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Jennifer McClellan elected first Black woman to represent Virginia in Congress

Jennifer McClellan on Feb. 21, 2023
Scott Elmquist
VPM News
Voters in the Democratic primary election stand lined up outside Dogtown Dance Theatre in Richmond's Manchester neighborhood.

The Richmond state senator beat Republican pastor Leon Benjamin Sr.

Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D–Richmond) cruised to an easy victory in Tuesday’s special election for Virginia’s 4th Congressional District, making her the first Black woman to represent the state in Congress.

In an interview Tuesday morning, the attorney noted her new district was also the first in Virginia to send a Black man to Congress, when voters sent John Mercer Langston to the House of Representatives in 1888.

“It blows my mind that we're still having firsts in 2023,” McClellan said. “But it is an incredible honor.”

McClellan beat out Republican pastor Leon Benjamin Sr. in a heavily Democratic district that stretches from Richmond to the North Carolina border.

The Associated Press called the race for McClellan before 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. As of press time, McClellan had a 23,000-vote lead over Benjamin via unofficial results from the Virginia Department of Elections.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin called the election after Rep. Donald McEachin, a Democrat, died of complications from cancer weeks after his November reelection.

McClellan is a corporate attorney for Verizon and has served in Virginia’s part-time General Assembly since 2006. She’s known in Richmond as a close ally of U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D–Va.) and a policy wonk who mounted an unsuccessful run for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2021.

She sponsored a number of key bills passed by Democrats during their two years in full control of the state Legislature from 2020-21, including a law that mandates the decarbonization of Virginia's electrical grid by 2050 and one rolling back abortion restrictions previously passed by Republicans.

McClellan is used to working across party lines; she noted that she’s been in the minority for 14 of the years she’s served in the Legislature.

“The first step is really listening, trying to find common ground where you can and if you can't you just keep pushing until you get to the solution,” McClellan said.

McClellan said she plans on keeping some of McEachin’s staff.

Her opponent, Benjamin, embraced former President Donald Trump’s lies surrounding the 2020 election and never conceded his own 23% loss that same year to McEachin. He lost to McEachin by a larger margin again in November 2022.

Ernest McGowen, a political science professor at the University of Richmond, said McClellan’s win underscored her status as a leading political figure among Virginia Democrats.

“Whether or not that popularity could translate statewide – such as running on the gubernatorial ticket or for a Senate seat if one becomes available – is unclear, but I would not bet against it,” McGowen said in an email.

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