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McClellan elected as Virginia’s first Black woman in Congress

Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan overwhelmingly won a Tuesday special election for a vacant Richmond-based congressional district, making her the state’s first Black woman elected to Congress.

McClellan led 68 percent to 32 percent over Republican Leon Benjamin when the Associated Press called the race with 32 percent of precincts reporting in the heavily Democratic area. Virginia’s 4th District was last held by the late Rep. Don McEachin, who died in late November — just weeks after he won reelection to his fourth term.

McClellan is the vice chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and a former gubernatorial candidate. She spent more than 10 years in Virginia’s House of Delegates and succeeded McEachin in the state Senate when he was elected to Congress in 2016.

Following her primary win in December, McClellan said the lack of a Black woman in Virginia’s congressional delegation was due in part to “an imagination gap that only saw certain types of people as members of Congress. Part of it is that Black women tended to get involved in politics later in life. But it’s past time that we have one.”

The district spans 15 cities and counties, but the largest chunk of voters is in Richmond — a city with a predominantly Black population. It’s a deep-blue seat that McClellan was favored to win following the action-packed firehouse primary in December, which the state Democratic Party scrambled to organize as four candidates jockeyed for the seat over the course of a week.

Alexsis Rodgers, chair of the 4th Congressional District Democratic Committee, said she felt that momentum continued after the primary despite it being an off-year special election. “Democrats are just really fired up,” she said.

“It could be a decade or more before an opportunity to run happens, and, even in times when there are more competitive races in swing districts, a lot of times Black women or women of color are considered less viable or less likely to win,” Rodgers continued. “It’s a barrier that we’re going to continue to have to chip away at, and I think that means helping organizations understand that they have to invest in Black women candidates early, not just wait to see if they can make it to the primary.”

During the primary, McClellan received an outpouring of support from local and national Democratic politicians and groups. Throughout the primary and the general election, she raised over $900,000. McClellan has campaigned on the work she’s done in the state legislature regarding voting rights, abortion access and environmental protections.

Her win will bring the House to its full complement of 435 members — for at least a few months, anyway. Earlier Tuesday, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) announced that he will be leaving Congress on June 1 to head the Rhode Island Foundation. A special election will be set once his resignation takes effect.

McClellan has shrugged off the slog of joining the minority in the House: “I spent 14 years in the minority party in the Virginia Legislature and still was able to get over 300 bills passed,” she said in an interview after her primary win. “I think it’s a natural progression of the work that I have been doing already.”

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