Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan announced on Thursday that she will run for governor in 2021, becoming the latest candidate to join the Democratic primary well over a year before the election, with a focus on combating racial injustice.
“We’re at a critical moment in Virginia where we have to recover from four crises happening at the same time: a health pandemic, an economic crisis, a reckoning with racial injustice, and a growing lack of faith in people in government’s ability to solve problems,” McClellan told The Daily Beast in an interview ahead of her announcement.
McClellan, 47, is hoping to make history with her bid. If elected, she would be the nation’s first Black female governor. After a series of victories for women in the 2018 midterm elections, the country has yet to elevate a Black woman to the governor’s mansion.
“Part of what worries me is addressing the symbolic: confederate monuments and Lost Cause iconography and homages to white supremacy, yes we need to remove them, but that cannot be the final step,” McClellan said. “If we are not willing to address the systemic inequity across all of our systems, we will never move forward. And we will never heal from 400 years of trauma inflicted on Black people.”
In a two-minute launch video detailing her candidacy, McClellan evoked the words of a civil rights icon: “Across Virginia, people are echoing the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: ‘Where do we go from here?’” she said in the spot. “As we confront a pandemic, racial injustice, a changing world, our hearts have broken. We’ve felt frightened. Outraged. Inspired. We’ve looked to the future for a brighter day.”
“I know that this is not a moment to retreat to the past, but to step boldly into our future. We must rebuild our economy stronger, more inclusive, without leaving people behind,” she says. “When we’ve faced the challenges of our time and the painful legacy of our past together, we’ve transformed challenges into opportunities and pain into action. I’ve led that kind of progress in the legislature. I’m running for governor to keep leading progress into our future.”
McClellan has led state-level civil rights initiatives for over a decade. Representing the greater Richmond area, she currently serves as vice chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and chair of the Virginia Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commission, along with several other task forces related to racial justice. She is a member of Delta Sigma Theta, a historically Black sorority, and the Black History Museum. She previously served as vice chair for the Virginia Democratic Party.
Reflecting on what informed her decision to launch a potentially historic bid, McClellan spoke about her great grandparents. Her great grandfather, she recalled, needed to pass a literacy test and have three white people vouch for him to be able to register to vote.
“To think about all of the progress made throughout my family, to think about that I could be the governor of the former capital of the Confederacy, I can’t help but think about the arc of the moral universe,” she said. “It does bend towards justice but it needs help from people. And all of the progress that we have made has been as a result of people pushing for that progress.”
McClellan joins a small field of declared Democratic gubernatorial candidates, including Jennifer Carroll Foy, a state delegate, Justin Fairfax, the state’s lieutenant governor, both of whom are Black, and Mark Herring, the state’s attorney general.