A Virginia state senator is launching a bid to be the state's next governor, which if successful would make her the nation's first African-American woman to lead a state.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan announced Thursday that she's running for governor in 2021, saying she has the right skill set and track record to rebuild the state's economy, safety nets and communities amid a coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest over police violence and systematic racism.
In interviews with News4 and the Associated Press ahead of her formal announcement, she said she's a proven problem solver and a “compassionate listener” who will work to build a more inclusive state.
“I have the understanding of where we are in this moment in time, how we got here ... and the vision to take Virginia forward,” McClellan told the AP.
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She said the coronavirus crisis and the pain on display in the wake of the killing of George Floyd expose systemic inequities in health care, education, criminal justice and the economy. Closing the gaps will be the priority for the state’s next governor.
“We are really at a critical moment in our commonwealth, to decide what direction we are going to go, address inequity and live up to the ideals of our founding, which haven’t been a realty for everybody,” she told News4.
McClellan is one of several Democrats either officially running or eyeing a possible campaign for their party's nomination to succeed Gov. Ralph Northam, who is barred by law from seeking re-election. They include former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, Attorney General Mark Herring and Del. Jennifer Carroll-Foy, who like McClellan is also a Black woman.
If she were to win the 2021 contest, McClellan would be Virginia’s first woman governor, the first African-American female governor in the United States and only the second woman ever elected to statewide office in Virginia.
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McClellan said Black women have been the “backbone” of this country while often being overlooked, but she's not interested in shattering glass ceilings for its own sake.
“I'm not running to make history; I am running to set Virginia on the course I think we need to go," she said.
The 47-year-old has served in the state legislature for more than 14 years, first as a House delegate and more recently as a senator representing Richmond. A mother of two, she was the first delegate to serve while pregnant. She works as a corporate attorney for Verizon in her day job.
At the legislature, McClellan is known as a soft-spoken pragmatist who often has a hand in high-profile legislation and issues such as ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment and ethics reform.
She's been a strong advocate for abortion rights and was a lead sponsor on a sweeping energy overhaul this year that lays out a plan to get Virginia to 100% renewable generation. McClellan also leads the Virginia Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commission.
McClellan has long been active in the state Democratic party and is married to Democratic operative David Mills. They were married by U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, a mentor and adviser of McClellan.
Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University, said McClellan's personal background and long track record at the legislature give her broad appeal among both liberal and moderate Democrats.
“She’s the Kamala Harris of Virginia politics," Kidd said, referring to the former presidential hopeful and senator from California who could be picked as former Vice President Joe Biden's running mate.
The party primaries are not until 2021, but Virginia's off-year gubernatorial contests typically draw outsized national attention and interest because they serve as a stand-in for the national mood. Northam easily won in 2017, riding a wave of voter unhappiness with President Donald Trump.
On the Republican side, Sen. Amanda Chase, a populist who is outspoken on gun rights and often clashes with members of her own party, announced her candidacy in February, and businessman Pete Snyder has indicated an interest in running. No Republican has won a statewide race in Virginia in more than a decade.
McClellan said thinking of what her own family had to endure helps motivate her.
“I can’t help but think of my great-great-grandfather, who had to pass a literacy test and have three white people vouch for him to register to vote,” she said.