Meet Jennifer McClellan, Who Is Running To Be The First Black Woman Governor Of Virginia

Today, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan announced her run for governor of Virginia in the 2021 election. Citing her family's history of civil rights activism, the longtime state legislator said the state is at a "critical moment" and will need strong leadership to weather the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis, as well as continue to reckon with racial inequality.
McClellan, a 47-year-old mother of two and corporate lawyer for Verizon, has represented the greater Richmond area for 11 years in the House of Delegates and four years in the state Senate. As vice chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and chair of the Virginia Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission, she works to grapple with Virginia's painful history of slavery and disenfranchisement. She has led Virginia's bills to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment; protect pregnant workers from discrimination; end the mandatory ultrasound law and other restrictions on abortion access; and stop housing discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, among others.
Advertisement
McClellan would be the first Black woman governor of Virginia, and one of few women governors in the U.S. — currently, there are only nine. She is, however, the second Black woman to enter the race after Jennifer Carroll Foy, a State Delegate and attorney. Other candidates include Attorney General Mark Herring, Lieutenant Gov. Justin Fairfax, and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Gov. Ralph Northam is unable to run for reelection due to the state's term limits.
Ahead, we spoke with McClellan about her priorities for Virginia, tearing down the state's monuments to white supremacy, being pregnant while in office, and more.
You are announcing your candidacy for governor amid the global pandemic and widespread protests against racial injustice. What about this moment spurred your decision to run?
"I got interested in government because I learned from my parents, who grew up during the Depression and in the segregated South, that government could either be a force for positive change or a force that gets in the way of progress for some and oppresses others.
"I come from a lifetime of service, first in my community and now as a legislator. We are in a critical moment in not just our country, but here in Virginia, to decide what kind of Virginia we are going to be. Are we going to be a Virginia that works for everyone, doesn’t leave anyone behind, that finally addresses systematic inequity that we’ve been grappling with for over 400 years?
"I have seen firsthand in this sort of inflection point of four different crises that are going on, that leadership is critical to the direction we’re going to take. We're in a health pandemic, the economic crisis, the reckoning with racial injustice — and there’s also a growing lack of faith in government’s ability to solve problems. I think I can help navigate us towards a future that helps address all of those issues and makes clear we are going to be a Virginia where no one is left behind."
Advertisement
What are the top issues that you plan to focus on?
"We are going to need to rebuild Virginia’s economy, but rebuilding to where we were when this pandemic started is not good enough. We need to rebuild our economy in a way that addresses systematic inequity, doesn’t leave anyone behind, recognizing certain new types of businesses and new trends that are coming, so that we have an economy for the 21st century.
"Critical to that is a strong, healthy public education system that also doesn’t leave anyone behind. I’m the daughter of a third-generation educator and I learned from my parents and my own experience that a good-quality education is critical to economic development, to healthy communities, and to a thriving democracy.
"Third is access to quality, affordable healthcare for all. You cannot have healthy, thriving communities if the people who live in them who are sick cannot access treatment and care."
The Reproductive Health Protection Act you fought for takes effect on July 1. How will you make sure that Republicans don’t roll back these rights again?
"I will fight any efforts to roll this back. I was the first member of the House of Delegates to be pregnant while in office. That gave me a unique perspective while fighting those bills on how those restrictions impact a woman, her relationship with her physician, and I will do everything within my power to keep any restrictions from being re-instituted either as governor or between now and then as a legislator."
Advertisement
What was it like to be the first Virginia House member to be pregnant while in office?
"I did it twice. What was interesting was that being pregnant in office wasn’t hard, it was being a nursing mother that was. Having to navigate finding places to pump or nurse and the breaks to do that, helping my colleagues understand why that was so important.
"There were times with Jack where I pumped just enough for him to get through daycare and if I was still on the floor after 6 and he needed to eat, then he had to come to the Capitol. So, that took some getting used to for some of my colleagues. I used to joke that one day, my memoirs are going to be called Places I Nursed Jack. Because there were lots of creative places and times where I had to do that."

I think about how my great-grandfather had to take a literacy test and have three white people vouch for him before he could register to vote. And that my grandmother couldn't vote. And that my great-great-great-grandparents were property. And I could become the governor of the former capital of the Confederacy. I'm ready for it.

With all of the conversations around police violence, where do you stand on defunding and abolishing the police?
"I have always believed that our priorities should be things that prevent crime, so that we don’t have to focus on how to deal with and punish crime. So, that’s everything from education, to mental health reform, to building healthy communities with access to economic opportunity. And then, within our police departments, there needs to be transparency and accountability for misconduct. And there needs to be trust in the communities that they serve. So I will support and put forth — during our special session we are going to have this summer –– specific policies related to that.
Advertisement
"I think we are going to have to look at our budget holistically and decide what our priorities are. And our priorities need to be prevention and addressing the root causes of crime. So I can’t say right now what specific budget items I would cut or increase without looking at that budget holistically. But the budget that we passed this past session prioritized education and healthcare and health and human services, and those are still my priorities."
Virginia has the most Confederate monuments in the country, but that is changing and just recently, a Confederate statue in Richmond was toppled and the city's Robert E. Lee statue was defaced. The Virginia House and Senate adopted a bill this year that allows localities to take down Confederate statues and monuments. What's next?
"This is a long overdue conversation. What we are seeing is frustration, pain, and anger that has reached a boiling point. Many of these monuments were, in fact, put up right after Reconstruction as part of a backlash to the rising political, social, and economic power of Black people after the Civil War. Others were put up in response to the Brown v. Board of Education civil rights achievements and successes. And we need to have an honest conversation about that. They were put up, many of them, as a signal to put Black people back in their place. And they trigger, for many people, 400 years of pain and suffering and oppression in this country. They need to be removed safely. And preferably with conversations that can lead to healing in those communities.
Advertisement
"We’ve reached a point where a lot of people are just frustrated with no action. And I think they’re going to see action now that we’ve passed a law that takes effect July 1, to allow localities to begin those conversations and remove those monuments. But I just ask people to be careful and stay safe. Many of these monuments are extremely heavy and the last thing we want is for someone to get hurt trying to take matters into their own hands."
What would becoming the first Black woman governor of Virginia mean to you?
"I can’t help but think of my own family history, as well as just the experiences of African-Americans and particularly African-American women. I think about how my great-grandfather had to take a literacy test and have three white people vouch for him before he could register to vote. And that my grandmother couldn’t vote. And that my great-great-great-grandparents and before, many of whom I don’t even know their names, were property.
"I can’t help but think of Dr. King’s quote, 'The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.' That I could become the governor of the former capital of the Confederacy. But I also am mindful that the arc of the moral universe needs help from people to bend. So, this is going to be a historic moment, but it’s also going to have to be a people-led moment. And I am willing and excited to bring all of the people on this journey with me. So it’s an exciting moment, and it’s one I’m ready for."

More from US News

R29 Original Series