State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, plans to announce her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for governor this spring.
She will enter a field crowded with better-known candidates: Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, Attorney General Mark Herring and, potentially, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. All those men — emphasis on the word men —have run and won statewide. No one has made the leap from the state Senate to the governor’s chair since John Battle in 1949, back when the blessing of U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. was the decisive event and the election was almost a formality. (Hold that thought). McClellan also would be our first female governor. Virginia has been more resistant to electing women to state office than other states. Indeed, it’s elected only one — Mary Sue Terry served two terms as attorney general in the late ’80s and early ’90s but lost her gubernatorial bid in 1993. McClellan would also be the first African-American woman elected governor anywhere. Stacy Abrams in Georgia has become a celebrity even though she lost; the more low-key McClellan could succeed where Abrams failed.
McClellan does hold one singular advantage over Fairfax and Herring: She is untainted by scandal. Voters will ultimately decide how serious those scandals are — Fairfax is accused of sexual assault and Herring confessed to wearing blackface in college to imitate a rapper. McClellan, at least, won’t have to answer those questions. She should, though, answer some others, which we will now offer up. Both have a distinctly regional focus, which may discount them in the eyes of the Richmond cognoscenti. After all, Virginia Democrats no longer count on much of anything outside the urban crescent and their regard for rural Virginia, in particular, sometimes seems to border somewhere between benign neglect and outright disdain. We will ask our questions anyway.
1. What do you say to communities whose economies have depended on coal? In the most recent General Assembly session, McClellan sponsored the Clean Economy Act, a dramatic turnaround in state energy policy that sets a goal of making the state’s electric grid carbon-free by 2045. McClellan declared that the bill will “break our reliance on fossil fuels.” This is a good thing for the planet — we don’t need to be pumping more carbon into the atmosphere. But it’s not such a good thing for those communities whose economies have been based on those fossil fuels. In running for governor, she seeks to represent them, too. Granted, the free market has already done a pretty effective job of putting coal on a downward spiral, but here’s a state policy that hastens its demise. Are these communities simply collateral damage? Or are there reparations that could help them make the transition to a new economy? If so, what form should those take? The Clean Economy Act has some nice language about how utilities should give priority to “historically economically disadvantaged communities” when building new facilities and how certain monies should be directed to “job training programs in historically economically disadvantaged communities.” Job training programs don’t do much good if there aren’t jobs to be trained for in the first place. Nothing in this act addresses the fundamental problem — the need for an entirely new economy in the coal communities. This is a problem for all of rural Virginia — indeed, all of rural America — but it’s particularly acute in the coal counties. And keep in mind the demise of coal doesn’t just affect a handful of counties in far Southwest Virginia. Why is Norfolk Southern shutting down some of its operations in Roanoke? Ultimately you can trace it back to this: Norfolk Southern is hauling a lot less coal than it once did and knows it will haul even less in the future. Does McClellan have an economic plan to build a new economy in Southwest Virginia? Do any of the candidates? Does anyone?
2. Will she be the champion against school disparity that we’ve been waiting for in a governor? Here’s the one thing that gives us some glimmer of hope: In this past session, McClellan sponsored a bill — which passed — that will set up a state commission to study school construction costs. Now, the inability of financially-stressed communities — in both rural areas and central cities — to pay for school repairs and construction is just one part of the larger school disparity issue but sometimes the easiest one to grasp. This is how desperate we are: A study — a study! — represents real progress. There are some good things to be said for this commission — it harnesses some important people and sets up an ongoing process to report regularly to the legislature. This could, in time, produce some progress. But the frustrating part is we don’t need another study and you’d think McClellan herself should know this. She served on the committee that state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, led that looked at school construction needs. She then proceeded to vote against his solution — an advisory referendum on whether to issue $3 billion in state bonds for school construction. She also voted against his proposed constitutional amendment to require “equal educational opportunities” in all schools — which would have closed a loophole that conservative Democrats of another generation deliberately wrote into the state Constitution over the objections of liberal Democrats and Republicans. Today, it’s a Republican who has tried to fix that, but liberal Democrats have strangely clung to the policies of the old Byrd Machine. We remain mystified why today’s Democrats haven’t seen school disparity as a social justice issue. In this year’s legislature, they killed even modest attempts to provide more money for school construction. The irony is that in proposing a study, McClellan has done more than any other Democrat on the issue — so we have to find hope in small ways.
Earlier, we referenced John Battle, the last state senator to go directly to the governorship. The centerpiece of his administration? State funding for school construction. It wasn’t his idea; he’d been forced into it by Francis Pickens Miller, the liberal challenger who came close to upending him in a raucous primary. Still, once in office, Battle built schools from one end of the state to the other. McClellan might want to study that example because we sure haven’t heard Fairfax or Herring propose anything like that. It’s an issue there for the taking, if she dares.