Virginia, long seen as a critical state in American politics, has also been a barometer of the nation’s racial climate and is being closely watched to see what direction it takes in the way of social justice. That’s one of the reasons State Sen. Jennifer McClellan announced her campaign for the 2021 governor ‘s race last week.
McClelland, 47, has served in the Virginia senate since 2017 and prior to that in the Virginia House of Delegates beginning in 2006. She is among several candidates who are running including two other African Americans, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Virginia House Delegate Jennifer Caroll Foy.
If she becomes governor, McClelland would be the second Black governor of VIrginia, following Doug Wilder, and the first Black woman ever voted into the job making history in the state as well as in the nation. She spoke with BET.com about her plans to address social justice and equality, and also focus on answering the racial issues that have come out of the state over the past few years like the deadly protest incident in Charlottesville in 2017 and Black Virginia voters’ influence on electoral politics.
BET.com: You wouldn’t be the first Black governor of Virginia, but you would be the first Black woman governor and the first Black woman to hold the position in the country. Would your tenure show what it might be like to have a Black woman president?
Sen. Jennifer McClelland: Yes, I think so, and we are past overdue for both. Virginia is sort of a microcosm of the rest of the country. And I think as we show that we're ready, I think that would show that the nation is as well. I would say I'm not running to be the first African American woman, governor of Virginia. I'm running for governor at this critical moment in time to make sure Virginia is on the right course to recover from this pandemic in a way that addresses systemic inequity. But I am an African American woman, and I think that shapes my personality, my experiences, everything about me and I definitely bring that perspective.
BET.com: Just a few years ago, Virginia -- Charlottesville to be exact -- what the scene of a violent racial protest that took one life. How would your administration make African Americans in the state feel safe?
McClelland: There's so many aspects of public safety, but the bottom line is just making sure we have healthy thriving communities and a lot of the civil unrest, whether it was then or now, is due to an inability to come to terms with the racial inequity and 400 years of trauma and the inability to address that and heal. For Virginians to feel safe, they need to know they have an economy that works for them, that they have access to healthcare, access to education and are not going to be left behind because oftentimes whether it's crime or civil unrest, it's rooted in something else. So we need to get at the root causes of unsafe conditions in order to prevent them from ever happening.
BET.com: A while back, Gov. Ralph Northam was the center of a controversy when a racist med school yearbook photo from 1984 resurfaced. He did not resign although urged and that prompted a lot of division. How would you reunite the state?
McClelland: Those healing conversations really began in the wake of that scandal. When it happened, also [coming after] Charlottesville, we had to come to terms with, in an honest way, 400 years of trauma and inequity suffered by African Americans here in Virginia and in the country. I helped lead those discussions through my work as chair of Virginia’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission. The first step is making sure that everyone has a complete understanding of our history and how that systemic inequity was baked in from the beginning. We've been having those conversations and then beginning to unravel that inequity which we can continue to do as we rebuild our economy and our healthcare.
BET.com: As far as national electoral politics, Virginia is seen as a crucial state and Black voter turnout reportedly powered Joe Biden’s primary win. Will Black Virginians be the determining key to who becomes President in November?
McClelland: I do. I think Black voters in Virginia determine who wins every election. We have an election every year and when we turn out, typically the Democrat wins. When we don't, Republicans win. We recognize the strength of our vote and that this is a critical election. I do think you're going to see high turnout, not just for President but, every single level, down to local school boards.
BET.com: We’re obviously at a critical racial time in our country. Police violence and coronavirus disparities have shown just how divided we are. What initiatives would you have to respond to calls for justice for victims of police violence?
McClelland: I'll be introducing some in a special session here in the summer, but on the police side, we need to reimagine public safety, first looking at prevention, but also, if someone is going to interact with law enforcement, we need to make sure that there is transparency and accountability for police misconduct. And they need to be sure that there is some civilian oversight as well not just on the police, but the department of corrections and other aspects of the criminal justice system. We need to make sure that there's adequate training for police to identify a crisis and to be able to de-escalate a crisis, whether it's mental health or, or a domestic incident.We need to make sure that there's proportionality of response.
That's both when the police show up, but also when charges are filed and when sentences are meted out so that we are not disproportionately responding to criminal activity. [We want to] make sure we're breaking the school to prison pipeline by decriminalizing childhood behaviors that used to be handled by the discipline process, but increasingly have been handled through the criminal justice system. So those are, these are a few of the things that I've been working on and we'll continue to work on as governor.
Madison J. Gray is BET.com’s senior editor, covering news and politics. Follow him on Twitter @mjgraymedia.