Three weeks after the death of Rep. Donald McEachin (D-VA) — and just a week after the election date was set — Democrats in the Richmond, Va., area head to the polls today to cast their ballot for one of several candidates vying to succeed the three-term legislator.
The winner of the so-called “firehouse primary” — so named because historically, such party-organized elections were held at firehouses — is expected to win the February general election in the 4th Congressional District, which favors Democrats. McEachin won reelection last month with 64% of the vote. (The primary is run by the Democratic Party and not by the state, making it technically an “unassembled caucus,” with only eight voting locations.)
In the weeks since McEachin’s death, State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, a vice chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus who mounted a failed primary bid for governor in 2021, shot to the front of the pack, having earned the backing of Virginia’s two U.S. senators; all the Democrats in its congressional delegation; McEachin’s widow; and Del. Lamont Bagby, a state representative who initially challenged her but dropped out of the race and endorsed her last week. McClellan will face off against State Sen. Joe Morrissey, a conservative, pro-life Democrat pro-life Democrat who has been jailed five times, including a three-month sentence for contributing to the delinquency of a minor, to whom he later married. Leon Benjamin, a Richmond minister, won the Republican nomination over the weekend.
The race has attracted national attention, including from major liberal groups including EMILY’s List and Planned Parenthood, who are supporting McClellan, as well as pro-Israel advocacy organizations. McClellan earned the endorsement of Democratic Majority for Israel PAC and AIPAC PAC.
“During her 17 years in the legislature, Sen. McClellan has worked to strengthen Virginia’s long-standing relationship with the State of Israel,” Jared Leopold, Sen. McClellan’s communications advisor, told Jewish Insider on Monday in a statement. “As a member of Congress, McClellan will work to strengthen the United States’ relationship with our close ally, the State of Israel.” Leopold declined JI’s request for an interview with McClellan.
He added that she will “support foreign aid bills that provide full funding without political preconditions to ensure Israel’s ability to defend itself,” and that, as a supporter of the two-state solution she will “advocate for direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders to ensure a lasting peace.”
McClellan earned the support of several prominent Jewish Democrats, including Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA), former Speaker of the Virginia Statehouse and now-Del. Eileen Filler-Corn and former state Del. Debra Rodman, who represented Henrico County, near Richmond.
“She has a proven track record and really developed the relationships. She ran for governor, so she has that statewide exposure, and she is just known to be a really strong legislator and does the community outreach like no one else,” Rodman told JI.
“Senator McClellan is proud to represent and work closely with the Jewish community of greater Richmond. She has stood with the Richmond Jewish community in strengthening community relations, supporting interfaith dialogue and strongly condemning hate speech and antisemitism,” Leopold told JI, adding that the legislator “recognizes the long shared history between the Jewish community and the Black community in working hand-in-hand in the struggle for civil rights and freedom from religious discrimination.”
Morrissey, an iconoclastic legislator who has lambasted the party’s handling of the primary, told JI in an interview on Friday that he would focus, as a member of Congress, on criminal justice reform, affordable housing and environmental issues.
“Most people know that I’m an extremely hard worker, very focused on constituent services, and when I put my mind to something I do it. I think that that would serve me well in Washington, D.C.,” he said.
Morrissey said he has worked closely with the Richmond Jewish community and pledged to stand up against antisemitism as a member of Congress.
“There has certainly been an uptick in violence against Jewish people. Not just the people, but also where they choose to worship, including a rise in vandalism to synagogues. I think it is horrific. I have spoken out against it and have decried it,” said Morrissey. “If you attack a Jew, they are not going to simply respond tit-for-tat with that attack. They are going to respond three and fourfold. And I’ve always admired that about them.”
Morrissey pledged to support the U.S.-Israel relationship, noting that “Congress should do what it can to advance that relationship. We do that all the time.” A lover of international travel, Morrissey has visited Israel twice.
“The reverence that I saw at the Wailing Wall was one of the things I’ll never forget. And I also saw that they, you know, Israelis and Arabs were able to work together, side by side, until they couldn’t, until there was a bombing,” he said.
Morrissey was not familiar with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, but said it does not sound like something he would support.
“I think I’ve been pretty clear — you could extrapolate from what I’ve said, only that I would never support any type of boycotting of Jewish goods just because they’re Jewish goods. That’s nonsensical,” he said.
In 2016, McClellan voted to condemn the BDS movement when she was a member of the House of Delegates. Leopold said that if elected, McClellan would “work to strengthen Israel’s cultural and economic ties” with Virginia, and would travel to the Jewish state in her first year in Congress.
Last year, when McClellan was running for governor, she was asked in a debate about her stance on efforts that would “discourage or criminalize” the BDS movement.
“As a child of parents who participated in the civil rights movement, I understand that boycotts and protests are critically important to advancing civil rights,” McClellan said in April 2021, “and I will not do anything, anything that will criminalize that behavior.”
She stood by the remarks, but released a statement afterward pledging to support Israel.
“As a State Senator, I’m proud to represent and work closely with the Jewish community of greater Richmond. As Virginia’s next Governor, I will continue to strengthen our long-standing relationship with the State of Israel. I will always protect the freedom of speech and the freedom to protest, and I will also always condemn hate speech and antisemitism,” she said at the time.
The special election is set for Feb. 21.