(CNN) — Jennifer McClellan, a former Virginia state senator, was sworn in on Tuesday, becoming the first Black woman to represent the commonwealth in Congress.
Her ascent to the House of Representatives is a milestone for Virginia, a state that was once home to the capital of the Confederacy and is a former slave-trading center. McClellan joins a divided Congress, in which Republicans control the House of Representatives, making the possibility of passing Democratic-backed priorities slim.
In an emotional speech on the House floor following her swearing-in, McClellan recounted her rise in politics as the “daughter and granddaughter of men who paid poll taxes and the great-granddaughter of a man who took a literacy test and had to find three White men to vouch for him to be able to vote.”
“I stand on the shoulders of my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, recognizing that in a lot of ways I am fighting the same fights that they did,” she said. “And I stand here to ensure that my children and yours don’t have to fight those same fights.”
McClellan’s election also adds to what is already a record number of women and women of color in Congress, and sets a new record for the number of Black women, according to data from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
In February, McClellan won Virginia’s special election to succeed the late Democratic Rep. Donald McEachin, who died in November. She defeated Republican Leon Benjamin, a pastor and Navy veteran, in the heavily Democratic 4th Congressional District that had been held by McEachin since 2017.
In her remarks Tuesday, McClellan said that while she is succeeding McEachin, she can never replace the lawmaker “who was a friend, mentor and colleague whom I served with in the Virginia House of Delegates and succeeded in the Senate of Virginia.”
She told CNN on the campaign trail that in becoming the first Black woman to represent the commonwealth, “it’s a tremendous honor but it’s also a tremendous responsibility because I need to make sure I’m not the last.”
“I have a responsibility to be a mentor and help pave the way for other Black women, whether it’s, you know, running for federal office or running at local or state and to just help as many as I can to succeed,” McClellan said after casting her ballot in February.
While in the Virginia General Assembly, McClellan pushed legislation on gun control, abortion rights and education. She previously told CNN that she plans to continue her work on these issues, including voting rights and reaffirmed her plans on Tuesday.
“I learned in the general assembly here in Virginia, I was in the minority for 14 years, and I learned just be persistent,” McClellan told Don Lemon on “CNN This Morning” while touting her work on the Voting Rights Act of Virginia. She spearheaded the measure, which was signed into law in 2021 and aimed to eliminate voter suppression and intimidation in the commonwealth.
Raised in Petersburg, Virginia, McClellan was elected to the House of Delegates in 2005 and won a 2017 special election for state Senate after McEachin was elected to Congress in 2016. In 2020, she launched a bid for governor, eventually coming in third in the 2021 Democratic primary.
This story has been updated with remarks from McClellan.
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