RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Virginia voters on Tuesday elected Democrat Jennifer McClellan, a veteran state legislator from Richmond, to fill an open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where she will make history as the first Black woman to represent the state in Congress.
"We will make this commonwealth and this country a better place for everyone," McClellan said in a victory speech at a party with supporters in Richmond. "I am ready to get to work."
McClellan, 50, prevailed over right-wing Republican nominee Leon Benjamin in the special election for the blue-leaning 4th District, which has its population center in the capital city and stretches south to the North Carolina border.
The seat was open after the death of Democratic Rep. Donald McEachin, who passed away following a long fight with the secondary effects of colorectal cancer in November, weeks after being elected to a fourth term. McClellan's election won't change the balance of power of the U.S. House, which Republicans narrowly control.
"Historical. Had to be a part of it," voter Rashida Mitchell said of the ballot she cast for McClellan on Tuesday afternoon. "She's done great things for the city of Richmond, for the commonwealth as a whole."
Prior to Tuesday, only 22 states had ever elected a Black woman to Congress, according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis of historical records. McClellan said breaking that barrier in Virginia carries extra weight because of her family's history in the Jim Crow South.
Her father's grandfather had to take a literacy test and find three white people to vouch for him just to be able to register to vote, said McClellan, a native of central Virginia. Her grandfather and father paid poll taxes and her mother, now 90, didn't vote until after the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
"It's a huge honor, and responsibility, to ensure that I'm not the last," she said in an interview last week.
An associate general counsel for Verizon, where she's worked for 20 years, McClellan has represented parts of the Richmond area in the General Assembly for nearly as long.
At the statehouse, McClellan has cultivated a reputation as a deeply knowledgeable, widely respected consensus builder and legislator. A skilled debater with a polished, reserved style, she's sponsored many of Democrats' top legislative priorities in recent years, including bills that expanded voting access and abortion rights and legislation that set ambitious clean energy mandates.
Now the mother of two school-aged children, McClellan was the first delegate to serve while pregnant and give birth while in office after she joined the state House in 2006.
McClellan also followed in McEachin's footsteps when she moved up to the state Senate. She announced her candidacy for a seat he previously held after he was first elected to Congress in 2016, and she easily won a January 2017 special election.
In 2021, she was part of the crowded Democratic field seeking the party's nomination for governor, which she and three other candidates lost to Terry McAuliffe. That experience, McClellan said, helped her pivot quickly to this race and the high-speed December nominating contest that lasted just over a week.
McClellan said her interest in politics first began in middle school.
"It was listening to my parents' stories. ... They saw the best of government through the New Deal and they saw the worst of government through Jim Crow. And their stories sparked a love of history," McClellan said.
She graduated from a suburban Richmond high school, attended the University of Richmond and obtained her law degree from the University of Virginia, initially with a goal of becoming an attorney for a congressional committee.
She changed course and first sought elected office herself in 2005. She's been active in the state Democratic party since she was in college and met her husband, David Mills, through politics. They were married by U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, a mentor and adviser of McClellan who campaigned with her over the weekend.
Kaine said at a Saturday rally in Richmond that McClellan's combination of legislative experience and her existing connections with Virginia's congressional delegation -- including four Republican members with whom she served in the General Assembly -- means she'll be well positioned to be effective despite the GOP majority.
"She's a hard worker, does the homework, really gets into the details," Kaine told reporters. "She's very firm in her convictions, but she's a civil, courteous person who doesn't push anybody away."
McClellan pledged in her speech Tuesday night to serve as a unifier.
"We can prove that when we come together and we care more about doing the work and solving the problems than soundbites and the show, that we can help people," she said.
She opened her remarks with a remembrance of McEachin. His widow, Richmond prosecutor Colette McEachin, was among a number of high-profile endorsers of McClellan as she campaigned for and handily secured the party's nomination for the race.
The contest between McClellan and Benjamin, a pastor and Navy veteran who as a commentator has espoused conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic and voter fraud, was not seen as competitive, though McClellan said she took nothing for granted. She campaigned and fundraised amid the ongoing General Assembly session. The two did not meet for a debate, and McClellan largely focused her message on her legislative record rather than highlighting Benjamin's positions.
McClellan far outraised Benjamin, who was endorsed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin and other top Virginia Republicans, and she had a structural advantage in the heavily Democratic, majority-minority district.
The race marked the third loss in a row for Benjamin, who twice previously challenged McEachin.
McClellan's victory Tuesday will set up another special election to fill her seat in the General Assembly. She declined in the interview to say whether she would issue an endorsement in what's shaping up to be another crowded primary.
As for her own political future, she didn't rule out another statewide run down the road but said she hopes to make progress in Congress on some of the same issues she's championed in Richmond: environmental justice and climate change, abortion rights, public school funding, and expanding voting rights.
"All of the success that I have had with major legislation at the state level, all of that work still hasn't been done at the federal level. And so I will bring my expertise on those issues and continue to work on those issues in Congress," she said.