A University of Virginia School of Law alumna has made history – again.
Jennifer McClellan, School of Law class of 1997, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives last week in a special election, making her the first Black woman to represent Virginia in Congress.
McClellan announced her intention to run for the 4th District on Dec. 13 following the death of Rep. Donald McEachin, a 1986 alumnus who had held the seat since 2017. She was expected to win the heavily Democratic district following a landslide primary win in December.
“It’s poetic justice, thinking about what not only my family has been through, but what our country has been through,” McClellan said in an interview with the Washington Post. “To be the first Black woman from Virginia, which was the birthplace of American democracy but also the birthplace of American slavery. And to be someone who … fought my entire adult life to address the lingering impact that slavery and Jim Crow has had on America and on Black communities. … To be able to do that on a national scale is an incredible honor.”
McClellan has served in the state senate since 2017, also succeeding McEachin, and before that served 11 years as a delegate for the 71st District. She ran for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2021, but lost to former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who was later defeated by Gov. Glenn Youngkin in the general election.
McClellan’s path to public service began in her youth, when history classes stoked her interest in government and politics as a force for change. The University of Richmond graduate and Petersburg, Virginia, native decided to go to law school.
“Lawyers have been integral to [change], from the legislative process to the use of the legal system,” she said in a 2019 UVA Lawyer interview.
During her law school years, she served as president of the Virginia Young Democrats, spending her weekends traveling around the state doing “campaign invasions.”
“At a young age, I dedicated myself to ensuring government was that force of positive change for all,” she said in a question and answer session before her 2020 orientation to new UVA Law students. “For most of my life, I have channeled those values into my commitment to progress, equity and justice in the commonwealth.”
At UVA, McClellan also served as notes development editor of the Virginia Law Review, and was involved with the Black Law Students Association and Law Democrats.
After working for the law firm Hunton & Williams for several years, in 2002 she turned to in-house counsel work at Verizon, where she started to think about running for office. When Viola Baskerville decided to run for lieutenant governor in 2005 instead of running for reelection to the House of Delegates, McClellan took the plunge. She was elected and was, at the time, the youngest female delegate in the state’s history, at 32.
“There was a contested primary that I won with 65% of the vote,” she recalled in the UVA Lawyer story. “It was the most Democratic district in the state, so the primary really was the race. And the rest is history.”
She also became the first member of the House of Delegates to have a baby in office. “Jack and Samantha kind of have 139 aunts and uncles,” she said.
Serving in the Virginia Assembly is a part-time job, with sessions lasting from 45 to 60 days. When not working on behalf of the commonwealth, McClellan has continued to work for Verizon as an assistant general counsel.
When McEachin left his state Senate seat to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, another opportunity opened up, and McClellan became a senator in 2017.
Among the accomplishments McClellan touts from her service in the General Assembly are passing legislation ranging from the Voting Rights Act to efforts at countering climate change to bills protecting domestic workers, reproductive health and pregnant workers. She also was active in criminal justice reform, and has worked with UVA law students in the State and Local Government Policy Clinic in crafting legislation, including the Delinquency Prevention and Youth Development Act.
She is vice chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, and chair of the Virginia Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission. She has also been vice chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia and a member of the Democratic National Committee. McClellan has served on several nonprofit and civic organizations’ boards, including the YWCA of Richmond, the Virginia League of Planned Parenthood, the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, the Children’s Museum of Richmond and the Robert Russa Moton Museum.
In her UVA Lawyer interview, McClellan said active and empathetic listening was critical to being a leader, and she also espoused the value of understanding history.
“As the great-great-grandchild of slaves, and parents who lived through Jim Crow, and as someone who just has a love of history in general, I have always immersed myself in learning all aspects of Virginia and American history, and world history, really,” she said. “I do that because you can’t understand how we got where we are as a people and a society if you don’t understand all aspects of the history that’s shaped this country.”
In a preview of her orientation advice to first-year law students in the Q&A, she encouraged them to be open to failure in order to succeed.
“If you are anything like I was when I arrived here, the thought of failing at anything is terrifying,” she said. “But [later,] I had to be willing to fail at my first campaign to enjoy the success I have today and make the impact I have on people across the commonwealth. And history is full of great people who took a risk, and in some cases failed – some spectacularly. But then they picked themselves up, learned from their failure and achieved great things.”
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March 22, 2023