Jennifer McClellan is in the House
The Verizon counsel is also a state rep
Published in 2007 Virginia Rising Stars magazine
on December 22, 2006
Updated on June 10, 2016
For a brief, brief moment, Jennifer L. McClellan actually envisioned a career that didn’t involve politics.
She grew up fascinated by politics. In grade school she idolized John F. Kennedy. In second grade she wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter, inviting him to dinner with her family in Petersburg, Va. (He didn’t respond and lost the presidency: a lesson there.) By the time she hit the University of Richmond, and later at U.Va.’s law school, she had a hazy plan for her own political future: Finish law school, make partner at Hunton & Williams, and then—with her future financially secure—run for office. By her 40s or 50s she’d be a politician, changing people’s lives for the better.
This plan was almost derailed in 2002 when she was offered an in-house counsel job at Verizon Communications. Suddenly, McClellan saw another way to accomplish her goals.
“Once I started working there,” she says, “I realized government and politics were not the only way to make a difference. It was the first time I really saw that you can make an impact on the community through the corporate route—if you’re high enough. Ivan Seidenberg, the president and CEO of Verizon, is extremely committed to diversity issues. His saying to the company and to all vendors that ‘I want my work force and my vendors to reflect my customer base’ does a lot more for diversity than any law that Congress or the General Assembly could ever pass.”
She knew Verizon had a foundation dedicated to literacy and reducing domestic violence; as an executive there, she could have an impact.
“I was at that crossroads in my own mind,” McClellan adds, “when Viola Baskerville decided to run for lieutenant governor.”
Baskerville, a longtime friend, was the delegate for McClellan’s district. When she chose to run for lieutenant governor, she called McClellan and asked the 32-year-old lawyer if she was interested in running for her seat in the 71st District. But McClellan was young, single and without a family. Was she ready? She wasn’t sure. Then Baskerville called her back. No matter what McClellan decided, Baskerville would not stand for reelection to her district—perhaps the most Democratic district in the state.
For McClellan, that led to some soul searching that directed her back to what was always in her heart. “Politics is in my blood,” she says in her office, sitting in a replica of a rocking chair used by JFK and given to her by a friend to celebrate her election victory. “If I didn’t [run], I probably would always regret it.”
She ran, won handily, and became, at 33, the youngest woman in the Virginia House of Delegates.
Yet when she took her seat on the first day of the session, Jan. 11, 2006, she found herself among old friends. She had known Tim Kaine, the newly elected governor, when he was a councilman from her Richmond district. Mark Warner, the outgoing governor, asked her a decade earlier to serve as president of the Virginia Young Democrats. Chuck Robb, the former senator, remembered her as the young woman who worked on his 1994 and 2000 campaigns.
These were men she looked up to. Now she was their peer. She looked around and thought: “Look how far I’ve come. …”
Of course McClellan had been in training since childhood. Every night her family watched the news and discussed the issues of the day. Her father, a professor at Virginia State University and a minister, and her mother, a counselor at Virginia State University, were involved in social justice. Both were from the Deep South and participated in the civil rights movement. Her father was a member of the NAACP and worked with Judge George Howard Jr. to integrate schools in Pine Bluff, Ark., and later organized a boycott of stores that would not employ blacks. He was also a history buff, interested in everything from the Civil War to World War II, and he took her on trips to places like Monticello, Battlefield Park and Appomattox.
Her high school friends described her as “the girl into everything.” At various times she wanted to be a doctor, lawyer, journalist and psychiatrist. A high school internship at the Medical College of Virginia convinced her that medicine wasn’t the answer. The law became an obvious choice, she says jokingly, because she likes to solve problems and talk.
It was at the University of Richmond where her political interests went into overdrive. She joined the campus chapter of Young Democrats as a freshman. A year later, she was elected president—a post she held for three years while working on statewide elections. She took almost every political science course offered.
In 1992, she helped Bill Clinton win the mock election on campus and worked with his advance team prior to the debate—tasks that earned her an invitation to sit next to Hillary Clinton at the nationally televised debate. Afterward, she found herself in a van riding to a rally with John Kerry and took the opportunity to interview him for a school paper. When they arrived at the Marriott Hotel for the rally and McClellan couldn’t find her credentials, Kerry told security she was with him. He wasn’t the only prominent politician to look out for her that night. Gov. Doug Wilder later chased then-Gov. Clinton down a hallway so he could introduce McClellan to him. Clinton signed her program and thanked her for leading the campaign in the mock election. It’s a moment that still brings a smile to her face.
At U.Va. law school she didn’t exactly have time to enjoy the parties and softball games that are often part of the Charlottesville experience. “I was running all over the state organizing campaign events,” she says. Summers she interned at Hunton & Williams, and a job awaited her when she graduated in 1997. There, she worked with Lewis Powell III on administrative law cases arising from the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
“We were trying the cases that were making the law,” she says. Sometimes that meant coming up with solutions that were politically palatable as well as legally correct. Following the law strictly in one case, for example, may have ended with consumers paying every time they used the Internet, but it was clear that couldn’t happen politically. “It was an interesting mix of the law and politics that I just loved,” she says.
McClellan describes her first legislative session as “very intense, but manageable,” and credits her ability to multitask, honed during that “interested in everything” childhood, for helping her through. Of course, for the 60 days the General Assembly was in full session, she was on leave from Verizon.
She’s already guided her first bill into state law: House Bill 1327, which allows voters who applied for, but did not receive, absentee ballots to vote provisional ballots at their polling place.
She still has many interests: political, community and personal. She’s vice chair for outreach of the state Democratic party, a member of the Democratic National Committee, the vice president of the board for the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, and on the boards of the Flagler Home at St. Joseph’s Villa, Boaz & Ruth and the Oliver White Hill Foundation.
She’s enough of a veteran of the General Assembly—she served an internship there in 1993—that she remembers the good old days when Republicans and Democrats disagreed on the floor but could leave their personal feelings there. Those days have long been lost to the partisan bickering that has become a part of state and national politics. “I still believe you can disagree without being disagreeable,” she says. “A lot of people around here don’t.”
She adds, “To be successful, you have to understand where everybody else is coming from. To persuade them to get what you want done, you have to understand where they are coming from.”
Her goal, she says, is an old-fashioned one: helping people. “I know this is going to sound really hokey, but there is nothing better than the feeling you get when somebody has brought a problem to you and you figure out a way to help them—or at least help them to get heard. Because lots of times you can’t do anything, or you do as much as you can, but in the end the problem is still there. But they appreciate the fact that you tried.”
She pauses. “I like to say that I’m a realistic idealist. I keep in mind what the ideal is and I strive for it, but I don’t delude myself in thinking that’s the way it is.”
A large portrait of President Kennedy, leaning back, leg up on a chair, hangs prominently on the wall to the left of her desk. She also keeps a book of his speeches close by for inspiration. Told that he was an imperfect man, she doesn’t hesitate. “Yes, he was an imperfect man,” she says. “But he understood what his flaws were and what his strengths were. He had a grasp of history and of the big picture that I think helped guide his decisions. He overcame a lot. He woke up every day, certainly every day of his presidency, in physical pain. But he put that aside. And he presented an idea of public service that inspired a lot of people to serve.”
McClellan has her own grasp of history. She knows that, being elected so young, she could one day be Speaker of the House. She’s already accustomed to being asked about running for governor one day. “Any Virginia politician who tells you they never thought about being governor is a liar,” she says. “I will serve until an opportunity comes along that I can’t pass up, or until I feel I’m not effective.”
One thing McClellan promises to be is an effective pen pal. She says she doesn’t get much mail or even e-mail from constituents, but when she does, she makes sure to reply, even if it’s merely to say she doesn’t have a solution to the person’s problem. She remembers the time, when she was 25, that she wrote to Gregory Peck, who played Atticus Finch in the movie version of her favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird. Unlike Jimmy Carter, he responded with an autographed picture and an invitation to his show, A Conversation with Gregory Peck, at the Barter Theater in Abingdon.
After the show, McClellan was in a long line of people invited backstage. When she introduced herself, Peck remembered her as the lawyer from Petersburg and invited her to chat in his dressing room. He got hundreds of letters every year, he said, but there was something about her letter that touched him and he had to meet her.
“He told me how Joseph Cotten, one of his co-stars from the 1940s movie Duel in the Sun, was from Petersburg, and would always talk about how much he loved it, so when Peck went to the Virginia Film Festival, he took a side trip to Petersburg,” McClellan recalls. Peck then invited her to a post-show party. There, she thanked him again as she left and asked if she could write him again. “Please do,” he said. She did, penning a thank-you note that earned her a postcard from France, where Peck vacationed summers with his wife.
So she understands how making an effort to reach out can create lasting memories. Which means if there are any secondgraders out there looking to invite a politician to dinner, Jennifer McClellan might have a night open.