A Q&A with Sen. Jennifer McClellan
(RVA MAG) – David Dominique (DD) recently spoke with Virginia state senator and candidate for governor, Jennifer McClellan about her plan for Virginia, from renewable energy and Citizen Review Boards to marijuana legalization and the Green New Deal.
Jennifer McClellan, who represents the Richmond-based 9th District, has declared her candidacy in the 2021 race for governor. If successful, she would be the first Black woman elected governor in United States history, and the second woman elected to statewide office in Virginia. An attorney by trade, McClellan was also the first member of the Virginia House of Delegates to participate in a legislative session while pregnant. After E. Donald McEachin’s election to the House of the Representatives, McClellan won her current seat in the state senate in a special election.
A former vice chair of the Virginia DNC, McClellan has moved to the left of other prominent Virginia Democrats who have facilitated widely criticized energy contracts and pipelines in collaboration with energy giants such as Dominion. Below, McClellan presents a platform that includes fighting Dominion, demilitarizing the Virginia State police, and decriminalizing all drugs.
DD: Senator McClellan, thank you for taking the time to sit with us. Let’s start with the main thing on everyone’s mind right now: policing. As a candidate for Governor, how do you view police reform on a state-wide level?
JMC: Starting with special session, it’s shifting a couple of different ways. There’s accountability, transparency, and consequences around police misconduct — whether it’s use of force, corruption, the whole nine yards. We need independent investigations from either a Civilian Review Board (CRB) or, at the state level, just a separate entity outside the police. They need to have subpoena power, to be able to recommend, if they find a wrongdoing, that there are consequences and that that is transparent. And that you don’t have a system where a police officer can be found to have done something wrong in one place, and just get transferred and go on as if nothing happened.
Police have been used as the first responder for too many issues that are not crime issues. It’s not just mental health, but mental health is a big part of it. I’m carrying a bill to allow localities to do Marcus Alerts and have the Department of Criminal Justice Services and the Department of Behavioral Health to provide guidelines around that. Ghazala Hashmi and I are working together on the CRB, but we’ll also have broad police reform [legislation] – no chokeholds, no no-knock warrants.
It’s not just the action of police and the community; it’s also what happens once you’re in the criminal justice system. Making sure that we provide more of what I’ll call “prosecutor mercy” — getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences so that if there is a crime, the penalty for it is proportionate to the injury, and allowing prosecutors to do deferred disposition for certain things.
DD: Would you be interested in the CRB being a full-time, paid job for citizens? How do you conceive of the makeup of that board, and how do we give people enough training, confidence, and support to do that job, and do it seriously?
JMC: From the state’s level, we are [structuring] broad guidelines that localities could use to tailor-fit their areas. Having said that, I do think having, if not full-time, at least members who are fully trained so that they fully understand the nature of what law enforcement does on a day-to-day basis, so that they understand the training that law enforcement has.
DD: If we only put in place broad legislative guidance that municipalities need to have a CRB, aren’t we leaving undue leeway for racially-biased municipalities to not take it seriously? Aren’t we allowing them to make it toothless?
JMC: I’m not ready to share the full details of [Senator Hashmi’s] bill, but we are talking with Princess Blanding and a lot of the advocates here. We are including their feedback in the draft we have.
We want to make sure that if a locality has a CRB, it has teeth and it’s independent: that it is not beholden to the police that they’re investigating. Boards of Supervisors or City Councils could have bias, and we’re trying to account for all of that. We’re focusing on enabling legislation, because it’s probably going to take more time to figure out all the best practices that we can put in place going forward.
DD: …About defense contracts and the Navy. Previous governors have seemed somewhat uncritically beholden to these contracts. It’s been said implicitly, and perhaps explicitly, that the economy of Virginia hinges on these contracts. How do you feel about the critical centrality of defense contracts to Virginia’s economy?
JMC: If you’re dependent on mechanisms of war, that’s just wrong. We shouldn’t be dependent on war for people to eat. Our number one business is Agribusiness. Our number two industry is Forestry. We should be working to strengthen those, and working to strengthen small businesses to not be as dependent on defense contracting, because then how well our economy does is dependent on if we’re in a state of war, or a state of [war] readiness, or not. That’s contradictory to the view of a beloved community.
DD: For the past two months, we have witnessed firsthand the intersection of the police and military in the streets of Richmond. That extends to the Virginia State Police, which you as governor would have control of. State police have arrived in the streets of Richmond with military vehicles and artillery. What is going on, and how are we going to address that?
JMC: I do not think police should be militarized. They do not need militarized weapons, and I think we should begin to demilitarize them. A lot of equipment is paid for through grant programs. Rather than using funding to buy military grade equipment, we should be using funding to address the root causes of crime, like mental health issues, and, to a certain extent, poverty: lack of access to economic opportunity. I don’t think you need military grade equipment.
DD: We already have the military grade equipment. Would you commit to selling off the stock of military equipment?
JMC: I would be open to that.
DD: And what about the formerly-known-as Robert E. Lee Monument, now known as Marcus-David Peters Circle? Are you for VSP fully standing down and staying out of that circle?
JMC: Unless someone is actively threatening someone else, I don’t know why they’d be there.
DD: Kim Gray has taken issue with the Black, community-based security that has been there ostensibly to protect black protesters from white supremacists. Do you agree with Kim Gray that we should disallow the carrying of AR-15s by these security personnel who have the legal right to carry them?
JMC: Right now open carry is legal for anybody, and you can’t pick and choose who can carry and who cannot. There are a lot of people who want to have a conversation about whether anybody can open carry in a public park space, and I think that’s a conversation worth having. But I don’t think you can pick and choose: these people can, and these people can’t.
DD: Let’s discuss marijuana policy. Why, under the new state law, are police still being given enforcement discretion over a petty issue such as possessing a small amount of marijuana, an issue that disproportionately criminalizes Black and brown people? Why decriminalization and not full legalization?
JMC: It needs to be full legalization for both possession and distribution. Unfortunately, the reason it’s just decriminalization now is that we couldn’t get the votes to go farther than that this year, but we’re pushing to go farther as soon as possible. I would have preferred full legalization of possession now. We’re doing a study on how to do distribution in a way so that the new market is not just the folks who have medical cannabis licenses now who are mostly white, upper middle class, and have a leg up. I have the resolution to have JLARC study how we do that distribution piece equitably, while also dealing with expungements and unraveling the War on Drugs, and giving people who have been arrested for what is going to be legal a path forward. We need to do both as quickly as possible. You’ll see, come January, we’re going to have legislation to do both.
DD: What about harder drugs? For example: heroin, cocaine, crack, crystal meth. We are incarcerating people for a health issue, and it does the opposite of providing rehabilitative care. Do you think it’s possible that sending someone to jail for substance abuse is ever a rehabilitative gesture by the government?
JMC: I don’t think we should send somebody to jail just for using drugs, let me be clear on that. Whether it’s drugs or anything that is a crime, how we deal with it should be proportionate to the injury caused. There are a lot of crimes where the punishment is too harsh, and we should change that.
For example, there are no gradations of assault on a police officer. If you throw an onion ring at a police officer and it hits him, you can get the same sentence as if you beat him over the head with a sledgehammer. That doesn’t make sense.
I’m open to looking into all crimes to say, “What’s the social benefit of making this a crime? Does it still exist? If it does, is the punishment proportionate?” That’s the direction we should be moving in. They shouldn’t just punish you because you did something wrong and then warehouse you, throw away the key, and assume you’re never getting out. It should be: what is going to be a deterrent and a proportionate punishment, and how do we focus on rehabilitation and reentry?
DD: One of the ways people approach drug abuse as a health issue is talking about harm reduction during drug use, since people can’t necessarily just stop using drugs because the state says so. Do you think it would be a good idea to help facilitate safer drug use practices as we treat people for their drug addiction, like providing access to safe supplies of needles?
JMC: Yes, I do. We should be looking at the underlying reasons of what made you turn to drugs in the first place. If it’s a mental health issue that’s gone untreated, let’s get you into the treatment you need so that you won’t turn back to drugs. That has to be part of the process.
DD: How do you feel about energy exploration off the coast of Virginia? How do you see Virginia’s energy independence moving forward, and how do you feel about Dominion colonizing that area?
JMC: Broadly, electric generation needs to shift away from fossil fuels to renewables. We are going to need more solar and more wind, regardless of who provides it. It would be better to have more wind provided by a third party, separate companies from Dominion. I don’t see how we get to 100 percent carbon-free without wind. We can’t get there with solar only. Wind is much better for the climate than natural gas or coal.
We did not have the votes in the General Assembly to get the full Green New Deal. The Clean Economy Act, which we did pass, does make a huge shift away from carbon into renewable, but it’s a first step. We need to push to try to get there faster.
DD: Do you take money from Dominion?
JMC: I do not.
DD: How do you feel about the Mountain Valley Pipeline?
JMC: I oppose it.
DD: Can you commit for the people of Virginia to make going against Dominion, and speaking out against the Mountain Valley Pipeline and offshore colonization, a central platform in your campaign for Governor?
JMC: Yes. I am focused on addressing climate change and shifting our energy policy so that it is less harmful to the environment, reducing energy demand through energy efficiency projects in a way that does not cause rate shock and allows the lights to stay on. I am fighting for the policy, and whoever stands in the way, I will fight against them.
DD: So…Big T [Terry McAuliffe] is running again. Is he the right person?
JMC: I can’t explain what he does either. I’m running because Virginia is ready for a new generation of leadership who will build a recovery in a way that addresses 400 years of inequity, and I’m ready to do that. I’m not running against anybody else. I’m just running for the future of Virginia that I want to see, that comes to terms with our past. I’m focused on talking to the community and talking to voters directly, and not on what other candidates are doing. – RVAMag