State Senator Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), who sponsored legislation repealing restrictions on third trimester abortions, might become the next Lieutenant Governor of Virginia.
The rumors appeared yesterday afternoon, after a second accuser against Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax came forward, claiming the embattled Democratic leader raped her in 2000, while they were both students at Duke University. That revelation triggered Democratic calls for resignation, swiftly followed by plans to introduce articles of impeachment on Monday.
With Fairfax’s political survival seeming unlikely, Democrats have begun floating potential replacements. One name frequently heard in the halls of Richmond and on Twitter is that of Senator Jennifer McClellan, who served eleven years in the House of Delegates before winning election to the Senate in 2017.
Democrats say McClellan could help lead the Democratic Party out of a period of scandal and turmoil, even though she faces controversy of her own for sponsoring SB1451, the Senate version of the late-term abortion legislation which initiated the leadership crisis now enveloping Richmond.
The cycle of political fallout began with public backlash over Delegate Kathy Tran’s (D-Springfield) failed 40 week late term abortion bill, which touched off national controversy over a viral video of her committee testimony, followed by highly criticized remarks on the bill by Governor Northam.
McClellan carried an identical measure in the Senate, which failed on a party line vote weeks before its companion in the House.
The abortion bill proved too extreme for some pro-choice Democrats, including former Governor Terry McAuliffe and US Senator Tim Kaine.
Outraged by the governor’s remarks, one of his classmates from medical school tipped off a reporter about a racist photograph on Northam’s yearbook page, which featured a man in blackface appearing next to another dressed in full Ku Klux Klan robes. Northam briefly admitted to appearing in the photograph, before reversing course and saying it wasn’t him.
Following the revelation, accusations of rape and sexual assault surfaced against Fairfax, prompting his suggestion that fellow Democrats leaked the story to protect Governor Northam or clear a path for Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney to assume the Lt. Governor’s post.
Days later, rumors of a racist photo of Attorney General Mark Herring prompted the second-in-line office holder to issue a statement admitting to wearing blackface in college.
Then, on Friday, a second accuser against Fairfax came forward, leading to waves of calls for resignation followed by plans by Democrats to introduce articles of impeachment on Monday.
If McClellan should secure Northam’s appointment, it would leave the position on Democratic leadership’s support of the bill unchanged.
A majority of Democrats in the General Assembly co-sponsored the legislation, though one, Delegate Dawn Adams (D-Henrico), subsequently expressed regret for signing on to a bill she said she didn’t read.
McClellan spoke about the bill at the press conference in which Northam announced his support, appearing alongside Tran.
“Unfortunately, today, about an hour ago, the Senate version of the Repeal Act died on a party line vote,” said McClellan. “So, we continue to fight, and we will be back next year to make sure that the Repeal Act passes.”
So far, the speculation over McClellan’s potential ascent has proven credible, prompting serious discussion by notable observers of Virginia politics.
“I’m not advocating for anyone but politically, you can argue the choice should be: squeaky clean + woman + person of color,” pondered Sabato, speaking to the optics of the decision facing Governor Ralph Northam, who remains embroiled in controversy over a racist photo on his college yearbook’s page.
“Say, Jennifer McClellan, an #Rva senator?” wondered Jeff Schapiro, a columnist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch who follows the inner workings of the General Assembly.
With the scandal moving quickly, the embattled Fairfax may choose to resign rather than face impeachment on Monday, even though he ruled out resignation in his response to the second accusation.
A potential McClellan appointment would be on an interim basis, with a special election to be called for November.
“That arrangement would likely be short-lived, because the governor has ‘constitutional authority to fill the vacancy in the office of lieutenant governor,’ said A.E. Dick Howard, a law professor at the University of Virginia who led the drafting of Virginia’s current state constitution in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” reported Politico, covering potential succession scenarios.
Even on an interim basis, McClellan serving as an appointed lieutenant governor would give her a substantial boost in securing the Democratic nomination for November.
Regardless of Fairfax’s decision, the turmoil at the capitol shows no signs of abating.