RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Democrat Jennifer McClellan made history when she was sworn into the U.S. House Tuesday as the first Black woman to represent Virginia in Congress.
The swearing-in ceremony was on the House floor during a series of votes and came two weeks after McClellan won a special election for Virginia’s 4th Congressional District to succeed the late U.S. Rep. A. Donald McEachin.
“I think today is the first day it’s really started to sink in,” McClellan told 8News a few hours before the ceremony.
Rep. McClellan, a former state legislator with 18 Virginia General Assembly sessions under her belt, said walking through the halls of Congress on Tuesday made her realize that not only was she there, but that she belonged.
Acknowledging the historic step, McClellan credited her family and the experiences they all had for driving her passion for public service and pursuit of making a difference in people’s lives.
“My love of public service and my desire to be a part of it was really sparked by my parents and I’m telling their stories, including my father telling stories of what life was like growing up in the segregated South during the Depression,” she said.
McClellan has shared her family’s history during her time as a state lawmaker, including when her great-grandfather had to take a literacy test to register to vote and then find three white men to vouch for his character.
Her father was required to pay a poll tax to vote and her mother did not vote until after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was law. The significance of these experiences is not lost on McClellan, who will be sworn in Tuesday using her father’s Bible, which she discovered had a piece of her family’s history in the pages.
“I happened to find his poll tax receipt in his Bible on January 5th, 2021, as I was thinking about him that night, thinking about how the next day the first Black woman would be certified as vice president,” McClellan told 8News.
McClellan said finding the receipt that night showed her “how far we have come,” but that the next day when the U.S. Capitol was attacked during the insurrection, revealed, “how sacred the right to vote is and how fragile the right to vote is.”
“So, now to be a member of Congress who has the ability to further our voting rights, as I did as a member of the General Assembly, it just reminds me of why I’m here and how I got here,” McClellan said Tuesday.
During her time in the state legislature, McClellan was one of the key architects of Virginia’s own Voting Rights Act and championed legislation to expand reproductive rights.
McClellan will serve the rest of McEachin’s term in the House, which is now under a Republican majority. She told 8News that she will bring what she learned as a Virginia legislator to Congress, noting that during 14 of her years in the assembly that she was in the minority party, including the importance of listening and trying to find common ground where you can.
But McClellan said that if compromises can’t be reached, her time as a state lawmaker taught her to persist “until you are able to make a difference.”
McClellan said her focus as a legislator won’t change in Congress, telling 8News she will wake up every morning and ask how she can help people.
She also said her work in Congress will be similar to her time in Virginia’s legislature in some areas, including pushing for expanding voting rights, focusing on health care and addressing climate and environmental justice. McClellan added that she’s excited to take on issues that she hasn’t worked on, including her assignment to the U.S. House Armed Services Committee.
“It’s really bringing the same level of service and the same commitment and expertise on issues but adding some new ones as well,” she said.
Virginia’s 4th Congressional District, which McEachin represented since 2017, is anchored in the city of Richmond but extends down to the North Carolina border. McClellan will finish the two-year term of the late Rep. McEachin, who died not long after winning re-election last November.
McClellan also succeeded McEachin in the Virginia Senate, working with him on several issues such as environmental justice and climate action. While McClellan says she will continue to honor McEachin’s legacy while in Congress by continuing to push these issues, she said Tuesday that she will do it in her own way.
“I think the biggest difference is I keep expecting him to call me and while I won’t physically see him or hear his voice again, I feel him here,” McClellan told 8News. “And I think I will feel him here as I carry on his legacy and build on it in a new way.”