Jennifer Leigh McClellan (1972-)

McClellan posing in front of American flag
Jennifer Leigh McClellan, March 8, 2023
Courtesy U.S. House of Representatives under public domain

On March 7, 2023, Jennifer Leigh McClellan was sworn in as the U.S. representative for Virginia’s 4th congressional district. The former Virginia state senator is the great-great-grandchild of enslaved African Americans and the first Black woman to represent Virginia in Congress. McClellan was born on December 28, 1972, in Petersburg, Virginia, to parents who worked for Virginia State University (VSU), an HBCU. Her father, Dr. James Fennimore McClellan, Jr., was a professor, and her mother, Lois Dedeaux McClellan, was a counselor. There are two other daughters, Jean E. McClellan Holt and Julie D. McClellan Beckwith.

McClellan’s early education began at the VSU campus nursery school in the basement of Gandy Hall, which houses the registrar’s office. She attended kindergarten and first grade on campus as well. In 1990, after graduating valedictorian from Matoaca High School in Chesterfield County, Virginia, McClellan enrolled at the University of Richmond and received a Bachelor of Arts in English and political science in 1994. A member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., McClellan then earned a Juris Doctor from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1997. She was president of the Virginia Young Democrats and notes development editor of the Virginia Law Review. She also participated in the Black Law Students Association. She practiced law at the firm Hunton & Williams in Richmond until 2002.

In 2006, McClellan was elected to represent the 71st District in the Virginia House of Delegates, comprising all of Charles City and parts of Richmond, Hanover, and Henrico.  Later, she served as a super-delegate at the 2008 Democratic National Convention and then as vice-chair of Virginia’s Democratic Party. On November 15, 2008, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine officiated at her wedding to David Mills in Richmond. They are the parents of two children, Jackson and Samantha.

In 2017, McClellan served as the Virginia state senator from the 9th district, chairing the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commission and serving on the Task Force on the Preservation of the History of Former Enslaved African Americans. In 2019, McClellan delivered the morning commencement address at the first two separate commencement exercises at Virginia State University.

In 2020, McClellan supported a bill signed by then-Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam to reduce restrictions on abortion rights in Virginia. One year later, she led the successful effort to enact the Voting Rights Act of Virginia, which aimed to eliminate voter suppression and intimidation in the commonwealth. That same year, 2021, she unsuccessfully ran for governor of Virginia, coming in third in the Democratic primary.

On February 21, 2023, in a special election after the death of Democratic Representative Donald McEachin, McClellan won Virginia’s 4th Congressional District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. She defeated Republican Leon Benjamin, with 68 percent to Benjamin’s 32 percent. Rep. McClellan was sworn into the 118th Congress, which already had a record number of women legislators. She joined 29 other Black women–all Democrats–in the House of Representatives.

The Honorable Jennifer Leigh McClellan is a recipient of numerous awards and accolades, including an honorary doctorate from VSU, the Trailblazer Award from the Virginia Leadership Institute, the Leadership Award from the Virginia Housing Coalition, the Health Policy Award from the Virginia Commonwealth University Student National Medical Association, and the Freedom Fund Banquet Award from the Richmond NAACP.