BREAKING NEWS: Legislators are people, too! And sometimes they’re really great ones. Case in point: Jennifer McClellan, Virginia House Delegate for the 71st District, a brilliant, humble, kind, self-proclaimed nerd committed to doing what is best for the commonwealth.
My first two interactions with Jennifer McClellan, Virginia House Delegate for the 71st District–other than the handful of messages we exchanged to set up a time to chat–went like this…
The first was a phone call. She had to reschedule because of an invite to attend an education summit at the White House. Our conversation was friendly but efficient as we negotiated a new date, time, and location.
The second was a flurry of Facebook messages as she struggled to navigate numerous construction zones between her office, her daughter’s daycare (where she needed to drop off a bottle of breastmilk), and the Northside coffee shop where we we agreed to meet. She was late and kept apologizing. I didn’t care1 and ordered her a latte. When she walked in, I hugged her–partly because I was just excited to finally meet her, but mostly because of that whole “Oh, lady, I’ve been there” thing mothers sometimes do.
Those two interactions–which, for me, stand in pretty stark comparison with one another–perfectly sum up what you get when you meet Jennifer McClellan: poised and Kind Of A Big Deal, while also humble and just trying to get through the day like the rest of us. She’s a real person who is just as relatable and accessible as she is brilliant and influential–someone who can give us all a little hope when thinking about our state’s legislative climate, whether you agree with her politics or not.
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Born in Petersburg, the youngest of three daughters, McClellan grew up in the Ettrick-Matoaca area. Her interest in politics began when she was a kid.
“I was a nerd,” she states matter-of-factly. “A huge history buff, and I got interested in politics from reading about the 60s, the Kennedy administration, and the Civil Rights movement.”
McClellan also credits her early interest in public service to her parents, James and Lois, who valued giving back to community.
“I came from a family that was community-service oriented. My dad was a college professor [of guidance at Virginia State University]–he was also a minister. I saw that government was how I wanted to give back,” she explains.
McClellan wasn’t sure what that would look like at first, but she knew it would “be helpful” if she were a lawyer. During her time in law school at the University of Virginia, McClellan eventually set her sights on being a lawyer to a congressional committee but had a change of heart when Republicans took over–she is, after all, a self-proclaimed liberal Democrat. So, she ended up going the law firm route and currently serves as Assistant General Counsel at Verizon Communications. She had entertained thoughts of running for office at some point, but she assumed she’d take on the challenge a little later in life.
“It was always ‘get married, have kids, make money, retire, and then run’–that’s how a lot of women get into politics,” she says. “But I kind of did it backwards.” McClellan met her now-husband, David Mills, during her first campaign and has had two children since taking office.
When Viola Baskerville ran for Lieutenant Governor in 2005 and her seat in the Virginia House of Delegates opened up, McClellan was encouraged by friends and colleagues to rethink her “someday-maybe” plans.
“I was sort of at a crossroads because I’d just started working at Verizon and was thinking, ‘Well, corporate America is a force for change, too.’ But you’ve got to be high up enough. So what’s my path? And the more I thought about it I thought, ‘I love politics. I love government. That’s my passion. I had every internship you could possibly have, and I’m as ready as I’m ever gonna be. If I run and lose, that’s my answer.'”
Turns out the answer was yes. At age 32, McClellan defeated then-72-year-old former school board chair Melvin Law. Law’s supporters were quick to point out McClellan’s comparative lack of experience at the start of her campaign, but she says their claims didn’t hold water for very long.
“The advantage I had was I had started out very young as a community volunteer and political volunteer. I went straight to law school and started work, so by the time I was 32, I had been practicing law for eight or so years. I had been president of the Young Lawyers [Conference], I had been president of the [Virginia] Young Democrats, I helped get a bunch of Democrats elected, I’d been on a number of boards–so I had a resume at 32 that people looked at and said ‘Wow, she has done a lot.'”
“I will be accessible, I will communicate with the district, I will listen to the district.”
While her resume gave her credibility, McClellan credits the connection she made with voters with getting her elected.
“I talked about what I wanted to do as a delegate, you know, here are the issues I care about. I told them ‘I will be accessible, I will communicate with the district, I will listen to the district.’ And people liked what they heard.”
McClellan had the opportunity to make good on her promise to be accessible shortly after starting work in the General Assembly in 2006–an opportunity that led to the piece of legislation in which she takes the most pride2.
Just a few weeks after won her seat in the House of Delegates, University of Richmond student De’Nora Hill was repeatedly stalked and eventually murdered by her ex-boyfriend. Knowing that McClellan was a UR alum, Hill’s friends reached out with the hope to “make [De’Nora’s] death mean something.” McClellan then worked with HIll’s friends and family, the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, and other members of the General Assembly to write up a bill that increased penalties for stalking. The bill (originally put in under former delegate Katherine Waddell’s name) didn’t pass right away, but McClellan became chief patron of the legislation and continued to submit it over the course of several years because of a promise she made to Hill’s mother.
“I told De’Nora’s mother, ‘I’m going to do this every year until it passes,'” McClellan recalls. It finally did in 2013, thereby increasing penalties for second and subsequent stalking offenses.
“I’m the most proud of that because, I mean, it took forever,” she says, taking a deep breath. “But I stuck with it. It also meant the world to [her mother] that something good [was] going to come out of this.”
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McClellan’s accessibility and commitment to communication has not only served her relationship with her constituents; those qualities go a long way with her fellow legislators in the General Assembly as well–despite the fact that she represents the minority on many levels, including party, gender, age, and race.
“When I got elected I was the fourth youngest person. I was the youngest woman. I was the youngest minority […] I bring a very different perspective […] I was actually the first House member to get pregnant while in office. This has changed now, but for a while I was the only woman with young kids,” she explains. “My district is–even though it’s the most Democratic of the state, it’s widely diverse. It has Monument Avenue mansions, housing projects, and everything in between. Also I’m a liberal Democrat with a corporate background. I have a unique voice. ”
But don’t think just because McClellan offers a unique voice that she wields it willy-nilly. Even during our chat over a cup of coffee, her contributions to the conversation are measured–not calculating or even reserved. Purposeful.
“I listen first. I don’t say a lot unless I know what I’m talking about, and I don’t talk just to be talking,” she says. “I’m still a nerd, so I learn everything there is to know about something before I open my mouth. I think people pretty quickly saw that about me and, you know, I’ve always been in the minority party, but they were willing to work with me.”
McClellan counts Chris Peace, Todd Gilbert, and Jackson Miller–three of the most Republican members of the House of Delegates–as close friends. They were elected into office the same year and focused on becoming friends first, even meeting for dinner at least once a year during their first term.
“Jennifer and I have been personal friends nearly from the moment we began our service together in the 2006 session,” Chris Peace says, via Facebook. “On paper, whether it is race, political party, geographic orientation, or gender, we could not be more different. But of course those are things we never consider when discussing what policies are best for Virginia.”
“[My wife] Ashley joins me in our appreciation for her service and gratefulness for our friendship,” Peace adds.
“Chris and Todd and I work together on a lot of things and we sort of say, ‘OK, let’s not waste our time on the areas we will never agree on; let’s focus on where there’s common ground,'” McClellan says. “What’s even better, we do at times talk about where we don’t agree so we can try to figure out why,” she says. McClellan’s hard conversations with her “on-paper opposites” have also been known to move beyond specific policies and tackle bigger, national issues.
“I remember after the shootings in South Carolina, [Peace] was like, ‘Let’s just get together and talk about race.’ You would not expect a super conservative Republican and a super liberal Democrat to sit down over drinks and have a conversation about race in America. But we did. We didn’t solve anything, but we talked about it.”
I don’t know about you, but considering the current state of politics at the national level, I can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief when I hear that. When asked how the atmosphere of the General Assembly compares to what we see coming out of Washington D.C., McClellan has a touching story to share.
“My dad passed away in January of 2014, and when I walked into the wake, the first people I saw were Kirk Cox, Todd Gilbert, Rob Bell–all Republicans,” she smiles. “There’s a lot more of that going on than people realize.”
“So it’s not as bad as Congress,” she laughs. “I would say 90 percent of what we do is not partisan. Any given day, if you look at the calendar, over half of it is non-contested. But the 10 percent that’s partisan can be hyper-partisan. A lot of it is personalities. And it depends on who you work with.”
She goes on to compare the atmosphere of the General Assembly with an institution we all probably remember too well: middle school.
“There are some people whose egos get the better of them and it’s all about trying to be top dog,” she explains. “There are also a lot of really smart people just trying to do the right thing.”
But, according to McClellan, we have responsibility to help those smart people figure out what the right thing is.
As our conversation was winding down and we both readied to rush off to our next obligations3, I asked McClellan if there was anything she absolutely wanted to say to you, dear readers.
“Vote!” she almost shouts. “Just vote. I tell people all the time: we are a government by, of, and for the people, so government is only as good as the people’s participation […] People fought and died to make sure people have the right to vote, and so many people just squander it.”
However, McClellan says we shouldn’t stop there.
“The mistake people make is thinking, ‘OK, I voted. Now my job is done.’ No,” she insists. “Go to a City Council meeting, call your legislators and tell them what you think. That is particularly important because if you look at the make up of the General Assembly, it does not reflect the diversity of Virginia economically, politically, racially, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation […] If people don’t speak up, there’s no guarantee their perspective will be heard. I take that very seriously–that I have to represent more than just my own point of view. But I can’t do that alone. I’m just one person.”
She pauses, seemingly aware of her somewhat sudden rant.
“I love my job!” she smiles sheepishly.
It shows, Delegate McClellan. And that goes a long way in my book.
(You big nerd.)
- Because what parent–or person!–isn’t going to appreciate 15 unencumbered minutes to sit and drink a cup of coffee? I wanted to write her a thank you note. ↩
- This according to a someone who has many impressive feathers to tuck into her legislative cap–the existence of Benefit Corporations in Virginia, the right to breastfeed in public, and improving law enforcement’s ability to investigate crimes involving child pornography, child exploitation, and human trafficking, just to name a few. ↩
- I was about to be late for school pick-up, but I can only assume she was off to do the walk-and-talk with a go-getter intern or something. ↩