State Sen. Jennifer McClellan is now U.S. Rep.-elect Jennifer McClellan.
As expected, the Richmond Democrat romped to an easy win in Tuesday’s special election for the 4th Congressional District, filling the seat of the late Rep. Don McEachin, D-Richmond, who passed away in November. With all but a few precincts reporting, McClellan was pulling 72% of the vote to just under 28% for Republican Leon Benjamin.
With the victory, McClellan becomes the first Black woman to represent Virginia in Congress, a historic achievement in any state but perhaps more so in the state where slavery first came ashore to the North American British colonies (the first enslaved Africans on the continent were actually in Spain’s St. Augustine settlement in Florida in 1565), and a state that didn’t ratify the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote until 1952, some 32 years after it was already in effect.
Her victory also scrambles the Democratic nomination for governor in 2025. McClellan unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination in 2021 (in hindsight, how many Democrats regret nominating Terry McAuliffe?) and was widely expected to seek the nomination again in 2025. If she had, she’d have been considered a strong contender for the nomination. Her presumed absence from that contest may have a clarifying effect on a field that might include Rep. Abigail Spanberger, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, former House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Loudoun County Del. David Reid.
Her ascension to Washington also deprives Richmond of a serious-minded legislator who has had more effect on Southwest and Southside Virginia than many of our own legislators. Whether that effect is good or bad depends on your political point of view.
In the General Assembly, McClellan has been identified with many issues but two come to the forefront for their regional impact: school construction and energy.
Let’s start with school construction. This is one place where rural Virginia will miss McClellan the most — she was one of the most prominent Democrats to take state funding of school construction seriously.
A brief history is in order: The state has historically not gotten into the business of funding school construction, leaving that to localities. One big exception came in the early 1950s, when Gov. John Battle pushed a school construction program that cost $75 million. (Let’s give credit where credit is due: This wasn’t Battle’s idea. He and others in the Byrd Machine were forced into this by anti-Byrd crusader Francis Pickens Miller, who came close to upsetting Battle in the 1949 Democratic primary by running on a platform of state funding for school construction.)
In the late 1990s, when then-Gov. Jim Gilmore was pushing his car tax plan (a tax cut plan), Democrats used their leverage to push for a modest infusion of state funding for school construction — and won a temporary infusion of $110 million. (Yes, bigger than what was spent in the ’50s but a lot of inflation had taken place over the decades.)
Not until last year did the General Assembly agree to another big spending package for school construction — $1.25 billion.
Over the years, one thing has been constant: It’s rural areas (and central cities) that have the hardest time paying for school construction because they don’t have much of a tax base. One thing has changed, though: the politics.
In the late ’90s, it was Democrats who were the most insistent on school spending, because there were a lot of rural Democrats in those days (then-Del. Tom Jackson, D-Carroll County, was one of the most vocal on the subject) and it was Republicans who were the most resistant, because there were a lot of suburban Republicans, partly in Northern Virginia, who didn’t feel the same pain. In one famous exchange on the House floor in 1998, then-Del. John Rollison, R-Prince William County, declared that if Jackson’s proposal went through, “we would end up paying for our own schools and also schools in Delegate Jackson’s district. Some members of his caucus walk around with almost a chip on their shoulder. ‘I’m rural. I’m disadvantaged. I need help.’”
Umm, yes, that was precisely the point.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, things had changed: Rural Virginia now votes almost exclusively Republican while Northern Virginia has turned Democratic. With that shift, many Democrats seemed to lose their enthusiasm for state funding for school construction — it wasn’t their problem anymore. One of the few Democrats who did take an interest in the subject was McClellan.
Republicans are naturally more averse to government spending but in time some rural Republicans became the leading voices in favor of finding a state solution, creating an odd-couple dynamic in Richmond.
For several years, state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, pushed for a grand solution: a $4 billion bond issue. McClellan favored a more incremental approach, pushing first for a Commission on School Construction and Modernization, but that also reflected her more methodical personality.
In the end, Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, was the main mover behind the spending plan the state finally did adopt last year, but we shouldn’t discount McClellan’s role in helping to push the issue and make it a bipartisan one.
To be sure, not all of McClellan’s views on how to pay for school construction have meshed well with how rural Republicans think it should be done. Under Virginia’s system, where local governments have only the powers granted them by Richmond, nine localities have special dispensation to levy a tax for school construction: the counties of Charlotte, Gloucester, Halifax, Henry, Mecklenburg, Northampton, Patrick and Pittsylvania and the city of Danville. McClellan pushed for all localities to have that power; House Republicans, specifically rural Republicans, killed that measure. “I represent an area that sends us here to hold back on taxes, and they don’t want us to put everything in a referendum back to them,” Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford County, told McClellan last year. On the other hand, it was another rural Republican — Del. Jim Edmunds, R-Halifax County — who pushed unsuccessfully to add Prince Edward County to that list of localities that can vote on whether to tax themselves for school construction. (Prince Edward has a school that’s become something of the poster child for school construction, with some rooms that simply can’t be used because of a leaky roof.) This year, McClellan tried again, with the same result — the bill passed the Senate 26-10 (with five Republicans, mostly from rural areas, voting yes) but was killed in a Republican-controlled House committee.
Feel free to disagree with McClellan on the best way to pay for school construction, but she was undeniably the leading Democratic voice for doing something — a program that may benefit all localities but probably benefits Republican-voting rural areas the most. The next time this issue comes up, rural Republicans may miss having a big-city advocate from the other side of the aisle.
McClellan’s role in energy legislation is more controversial but also much clearer. She was the lead Senate sponsor of the Clean Economy Act, which mandates that the state’s electric grid go carbon-free by certain dates (2045 for Dominion Energy, 2050 for Appalachian Power). If you’re a fan of coal-fired power, you’re not a fan of this legislation — or of McClellan. Southwest Virginia legislators have particularly chafed under the provision that the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in St. Paul be shuttered — it burns a mix of waste coal and biomass, and it’s a big employer in a region where jobs are hard to come by. McClellan probably has few fans there. (She took 6.3% of the vote in Russell County in the 2021 Democratic primary for governor, 8.8% in Wise County, both well below her statewide total of 11.7%.)
The Clean Economy Act set the stage for the solar energy boom now taking place across the state, primarily in Southside. Those solar farms — some recoil at that phrase and prefer solar “facilities” — are proving controversial, too, but not in a classic left-right kind of way. Some on the left-leaning environmental side of things, who otherwise champion green energy, are starting to understand that solar installations sometimes create runoff problems and take productive farmland out of production. Some on the right, who may not be the most natural advocates for renewables, see solar as a property rights issue that is generating extra revenue for landowners — and tax revenues that help hold down real estate taxes in rural areas. And business interests, which tend to be conservative, are increasingly insisting on solar energy because it’s cheap. McClellan certainly wasn’t the only one pushing the Clean Economy Act — it was very much a group enterprise, but her name was on the bill, so the rise of solar in Virginia is very much one of her legacies.
Now she will have the opportunity to create a new legacy, this time in Washington. And one way another, by going to Congress she goes into Virginia’s history books.