Virginia Sen. Jennifer McClellan ’97 To Welcome New Students
Virginia Sen. Jennifer McClellan ’97, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate for the 2021 election and a University of Virginia School of Law alumnus, will deliver a virtual orientation address to new students Monday.
If elected, McClellan will be the first woman to serve as governor of Virginia, and the first Black female governor in the nation. She has broken ground in the commonwealth before. Elected to the Virginia House of Delegates at age 32, she was the first delegate to have a baby while in office.
As a law student, she served as president of the Virginia Young Democrats, and spent her weekends campaigning around the state. She also served on the UVA Student Council’s appropriations committee, as a notes development editor for the Virginia Law Review, and as a member of the Black Law Students Association.
Serving in the Virginia Assembly is a part-time job; sessions last from 45 to 60 days. In her “day job,” she is an assistant general counsel for Verizon Communications.
In a profile for UVA Lawyer’s issue honoring 100 years of coeducation, McClellan praised the power of understanding how history shapes society.
“As the great-great-grandchild of slaves, and parents who lived through Jim Crow, and as someone who just has a love of history in general, I have always immersed myself in learning all aspects of Virginia and American history, and world history, really,” she said. “I do that because you can’t understand how we got where we are as a people and a society if you don’t understand all aspects of the history that’s shaped this country.”
She answered a few questions and previewed her remarks to the Class of 2023 and other new students.
Why did you decide to run for governor of Virginia?
As a daughter of community leaders and educators raised in the segregated South during the Depression, I was raised with a strong sense of servant leadership and a calling to strengthen my community. My family’s experience and study of history taught me that government can either be a force for progressive change to solve problems or a force of oppression that benefits a select few. At a young age, I dedicated myself to ensuring government was that force of positive change for all. For most of my life, I have channeled those values into my commitment for progress, equity and justice in the commonwealth. I have implemented those values as a leader in the community, the Democratic Party, and in over 14 years of service as a legislator in the Virginia General Assembly.
I have been a driving force for progressive change in Virginia, leading the passage of landmark laws to invest in education, grow small business, expand access to health care, ban discrimination and inequity, safeguard workers’ rights and voting rights, reform the criminal justice system, protect a woman’s right to choose and tackle climate change.
But the governor sets the agenda — through the budget, appointments and executive action. Virginia stands at a critical moment in our history, as we face a pandemic, economic crisis, a reckoning with racial inequity and a growing lack of faith in government’s ability to solve problems. I am running for governor to lead the recovery from these crises in a way that addresses inequity across all our systems so that no Virginian is left behind, to build a brighter future for all Virginians, and to be an inclusive leader that drives progress and solves problems across the commonwealth.
The pandemic is an unprecedented challenge. How can the commonwealth, and its higher education institutions, best get through this?
The commonwealth and higher education institutions must not only manage the current crisis to keep people safe, but learn from it. First, we must do all we can to keep people safe in an equitable manner. We must fully examine and understand the vulnerabilities in our health care and economic safety nets, and across all institutions, including higher education, then adjust to meet current needs while preparing for the next crisis. We must fully understand how the pandemic has impacted not only our current fiscal health, but the very models of funding used for state government and essential industries/institutions across the board. We must identify trends that were already coming, but have been accelerated by the pandemic and economic crisis, and adapt accordingly. Higher education institutions are laboratories of innovation and evidence-based decision-making, and are therefore well positioned to help lead this process.
What are your goals as governor? What are the most pressing challenges you hope to address?
As governor, I will bring my experience and determination to build a strong, inclusive economy that doesn’t leave people behind and centers small business and workers as the backbone of our economy. The foundation for this is a high-quality, equitable public education system from early childhood to career that prepares students to be the entrepreneurs and workers of tomorrow. I will also focus on building a health care system that everyone can access affordably with a clear recognition that reproductive health and mental health should be an inclusive part of that system. I will focus on building a stronger, more inclusive democracy.
What advice do you have for new law students?
“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” It is good to have a goal, but you must be willing to stray from the path you envision for yourself and walk through doors that opened unexpectedly. And you must be prepared to both recognize the opportunity, and to take advantage of it. For example, when I arrived at UVA in 1994, I planned to be counsel to a congressional committee, preferably the Senate Judiciary. But, that fall, the majority flipped. And I didn’t want to work there that summer. So, I ended up working in the private sector, because business can be a force for good, if good people make it so. My plan was to work hard, get promoted, get married, have kids, retire and then maybe … maybe run for office. But in 2005, my delegate, Viola Baskerville, decided to run for lieutenant governor. And another opportunity presented itself. I was at a real crossroads in my life, wondering what was my path. But the more I thought about it, and I looked back over my life, from the moment I joined the Young Democrats [as an undergraduate] at the University of Richmond, I was preparing myself to run for office … one day. But why wait? If I ran and lost, that would be my answer: Politics was not my path. But if I did not take this opportunity, another may never come along, and I would always wonder, “What if?”
So I ran. And I won. And THEN I got married, and started a family, and I became a force for change much sooner than I expected.
Here, you will be armed with the skills needed to succeed in your desired paths. But you need more than that.
You need courage. The courage to fail.
If you are anything like I was when I arrived here, the thought of failing at anything is terrifying. But I had to be willing to fail at my first campaign to enjoy the success I have today and make the impact I have on people across the commonwealth. And history is full of great people who took a risk, and in some cases failed — some spectacularly. But then they picked themselves up, learned from their failure and achieved great things.
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.