to serve as a state's chief executive in American history and the second African American person to lead Virginia.

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In an interview with The Hill, McClellan said she was driven to public service by her parents, who grew up during the Depression in the segregated South and became educators and community leaders. She sees government as a force for “progressive change."

“We are at a crossroads in deciding what kind of Virginia we’re going to be,” she said Wednesday. “Are we going to be one that finally addresses inequity and continues to solve people’s problems while restoring faith in a lot of people who have lost [faith] in the government’s ability to solve problems? I very clearly see that.”

McClellan is the second Democrat to officially launch her campaign, after Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy from Prince William County. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is term-limited from running for reelection.

She will not be the last to enter the race. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe has not said whether he will attempt a comeback, though most Democrats noted his efforts to help the party win back control of the legislature in 2019. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring are also considering bids, as is Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, a McClellan ally.

McAuliffe may be the most significant name contemplating a race, but two other would-be contenders will enter the race severely weaker than they might have been.

A year ago, Virginia politics were rocked by allegations that Northam appeared in black face at a party in medical school, a photograph of which appeared in the yearbook. Northam denied it was him in the photograph. At the same time, two women accused Fairfax of sexual assault, charges he denied. And Herring acknowledged that he, too, had worn black face when he was younger.

On the Republican side, state Sen. Amanda Chase is the only major candidate to say she will run.

Democrats have won four of the past five gubernatorial elections in a state that is rapidly beginning to look more like its northern Mid-Atlantic neighbors than its Southern neighbors.

McClellan, a lawyer who works as regulatory counsel for Verizon Communications, believes she can stand out among the sea of expected candidates as a new leader with legislative experience. She pointed to 36 bills she passed in this year's session, including a bill mandating stronger protections for pregnant workers, an energy bill adding clean jobs and shepherding the reintroduction and ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

In the interview, McClellan framed her campaign in a historical context, referencing the New Deal and racial unrest in 1968, and said she would aim to use government as a force for progressive change. She said she would address the economic effects of the pandemic through guaranteeing economic and health care safety nets and expanding clean energy jobs in the state.

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On criminal justice reform, McClellan said she would expand civilian oversight of law enforcement, decriminalize low-level offenses and disorderly conduct in schools to attempt to end the school-to-prison pipeline and better address the root causes of crime through prioritizing education and mental health services in the state.

“Even though Jim Crow legally ended, the long-lasting ramification of it didn’t,” McClellan said. “We need to focus more on preventing crime and addressing the root causes of crime rather than just focusing on punishing it and incarcerating people.”

McClellan has close ties to Democratic activists in the state, where she headed McAuliffe’s transition team in 2013 and served as vice chair of the state party. She is also vice chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

McClellan said she wants to empower Virginians to participate in governance and leave the state with greater equality of access.

“I hope that we transition to a Virginia where everyone was valued and we made significant progress in eliminating systemic inequity that we have ignored for a very long time,” she said. “And that we rebuilt the economy in a way that didn’t leave anyone behind and strengthened our safety nets to prepare us for the next crisis.”