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As she makes history, those who know McClellan reflect on past accomplishments

Posted at 10:29 PM, Mar 08, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. -- As Rep. Jennifer McClellan (D-4th) made history Tuesday night by becoming the first African American woman to represent Virginia in Congress, those that have known her during her climb up the political ranks reflected on her latest accomplishment.

"I'm elated," said former Del. Viola Baskerville, who has not only been McClellan's friend but told McClellan to enter politics and run for her House seat in 2005 when Baskerville ran for the Democratic nomination for Lieutenant Governor (which, although unsuccessful, made her the first African American woman to run for that office). "I told her, 'Listen, there's a couple other people that may be interested in the seat, this is your time to run.' I think it's important that political leaders pass the baton, that they don't stay in a seat forever and a day."

Baskerville added it is a lesson she got from, former Del. Jean Cunningham, whose seat Baskerville won after Cunningham became the first African-American to run for Congress in Virginia in 1992 (losing in the Democratic primary).

"This has been really 33 years in the making," said Baskerville.

While McClellan made history with her win, Baskerville said she has done so on merit.

"She's also a very able public servant and she has the ability to speak on the behalf of a whole swath of issues for people.," said Baskerville pointing to issues like voting rights, women's rights, and protecting the environment. She added that she believes Congress will not be McClellan's last stop. "She's just getting started. She bridges my generation, which is about 20 years older than she and then she bridges that younger generation."

Among those in the younger generation welcoming McClellan's win were students in Virginia State University's "Seminar on Black Politics" class taught by Prof. Wes Bellamy, where her groundbreaking was a topic of discussion this week.

"I don't think words can quite describe how powerful and impactful it is that Congresswoman-elect McClellan will be in this position," said Bellamy, who added that McClellan has visited the class for several years and some students have interned or volunteered for her. "She serves beyond as a sense and a purpose, a source of inspiration for them…And I think they're going to be, I'm hoping, future Congress persons in their own right soon enough."

Among the students taking part in the class discussion were Reneé Evans, a senior, and Caylah Delaney, a junior, who both volunteered in McClellan's Congressional campaign.

"She proved to all of us that it is possible, especially to young Black women like myself," said Evans, who added she bonded with McClellan over her young son, as McClellan was the first woman to give birth while serving in the House of Delegates. "She told me that everything that she's doing as possible, she told me that she's opening the door for others like me."

"I think it helped me reflect on just because we have the first as a Democrat doesn't mean that necessarily won't be first in other parties as well," added Delaney. "So, it's very much so important to make sure that you're looking at what these people are actually trying to get passed, what their senses are, and what they're trying to actually change the community into. Because what the bills that they're passing is not going to only affect you, but it's also going to affect the generation after them and after them and after them."

Bellamy added while he wanted the class to reflect on the current accomplishments, he challenged them to think about how they will pick up the torch as the next generation -- adding the school aims to help them through the John Mercer Langston Institute

"What we're looking to develop with that institute, is indeed the next Jennifer McMullen, the next Lamont Bagby, the next person who's willing to not only serve in local and statewide and federal elected office, but that person was also willing to be the community organizer," said Bellamy.

Both Evans and Delaney said while they are still charting their respective paths, it will be ones on which they help others.

"I will be graduating in May, praise God, and expect to see me more in the political world because I am coming up with their torch," said Evans.

"I just know that I want to affect change and I want to be able to create a better community for those who are going to be coming behind me and I want to be able to keep that door open," added Delaney.

An even younger, potential future leader, remarking on McClellan was a Senate page from the most recent General Assembly -- Jace Miles, an eighth-grade student at Henderson Middle School.

Miles said McClellan appointed him to the program and conducted an interview with him.

"As pages, we all, kind of, looked up to her. She got a lot of attention because we were pages during her election. But, also, she was very nice, very well-spoken. And then, one of my fellow pages -- he has very different political views from her but he told me one time she was one of her favorites because she gets stuff done," said Miles. "I'm happy that she's started representing in the House. She has a lot of experience, just representing people, and then being the first African American woman from Virginia in Congress -- she's a trailblazer and just someone that a lot of people can look up to."

Miles added that at the end of the session, the pages held a mock session and he sat in McClellan's seat and presented a bill on limiting car emissions that he worked on with members from her office (and it passed with the most votes of the session).

He added while McClellan is getting settled into her new position in Washington, D.C., he might try to come to join her in Congress when he is old enough to apply for the U.S. Senate page program.

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