Rep. Jennifer McClellan

From campus to Congress

April 3, 2023


Jennifer McClellan traces her political journey to Congress back to the moment she stepped on campus.

McClellan, who earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Richmond in 1994, made history in February when she became the first Black woman from Virginia elected to Congress. The sprawling district she represents includes all or parts of 15 localities, stretching from the Richmond area to the North Carolina border.

Her undergraduate experiences shaped who she is today. “A lot of what I learned about government and politics, I learned there,” she said.

A seminal event in her political journey occurred during the 1992 presidential campaign, when the University hosted a pivotal debate between Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican George H.W. Bush. The morning of the debate, Clinton won a mock election at the University — which received national coverage and notice from the campaign.

McClellan worked with Clinton’s advance team, and she caught their eye. That night, Clinton’s wife Hillary invited her to sit next to her at a debate watch party. “I met anybody who was anybody in Virginia politics that night. It’s safe to say my journey would have been very different if I had not attended UR.”

She learned an important lesson. “You never know who’s watching. Always be prepared,” she said. “And be prepared for whatever opportunity comes your way, first by recognizing it and then taking advantage of it. You never know when an opportunity is going to present itself, and that’s been true my entire adult life.”

At the University, McClellan majored in political science and English. “I took every class that Dan Palazzolo taught,” she said of the political science professor, “including an independent study.” Additionally, she took advantage of every internship opportunity available — something she encourages students to pursue.

Through a class, she interned in the policy office of the governor at the time, Douglas Wilder. She interned every summer, working for then-Sen. Charles S. Robb of Virginia as well as participating in a program working in the office of former New York City Mayor David Dinkins.

She was elected the president of the College Democrats, but her extracurricular activities at the University weren’t focused solely on politics. She was among the charter members of the Rho Rho chapter of Delta Sigma Theta. Through her English studies, McClellan learned lifelong lessons in writing.

“Being an English major taught me how to communicate,” she said. “I write a lot of my own work now, whether it’s op-eds or newsletters. And I was a history minor. All my political views and my approach to government are steeped in a deep understanding of our commonwealth and our country.”

Born in Petersburg, McClellan grew up in southern Chesterfield County. After graduating from UR, she earned her law degree from the University of Virginia in 1997. A Richmond lawyer, she served in the Virginia House of Delegates from 2006 until her election to the Virginia Senate in 2017. Upon the sudden death of A. Donald McEachin in November, she successfully ran in a special election for his seat. She serves on the House Armed Services and Science, Space, and Technology committees.

McClellan is well-aware of the historic significance of her election.

“It’s an incredible honor and responsibility,” she said. When reading books about history, government, and politics, “I didn’t see a lot of people like me or who had the same life experience.” She also wants to make sure that she supports and brings along “not just the next generation, but leaders at every level now. I take that very seriously.”