State Sen. Jennifer McClellan is on track to become the first Black woman to represent Virginia in Congress after she won the Democratic primary Thursday to fill the seat of Democratic Rep. Donald McEachin, who died last month from cancer.
McClellan will face Republican Leon Benjamin, a pastor and Navy veteran who twice lost to McEachin, in the Feb. 21 special election for the 4th District seat. McClellan is widely considered the front-runner in the heavily Democratic area.
The candidates were on an incredibly rushed timeline; they had less than two weeks to declare their candidacies and then campaign from the time Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced the date of the special election to the actual primary.
On Tuesday, Democrats held a firehouse primary, a type of unassembled caucus run by the party. Officials counted the ballots by hand and did not begin until Wednesday morning, drawing the process out into Thursday.
McClellan had been set to face state Del. Lamont Bagby, the chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, in the primary. But he quickly dropped out and endorsed McClellan — a move that was widely seen as an attempt to fend off a challenge from state Sen. Joe Morrissey, a controversial figure in Virginia Democratic politics.
Morrissey’s law license has been revoked twice. In 2014, he entered an Alford plea (which allows the accused to maintain their innocence while acknowledging there may be enough evidence for a conviction) on a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor after he admitted he had had sex with a 17-year-old girl who worked at his law office. (She later became his wife.) In January 2022, Democrat Ralph Northam, who was then governor, pardoned him.
Morrissey resigned from his state House seat in 2014, but he then ran for that same seat as an independent and won in 2015 — while serving time in jail.
“Just as I am clear eyed in my decision to step aside, I also firmly believe that there is only one candidate in this race fit to replace my late mentor, Donald McEachin. That person is Senator Jennifer McClellan,” Bagby said in a statement Thursday.
McClellan, 49, served 11 years in the House of Delegates and has been a member of the state Senate since 2017. According to her website, she was endorsed by top Democratic lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina. Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia also threw his support behind her.
McClellan had also won the support of other Black leaders in the district, including Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney.
McClellan ran for governor last year, losing in a five-person primary to Terry McAuliffe, who ultimately lost to Youngkin.
Last year, as Southern Republican-led states passed legislation to restrict voting rights, McClellan co-sponsored Virginia’s voting rights law to protect elements of the Voting Rights Act the Supreme Court struck down in 2013.
She is also the chair of the state’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission, and she was an active participant in reassessing Virginia’s statues of Confederate figures. The King panel took the lead in commissioning a statue commemorating emancipation, which now stands in Richmond. The city removed a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee last year.