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McEachin remembered as friendly ‘social justice champion’

Donald McEachin speaks during a debate.
Crixell Matthews
Rep. Donald McEachin, shown here during a 2020 debate, focused on the environment and health care during his time in Congress. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Virginia flags flew at half-staff as politicians and Richmond community leaders mourned the death of Rep. Donald McEachin (D-4th), who died Monday due to complications from colorectal cancer.

The 61-year-old spent nearly half his life embedded in Virginia politics, from his first election to the House of Delegates in 1995 to his reelection to Congress earlier this month.

Friends and colleagues described an affable political leader who championed progressive policies but never took himself too seriously.

Faith Harris met the lawyer in the early 2000s, after McEachin’s unsuccessful bid to become state attorney general. The associate professor of theology at Virginia Union University said McEachin was interested in learning more about faith as a means to understanding how it influenced people’s political views.

Harris convinced him to enter seminary school. She described him as “boyish” and “inquisitive,” yet firmly rooted in a quest for social justice. She remembered assigning the class reading on liberation theology — an approach that emphasizes uplifting the oppressed.

“You could just see the light come on in his eyes,” Harris said. 

In 2007, McEachin won a seat in the state senate, where he worked with Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) on issues ranging from reining in predatory loans to expanding access to Medicaid. She said McEachin was “larger than life.” 

“But at the same time, like, this giant teddy bear who was a warrior for the marginalized,” McClellan said Tuesday.

McEachin won election to Congress in 2016, entering office at the same time as former President Donald Trump. In an interview with Style Weekly after his win, McEachin said he’d work with Trump’s allies in Congress where they could find common ground.

“But to the extent where there’s an attempt to continue what we heard on the campaign — which is what I’ll call hate speech, the demonizing of ethnic groups, the demonizing of religious groups, the demonizing of any Americans,” McEachin said, “that’s something that has to be opposed. And I’ll oppose that with every fiber of my being.”

McEachin ended up focusing heavily on the environment and health care during his time in Congress. He sponsored a bill this year aimed at reducing subsidies for fossil fuel companies and replacing them with “gas tax rebates” for drivers. He also proposed legislation creating more legal protections for children going through immigration proceedings.

Harris continued to work with McEachin in her organizing work throughout his political career. She remembered inviting him to speak at a 2013 rally focused on raising the federal minimum wage, not knowing he’d recently undergone treatment for colorectal cancer.

“He really should not have been there,” Harris said. “But because I called and asked him, he came. And I was floored by his willingness and his commitment to his friends.”

McEachin was on hand in June to welcome Vice President Kamala Harris to Richmond and speak at a roundtable focused on abortion. He warned of a “problem child in Virginia’s Senate” — a thinly veiled reference to Sen. Joe Morrissey’s (D-Richmond) personal opposition to abortion — and urged Harris to find a way to end the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rules on certain issues.

“When we're talking about a person's civil rights — whether it's the right to control your body or the right to cast your vote — the filibuster should not stand in the way of that,” McEachin said in June.

The representative is survived by his wife, Colette McEachin, who serves as Richmond’s top prosecutor.

In remarks to reporters Tuesday, Gov. Glenn Youngkin called Rep. McEachin an “extraordinary public servant” but said it was too soon to set a date for the election of his successor.

“Today, we're really focused on remembering the great contributions he made,” Youngkin said.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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