In June, State Senator Jennifer McClellan announced her candidacy for governor of Virginia.
McClellan is a 14-year veteran of the Virginia legislature who grew up in Petersburg. In this year’s session, she was a sponsor of significant clean energy and abortion access bills, as well as Virginia’s ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. If elected in 2021, she would be the first Black woman governor in the United States.
McClellan spent three years in Charlottesville at UVA law school, and she’s earned endorsements from local leaders including Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Hingeley and Jefferson School African American History Center Director Andrea Douglas. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
C-VILLE: At every level of politics, there’s been conversation about the range of views within the Democratic Party. Where would you place yourself along the progressive-moderate spectrum?
JM: I would say I’m a pragmatic progressive. I have progressive values and I push for progressive policy, but if I cannot get 100 percent of what I want when I want it, I always ask myself, “Is this better than the status quo? Is this a good start to keep pushing?” And act accordingly.
This session, you were a patron of the bill that Charlottesville was watching more closely than anything—the bill allowing localities to move Confederate monuments. Why was that legislation important to you?
As a Black woman who had ancestors who were enslaved, I fully understand our history as a people and our history as a commonwealth, but I also understand the history of when these monuments were put up and why.
Those monuments trigger a lot of trauma and pain for me, and Black people, and we needed to be honest about that. Many of them are put in public spaces like courthouses. They were put there intentionally, to basically say, “life, liberty, and justice for all doesn’t mean you.” That was the message.
I live not too far from the Lee monument. I drive past it every day. I never realized how much emotional energy I spent ignoring it, because of all the trauma that it triggered, until I heard the words that it was coming down. This is going to sound clichéd—but the arc of the moral universe is long and it bends towards justice, and it bent a little more the day those things came down.
You’ve been around Virginia politics for years, seen as a rising star for years. Why did you decide to run for governor this cycle?
I’ve made a lot of progress addressing inequity and trying to make Virginia government one that works for progressive change. But at the end of the day, the governor sets the agenda, and you can make that kind of progress more broadly as governor.
I’m fighting the same fights as my parents, and grandparents, and great-grandparents. I can’t look at my kids and say, “I did everything within my power to keep you from having to fight these fights”—unless I run for governor.
…My number one priority is building a world-class public education system, from early childhood to career, that doesn’t leave any child behind. That includes completely restructuring how we fund it. That’s going to require me to write the budget. That’s going to require me to appoint the Board of Education and the secretary of education and the superintendent of schools. That’s going to require a commitment from the top.
For most of your career, as Democrat, you’ve served in the minority of the legislature. If you become governor, there’s a good chance you’d be working alongside a Democrat-controlled legislature. You’ve talked a lot about bipartisanship as one of your skills. Is bipartisanship still important in a situation like that?
It is. I’d be the governor for the entire commonwealth, not just Democrats. On most issues that we deal with, there’s not a lot that separates Democrats or Republicans. Most of the legislation that we pass is either unanimous or near unanimous. We all want a good job, we all want a good education and opportunity for our kids, and we want to live in clean healthy neighborhoods.
We have very different perspectives of how to get there…But when you listen to someone else’s perspective, and try to understand where they’re coming from, you will find common ground. You may hear a perspective you hadn’t thought about. We’re a government by, of, and for the people—that means my perspective isn’t always right.
I admire that open attitude, but is it ever difficult to square that with the actions of Republicans in the legislature? I mean, 40 Republican delegates voted against the Equal Rights Amendment this year.
Yes! Yes. I have—there are fewer of them—but I have very close friends who are Republicans in the legislature. Sometimes it would just pain me to hear the things they would say.
But if I understand where they’re coming from, I know where can I move them, and where I can’t…At the end of the day, if I can’t move them, then it’s up to the people to move them. But if I want to move them, I have to meet them where they are, and pull them along.