“I am still fighting the same fight that my parents, my grandparents, and my great-grandparents fought — and to know that I will be in a position to keep my children and their children from having to fight those fights is an incredible honor,” state Senator Jennifer McClellan said in an interview with Virginia Scope.
State Senator and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jennifer McClellan successfully championed several pieces of legislation during the General Assembly session that ended last month. In an interview, the senator talked to Virginia Scope about the session and how it will impact her campaign for governor moving forward.
McClellan is battling former-Governor Terry McAuliffe, former-Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, Delegate Lee Carter, and Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax for the Democratic nomination to run for governor in November of this year. The nominee will be chosen on June 8 in a primary election — polls have shown McAuliffe with a sizable lead, but there is still a large section of undecided voters.
You were really busy during the legislative session. How does it feel to finish the session having successfully passed several bills that will become law once Governor Northam signs them?
“Virginians are looking for us to solve their problems and especially now many of those problems are made worse by the pandemic. To be able to continue building on the progress we made last year to address those needs and lay the foundation for the COVID recovery was exhilarating and satisfying.”
What pieces of legislation from this year are you most proud of and believe will have the largest impact on Virginians?
“My childcare bill — before COVID there was not enough quality childcare to meet the need — especially for infant care and that is something I saw firsthand as a mom when I became the first member of the House of Delegates to have a baby while in office. That industry has really been devastated by COVID, so to be able to begin stabilizing it with that bill and laying the foundation for recovery was very important to me.
“The Voting Rights Act of Virginia from a personal perspective as somebody whose great grandfather had to take a literacy test before he could register to vote, my dad had to pay a poll tax, and now I think Virginia is the first state in the south to proactively protect voting rights while the rest of the country sees a wave of voter suppression laws and the Supreme Court could further gut the federal voting rights act.
“Probably the most transformational is my diminished capacity bill that now will allow people to have their mental illness and intellectual disabilities and autism to be considered in criminal cases. It is huge, it is probably one of the biggest criminal justice reform bills that we have passed.”
Additionally, McClellan spoke about her bill that requires each school board to provide at least three specialized student support positions, including school social workers, school psychologists, school nurses, licensed behavior analysts, licensed assistant behavior analysts, and other licensed health and behavioral positions, per 1,000 students.
Coming out of session with that momentum, what do you want to focus on moving forward in your gubernatorial campaign?
“I am really focused on rebuilding our education system from early childhood to career, our economy, and our economic and healthcare safety net in a way that addresses the inequities that were already there. It addresses the needs of today and the way that COVID has made those problems even worse.”
McClellan said she also wants to continue to build on the steps that Democrats have taken in the last two years to address climate change, create a cleaner energy and transportation economy, and expanding the rights of workers. “We can’t just go back to where we were a year ago, that wasn’t good enough for everybody. We have to rebuild a post-COVID 21st century Virginia that leaves nobody behind and brings them hope again.”
The senator also applauded the work from her Democratic colleagues — touting the expansion of voting rights and increasing healthcare access while also calling the abolishment of the death penalty and the additional criminal justice reforms a “huge deal.”
“In less than two years, we have made generational change to make Virginian’s lives better,” McClellan said. “I am incredibly proud to be a part of that.”
McClellan also recently released an education plan that includes an investment of approximately $2.3 billion in new dollars annually into Virginia’s K-12 education system. “Today, I am proposing a new plan that will ensure a high-quality, equitable public education for every student in Virginia, regardless of their zip code or family’s income,” Sen. McClellan said last Thursday when announcing the plan. “For generations, underfunding in our K-12 education system has caused lasting disparities in academics and achievement, leaving too many students — especially Black, brown, and low-income students — behind because they weren’t born in the right zip code. It’s time for Virginia to end decades of underfunded schools – and that will be my top priority as governor.”
What differentiates you from the other candidates vying for the Democratic nomination?
“Virginians are ready for someone who brings a new perspective for governing that has the experience to get things done and solve their problems. I have more state government experience than all of my opponents combined. I have more experience with community service and public servant leadership in Virginia than my opponents, but as a Black woman in a new generation of leadership, I bring a different perspective to governing and to leading that focuses on elevating perspectives and voices that have not been centered while building coalitions to bring people together. I’m uniquely positioned to do that. I have a clear understanding of Virginia’s history and how we got where we are and the changes that need to be made to uplift every Virginian.”
How important would it be for you to be the first Black woman governor in the United States?
“It’s extremely important for two reasons. Everyone’s policy positions, perspective, and approach to governing are shaped by their life experiences and what they know. I am not running to be the first Black woman governor but who I am and how I lead is shaped by that. More personally, I know that I am my ancestor’s wildest dreams and that everything that I have and continue to accomplish was built on the sacrifices they made to get me where I am today — and in some cases people giving their lives. I also know that I will open doors for future generations, including my own children. I feel that weight and I feel that honor and it frankly fuels me in a way that I don’t think ever fully understood it would.”
Due to campaign finance laws, state legislators were not allowed to fundraise during the General Assembly session that took place from mid-January to mid-February. Carroll Foy resigned her seat in the House of Delegates at the end of 2020 in an effort to give her gubernatorial campaign a chance to catch up to McAuliffe.
McClellan did not resign.
“Going into session I had people ask if I was going to resign so that I could focus on raising money and campaigning full time. It was really important to me to continue to serve not only my constituents but the Commonwealth during this very challenging time and to also build on the progress we have made as a legislature. That has also continued to sort-of fuel my campaign because we also were laying the groundwork for what the next governor is going to be able to do. I am very proud of the work that we have done and I am excited to be on the campaign trail to focus on the work still left to be done.”
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