By Julia Raymond
CNS – Three years ago, Delagne Fells, 50, had moved back to Richmond and
money was tight. As a single, college-educated mother who was struggling
to make ends meet, Fells relied on a Section 8 housing voucher to cover
the cost of her rent. When her property manager began giving her trouble
for trying to use the voucher, Fells didn’t know what to do.
Unsure of where else to go, Fells contacted her local representative, U.
S. Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond), who referred her to state Sen.
Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond). Fells said McClellan’s office quickly
met with her and helped her gain access to important resources such as
Commonwealth Catholic Charities, who helped her avoid eviction.
After that experience, Fells began volunteering with McClellan’s office.
Now, Fells keeps up with housing issues in the state and shares her
personal story at campaign events and committee meetings to give a
constituent face to what she views to be a large statewide problem.
“I got interested in housing issues and what it means to people because
Virginia is known for having some of the highest rates of evictions,”
Fells said. “And it’s hard – especially for people in my demographic
– financially. I go to public events and share my story and share
research about what’s going on here and give a regular-person face to
what it looks like. I think people think about people who receive vouchers
look like a defunct situation, but I am just a working single mom with a
degree in political science.”
Beyond just housing issues, Fells likes supporting McClellan because she
feels like McClellan cares about her and the rest of her constituents in a
way that most politicians don’t.
“She has empathy,” Fells said. “She’s a real person. What I mean
by that, politicians aren’t reachable a lot of the time and don’t care
about what happens, but she does care. That’s what I like about
her…She’s sat down and talked with me and listened to what I have to say
and welcomes me about what I can bring to the table as a constituent.”
That level of empathy and professionalism is something that McClellan has
been sure to keep throughout her long tenure at the Virginia General
“She’s interested in the kinds of policies that help the most vulnerable
people in the state,” said Richard Meagher, an associate professor of
political science at Randolph-Macon College. “That’s been a long
standing concern for her and her legislation reflects that concern. Lot of
legislation this session was about the school to prison pipeline. Those
kinds of concerns, those human concerns, characterizes a lot of her
Notably, McClellan has pushed over the years for school discipline reform
in an effort to dismantle that school-to-prison pipeline. She credits her
2012 bill HB 367 for kickstarting reform in the state by providing
legislators the data they needed to get started.
The bill required school districts to provide discipline data by race,
gender, disability and some other demographics because she suspected that
discipline referrals were disproportionately impacting students of color
and students with disabilities.
“Once that bill passed, every year the Board of Education has to collect
and make available that data,” McClellan said. “Every year, Legal Aid
will put out a report that proved exactly what we suspected, and then that
gave us the ammunition we needed to work on school discipline reform and
now referral to law enforcement reform.”
McClellan initially got into politics because she grew up in a family
committed to public service. Her parents both worked on college campuses
and so she was exposed to the world of education from a young age, where
she developed a passion for history. As she got older, McClellan said she
realized how large a role politics played in major keystones of American
history and in her life.
“Government could either be a powerful force for change, or it could be
something that stands in the way of progress for all citizens,”
McClellan said. “So I wanted to be a part of that. But in sixth grade I
didn’t really know what that meant.”
McClellan then geared her education toward a potential career in politics.
She attended University of Richmond, where she majored in political
science and interned at the General Assembly. She also volunteered on
campaigns and got involved with the Democrat party before attending law
“I always thought maybe one day I’d run,” McClellan said. “But
then, I kind of thought, maybe after I get married and after I have kids
and after I retire, then I’ll run. Which is the path for a lot of women.
But in 2005, when Viola Baskerville ran for lieutenant governor and her
house seat came open, and more people started talking to me about it, I
thought about it and I was like, you know, I really do want to be the one
working on changing the law, not just selecting other people to do it.”
Since then, McClellan has served 11 years in the House of Delegates and
three years in the Senate. During those 14 years in office, McClellan has
been viewed as a well-respected legislator with an eye for bipartisanship,
said Meagher, who has studied urban politics for 20 years.
“The move over to the Senate, that’s a difficult thing to do,” Meagher
said. “It’s not even winning the election but being chosen by the party
to do that. Senate and House districts overlap, so the fact that her
fellow power brokers and legislators, the fact that Tim Kaine has been
behind her and supporting her helped, moving from House to Senate was a
big step up. That demonstrates a kind of faith and support she has among
fellow power players in Virginia.”
McClellan has earned that respect with her legislative track record. This
session alone, McClellan introduced 49 bills. Of the Senate bills that she
was a chief patron, 23 passed.
A majority of her bills are geared toward socio-economic causes, such as
education and the environment. In order to help them pass, McClellan
occasionally finds herself working with Republicans to gain enough
“When I came [to the Assembly], I was in the minority” McClellan said.
“I had to make a decision. I could be a partisan bomb-thrower or I could
be an effective legislator. And I came here because I wanted to make a
difference. So I chose to be an effective legislator.”
Now that McClellan has served the commonwealth as both a delegate and a
senator, her aspirations are aimed higher. If all goes well, she hopes to
run for governor for 2021.
“I’m very interested in running for governor,” McClellan said. “I
love the senate and that’s the only thing I think I’d leave for. You
have a bigger impact. And after that, who knows. I’ll always find a way
to serve. I got into this because I want to help people and help solve
problems and be a positive force for change.”
McClellan would be a strong candidate, said Meagher, but there are things
that could slow her campaign down and prevent her from securing the
primary election. Things such as former governor Terry McAuliffe running
again and her preference to avoid being a flashy politician.
“She’s not terribly exciting,” Meagher said. “That’s her knock
against her if she might seek higher office. Her demeanor, her
personality, it’s not confrontational and its collaborative and reasonable
and that’s not always the recipe for success in American politics with the
Trumps and Chases out there. It’s not always best to be the reasonable
person in the room.”