Why you should care

She’s a favorite of Virginia kingmakers like Senator Tim Kaine and Mark Warner.

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Jenn McClellan is always on the cusp of something — and the hectic pace that’s become her default setting is not always on purpose, the Virginia lawmaker admitted to OZY in a recent interview. “I volunteer and, next thing I know, I’m officer,” she says, laughing. “Once I’m interested in something, I just throw myself into it.”

Her latest role? A brand-new state senator, following a special election last month. As the state representative for Virginia’s political core, Richmond, for more than a decade, McClellan has led on issues of criminal justice and education reform, with a particular interest in ending the catchphrase “school-to-prison pipeline.” For example: She’s pushed for laws limiting school suspension lengths and restricting the ability of teachers to call the police on schoolchildren, who in the past could be handcuffed for behaviors like interrupting in class or truancy. Along the way, the Democrat earned a reputation for garnering bipartisan support — and upon leaving the lower chamber, the wonky African-American received a standing ovation from her colleagues, who raved about her accountability and “level of goodwill and decorum,” as one Republican told reporters.

A spokesman from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee singled her out as a leader among Democrats shaping state progressivism with “the skills and experience needed to successfully run for higher office.” And Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, fresh off his vice-presidential run and a former Richmond City Council member and mayor who watched McClellan’s ascent up close, called her a “superb constituent-service-type politician,” and a great listener. “She’s very motivated,” Kaine told OZY, “but doesn’t come across as Type A, big, loud and boisterous.”

Her new digs are on the third floor, along a sweatshop-style conveyor belt of legislative offices in Richmond — a move down from her former fifth-floor perch as a delegate that ironically signifies her recent political ascent. Black-and-white photos of JFK and Lincoln hang on the wall, next to dozens of plaques and trophies — four from the past year, including the Swanson Courage Award for Civil Rights and a legislative honorific from the Virginia School Boards Association. Here, her voice is amplified, with Republicans holding a slim 51-49 advantage in the upper chamber, and she’s already used that platform to help block a controversial bill that essentially would have criminalized many forms of protest. “The workload is twice as much,” she says, but so is the reach — expanding from a district of just 70,000 to 200,000 in the larger Richmond region, which includes outlying tobacco fields and alpaca farms.

In the corner of her office is a scrapbook detailing her journey from nerdy track kid/drama geek to vice chair of the Virginia Democratic Party and, now, Democratic National Committee member. McClellan riffs on her coming-of-age story, peering over her desk in a bright-red suit and black-rimmed glasses, remembering how, as a college sophomore and University of Richmond College Democrats president, she sat next to Hillary Clinton during the 1992 presidential debate (a more recent photo of the pair adorns her wall, too). She reels off a list of Democratic royalty she met in those days, from John Kerry to former Richmond mayor Walter Kenny and Virginia governor Doug Wilder … and, later, household names like Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

These are the allies that McClellan has built over the years, and it speaks to a nascent feeling that she’s made for bigger things. What makes her a next-generation talent is the ability to take volatile issues and describe them in human terms, defusing dozens of political land mines that would derail less-confident politicos. “You can throw out statistics, but just saying it is not as effective as, ‘Here’s a real-life example,’” she says. That narrative-as-destiny approach proved useful when, in 2010, she became the first member of the Virginia House of Delegates to get pregnant while in office — and later, she penned an essay, “Legislating Stereotypes Can Create Tragedies,” explicitly tying anti-abortion bills being considered in Richmond to personal accounts of mothers whose health and lives were at risk. She passed a sex education law in 2009 that was supported by both the pro-life Family Foundation and pro-choice Planned Parenthood. And she successfully shepherded a law expediting the warrant process for tracking down purveyors of child pornography, despite an uproar from privacy critics who said it gave the government overly broad powers.

No one questions McClellan’s ambition, but she’s had a hard time making her voice heard in the early days since the special election made her state senator. Because the session had already started, she was able to front only seven bills — fewer than the 15 she would typically put forward — and four were stricken before leaving committee. She now sits on committees for transportation, local government and agriculture — not exactly a close fit with her old spheres of influence, although McClellan insists she will still lead on issues of civil liberties, access to health care and improving public education, areas she’s “been focused on the last decade and a half,” she says. Her résumé invites criticisms of being a career politician, but she claims her local roots remain strong, from writing regular editorials for the Richmond Times Dispatch and Richmond Free Press to attending neighborhood association and other town hall meetings, allowing her to be “a bridge between new people and the establishment.”

Perhaps her biggest challenge will be confronting a state electorate that appears to be trending both conservative and anti-establishment. During Obama’s presidency, “state parties, down-ballot races suffered,” McClellan says. And she’s seen it in the Virginia Senate, which was blue as recently as 2012, as well as nationally, with the presidential electoral results. Republican state delegate Chris Peace — who, like McClellan, has received training from the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, a University of Virginia initiative aimed at bipartisanship and practical governance — says McClellan’s stances sometimes rub up against the values of the “greater commonwealth.” But he adds that she’s mitigated those differences by being measured in her approach, earning the respect of her cross-aisle peers.

With gerrymandering having rigged the deck in many respects, Democrats will need to remind their base that local elections matter before the crucial redistricting period starts after 2020. A point that’s not just philosophical: For Virginians opposing a Trump presidency and Republican Congress, their salvation might lie with folks like McClellan — and whether she’s working with a friendly statehouse, or an oppositional one. “Everything that happens on the federal level trickles down, and it can be thwarted by local and state government,” she says.

When asked about her future, McClellan gives a long sigh before answering carefully. “Basically every Virginia politician wants to be governor — whether they run is another story,” she says, adding that she would run only if it meant she could “help even more people.” Since Virginia is the one state where governors can’t serve consecutive terms, perhaps it’s time to plot out her next assignment … starting in 2021.

PART OF A SPECIAL SERIES FROM OZY
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