“Richmond’s Not a Hard Road to Travel”—Congratulations Congressmember-Elect Jennifer McClellan!—February 22, 2023
In February, 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month. Black History Month was created to focus attention on the contributions of African Americans to the United States. It is meant to honor all Black people from all periods of American history. Black History Month honors the enslaved people first brought over from Africa in the early 17th Century to African Americans currently living in the United States. February was chosen as Black History Month. Why? Because in February, two figures who loom large for Blacks were born. These individuals include Abraham Lincoln, born on February 12, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and African American abolitionist, author, and, orator Frederick Douglass, born on February 14 (nationalgeographic.com, britannica.com, google.com).
After winning their freedom under Lincoln and the later enacted 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, African Americans had to struggle for over 100 years to abolish the segregationist Jim Crow laws enacted by Southern States. They also had to challenge discriminatory measures used against them in much of the U.S. and upheld for years by the U.S. Supreme Court. Blacks are still fighting efforts to keep them from exercising their basic right to vote under the 15th Amendment. From the mid-19th through the mid-20th Centuries, whites engaged in blackface minstrel shows that crudely made fun of African Americans. Many whites enjoyed this “entertainment.” During the Civil War, while the South fought to keep slavery and white supremacy, white Southerners sang and listened to a song called “Richmond Is a Hard Road to Travel.” This song was popular among Confederate troops in the Eastern U.S., the Army of Northern Virginia, that was defending the Southern capital of Richmond, Virginia. Each stanza in this song made fun of Union commanders during the first two years of the Civil War who failed to capture Richmond in several campaigns including the Battles of First and Second Bull Run, the Shenandoah Valley offensive, and the bloody Northern defeat at Fredericksburg. The refrain always was that the Confederate capital Richmond was a “hard road to travel (for the Northern Army).” This song was penned by John Reuben Thompson in 1863. Thompson was the editor of the “Southern Literary Magazine.” He based this song on “Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel,” by Daniel Decatur Emmett, the minstrel blackface composer of “Dixie.” Thompson’s Richmond song called blacks “contraband” and made fun of their speech (See wiki). You can look this song up on YouTube under Civil War songs.
Fast-forward from the 19th Century to the 21st. After many civil rights struggles and passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act under Democratic President LBJ, Richmond is no “longer a hard road to travel” for African Americans. In this former capital of the Confederacy where President Jefferson Davis ordered his generals to win battles to preserve the “peculiar institution” of slavery, Blacks now make up 46.11% of that city’s population with whites having 45.2% of the populace (worldpopulationreview.com/us, 2023). All of Richmond, VA’s state capital, is included in the Old Dominion’s 4th Congressional District (CD). The entire 4th CD is 41.10% Black to 51.30 % White and has a Cook Partisan Voting Index of D+10 (Cohen & Cook 2022 Political Almanac). The Cook Report rates the CD 4th “Solid Democrat (nbcnews.com, Richards, 2/21/23).” The VA 4th ‘s population center is in Richmond. The 4th CD stretches south to the North Carolina border. It voted for Hillary by 21 percentage points over Donald in 2016 and in 2020 gave Biden a 35 percentage margin over Trump (Cohen & Cook 2022 Almanac). On February 21, 2023, a special election was held to replace 3rd term- Democratic Black Cong. A. Donald McEachin who died of colorectal cancer on 11/28/22 just weeks after winning a fourth term (See Cohen & Cook 2022, Early Guide 118th Congress At Your Fingertips, nytimes.com, King, M., 2/21/23, kos.com, Elections). In that special election contest, Democrat Jennifer McClellan (50) won the seat of the late Rep. McEachin by handily defeating GOP nominee Leon Benjamin. Both McClellan and Benjamin are also Black. The Associate Press called this race just 22 minutes after the polls closed. McClellan pulverized Benjamin 74%-26%, a humungous 48% margin (results.elecctions.virginia.gov).
In winning this race, Ms. McClellan, made political history. She becomes the first Black woman elected to represent the Southern state of VA in Congress, formerly home to Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. With her victory, McClellan will join 29 other Black women in the House and keep Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) GOP majority at an extremely small 4-member margin. No Black women now sit in the U.S. Senate (See nbcnews.com, Richards, Z., 2/21/23).
After winning this special election race, McClellan stated, “It still blows my mind that we’re having firsts in 2023. My ancestors fought really hard to have a seat at that table, and now not only will I have a seat at the table in Congress; I’ll be able to bring that policymaking table into communities that never really had a voice before. I feel a responsibility to ensure I’m not the last (Black woman in Congress, nbcnews.com, Richards, 2/21/23).” Prior to winning this congressional seat, McClellan had served in the VA State Legislature since 2006. She first served in the VA House of Delegates where she represented the 71st District from 1/11/2006-1/13/2017. That district included parts of the Richmond area and Henrico County (nbcwashington.com, Rankin, S., 2/21/23, Schneider, washingtonpost.com). She currently serves in the 9th district of the Virginia State Senate. She assumed office in the State Senate on 1/13/2017 (wiki). During her time in the state legislature, McClellan passed more than 350 pieces of legislation (abcnews.go.com, Demissie, 2/21/23). In Richmond, McClellan cultivated a reputation as a deeply knowledgeable legislator and consensus builder. She’s carried many of VA Democrats’ top legislative priorities in recent years. These included bills to expand voting access, the protection of abortion rights, and enacting legislation that set ambitious clean energy goals (nbcnewswashington.com, Rankin, 2/21/23).
McClellan’s special election campaign emphasized her legislative victories in both chambers. She highlighted efforts to protect voting rights and domestic workers. Protecting voting rights strongly affected her family. Voting officials in Alabama had tried to stop her great-grandfather from voting because of his efforts as a Black community leader and teacher. Her grandfather was additionally forced to take a literacy test before he could vote (Richards, nbcnews.com, 2/21/23). McClellan is a native of Petersburg, VA, a city close to Richmond that is also in the 4th CD. McClellan’s parents worked for Virginia State University. Her father was a professor, while her mother was a counselor (jrnnigrtmcclellan.com, 1/16/23). After graduating as her high school valedictorian, McClellan earned her 1994 undergraduate degree in English and Political Science at the University of Richmond and a 1997 law degree from the University of Virginia Law School (justfacts.votessmart.org). After law school, McClellan practiced law at Hunton & Williams, the former law firm of the late Supreme Ct. Justice Lewis Powell (See Moomaw, G.,12/23/16). In 2005, McClellan won a seat in the VA House of Delegates in her first run for political office. In 2013, when Democrat Terry McAuliffe was elected Governor of VA, McClellan headed his transition team (Portnoy, J., 9/08/16, pilotonline.com). McClellan served as vice-chair of VA’s Democratic Party and was a member of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). She was a superdelegate to the 2008 Democratic National Convention that nominated Barack Obama in his first successful run for President. She additionally was vice-chair of the VA Legislative Black Caucus (washingtonpost.com). McClellan strongly criticized former VA GOP Governor Bob McDonnell’s efforts to overhaul state pensions in 2012. She opposed cuts to retirement benefits and public safety employees (virginiapublicradio.org 3/29/12, McNeil).
When Donald McEachin was elected to the U.S. House, McClellan won a special election to fill his 9th District State Senate seat and represented it since 2017 (Freeman, 1/09/17, richmond.com/news, Rankin, nbcwashigton.com, 2/21/23). McClellan also worked as regulatory counsel for Verizon Communications (richmond.com/news, Wilson, P., 2/03/17). In 6/2020, McClellan announced she would run for Gov. of VA in 2021. In the Democratic primary, she took a distant third place to the winner, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe narrowly lost the 2021 election to GOPer Glenn Youngkin (results.decisiondeskhq.com, “2021 Nov. General,” results.elections.virginia .gov). Her unsuccessful run for Gov., however, raised McClellans’ political profile. In the 2/21/2023 special election race for the late McEachin’s House seat, McClellan pushed for progressive legislative ideas that included expanding voting rights, protecting access to abortion after the Supreme Ct. overturned “Roe v. Wade, and advocating environmental justice (usatoday.com, Bailey, 2/21/23). In this special election race, McClellan received the endorsements of VA’s entire Democratic congressional delegation, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and S. Carolina’s Dem. Cong. Jim Clyburn (abcnews.go.com, Demissie, 2/21/23). VA Dem. Senator Tim Kaine, a close ally of McClellan and Hillary’s 2016 running mate, campaigned with her. Sen. Kaine, in fact, officiated at McClellan’s wedding (cnn.com, Duster, C., 2/21/23).
And now let’s meet McClellan’s GOP opponent Leon Benjamin. He is a pastor and a Navy veteran (cnn.com, Duster, 2/21/23). A Richmond native, Benjamin graduated from Rovear Christian University and owned a business. He is affiliated with the New Life Harvest Church and Virginians for America First, a Trump/MAGA sympathetic group (See ballotpedia.org). GOPer Benjamin couldn’t be more different in his beliefs from Democrat McClellan. Like many GOPers, he is a strong believer in conspiracy theories (nbcwashington.com, Rankin, 2/21/23). Benjamin has refused to concede his own election loss to McEachin in the 2020 and 2022 congressional races. The 2022 election was no close race. McEachin then clobbered Benjamin by 30 points. With his “y uu ge” 48% loss to McClellan, Benjamin is a “bigly” loser in the 4th CD for the third time. Far-right conservative Benjamin supports parents’ rights and school choice, GOP drivel aimed at attacking legitimate public school educational programs. He is anti-abortion rights. He opposes critical race theory being taught in classrooms. It never has been. Benjamin hosts a conservative video program. On that program, he called the COVID-19 pandemic a “cover-up” to establish a “new world order.” He additionally argued that the COVID-19 vaccine contained a “tracking system” set up to control people using 5G cellphone networks (usatoday.com, Bailey, 2/21/23, Richards, nbcnews.com, 2/21/23). On a 2011 Facebook post in which he promoted his New Life Harvest Church, he urged people to bring their “sick, diseased, gay, homosexual, lesbian, transvestite, and bipolar friends and loved ones” there (nbcnews.com, Richards, 2/21/23). He is also against U.S. support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s authoritarian Putin who launched a brutal and unprovoked invasion of that country one year ago (Rankin, nbcwashington.com, 2/21/23).
This is the first congressional election that has been held since Kevin McCarthy eked out his win as House Speaker. This overwhelming victory for “Team Blue” shows that Democrats are enthusiastic about taking back the House in 2024 from the Trump “Red” MAGA set (See mail.google.com, 2/20/23). Yes, political analysts and pundits understood that the VA 4th special election was being conducted in a heavily “Blue” district where McClellan was overwhelmingly favored. However, no election is ever “in the bag,” and turnout is everything. McClellan campaigned the way all Democrats in “slam dunk” and swing districts in every election must always do in order to win. She distributed yard signs, aired ads, and kept meeting voters all over the district. She personally campaigned with local and state lawmakers and sent volunteers to knock on people’s doors. People must be informed that an election is taking place and must be urged to get out and vote. McClellan’s win is an example for all of us.