2 Virginia Democrats join race for late Rep. McEachin’s seat

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Two more Virginia state lawmakers on Tuesday jumped into the crowded field of candidates seeking to replace Democratic U.S. Rep. A. Donald McEachin, who died last month.

State Sens. Jennifer McClellan and Joe Morrissey formally announced their candidacies at events in Richmond and Petersburg. At least five Democrats have now indicated plans to seek the party’s nomination during next Tuesday’s unassembled caucus, a party-run process that will involve five voting locations across the 4th District.

The winner of that contest will have an enormous structural advantage in the overwhelmingly Democratic district heading into the Feb. 21 special election, which GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin set on Monday. The tight nomination timeline was necessary because of state voting laws but has set off a mad dash for candidates to organize their campaigns and start reaching out to voters.

“The people of the Fourth are used to and expect a very strong social justice champion with extraordinary legislative skills and an extraordinary commitment to servant leadership. And while Congressman McEachin’s passing is a huge loss, I’m the candidate best able to bring all that to this district,” McClellan said in an interview ahead of her formal announcement Tuesday.

A long-serving lawmaker from the capital city, McClellan will benefit from heightened name recognition in this race due to a serious but unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for governor last year. She was joined by dozens of supporters as she announced her bid on Capitol Square in Richmond and in a news release rolled out over 50 endorsements, including from three members of the Congressional delegation — U.S. Reps. Gerry Connolly, Don Beyer and Jennifer Wexton.

A corporate attorney who has earned bipartisan respect in the General Assembly, McClellan has played a leading role in many of Virginia Democrats’ key legislative accomplishments in the past several years, including as the sponsor of a landmark clean energy bill and a measure that greatly reduced barriers to abortion access in the state.

If elected, McClellan would be the first Black woman to represent Virginia in Congress.

Morrissey, who has acquired the nickname “Fighting Joe,” is a flamboyant attorney with a hard-charging style who overcame a litany of past scandals to win election to the state Senate in 2020. In the chamber, he’s a leading voice on criminal justice reform issues and an impassioned debater, and his office has a strong reputation for its grassroots connections and constituent service.

He was joined by Petersburg’s mayor, Sam Parham, and three members of the City Council as he announced his candidacy outside the city hall.

Morrissey, whose district includes parts of Richmond as well as Petersburg, called himself a “worker bee,” listing legislative accomplishments including helping to pass a measure ending the death penalty and reforming Virginia’s bail and sentencing processes.

“I’ve spent the better part of the last decade fighting for issues important to Virginians, like the environment, reforming our criminal justice system, investing in affordable housing, fighting for Virginians’ health care, and preventing gun violence,” he said.

The twice-disbarred former prosecutor-turned-defense attorney’s successful political career has come despite an extraordinary series of personal and professional controversies. Among them was his resignation from the House of Delegates in 2014 after being convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, his receptionist at his law firm. The two later married and have several children together.

Morrissey, who is Catholic and has something of an independent voting streak, has recently provoked the ire of some members of his own party for suggesting he is open to joining with Republicans to enact greater restrictions on abortions in Virginia.

An aide declined to comment Tuesday on the current status of his law license, which Morrissey told The Associated Press he would seek to have reinstated after he was pardoned in January for the 2014 misdemeanor conviction.

Another General Assembly member, Del. Lamont Bagby, announced his candidacy Monday. Bagby is a former educator and chair of the powerful legislative Black caucus who has said he was close with McEachin.

McEachin was elected to his first term to the U.S. House in 2016 after serving in the General Assembly. He died last month at age 61 of what his staff said were complications of his long-running fight against colorectal cancer.

Two other Democratic candidates have publicly declared their intention to run: Joseph Preston, an attorney who served for a year in the General Assembly after winning a special election, and Tavorise Marks, a civil rights activist and former state House candidate.

Among Republicans, pastor Leon Benjamin — who twice previously ran unsuccessfully against McEachin — and Dale Sturdifen, a retired Virginia State Police officer and congressional staffer, have announced bids.

The Democratic candidates face a noon Friday deadline to submit a $3,480 filing fee and paperwork including signatures from 150 registered 4th District voters.

The 4th District Democratic committee voted Monday night to chose the party’s nominee in an unassembled caucus, also known as a firehouse primary — essentially a primary election run by the party. The polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. at five locations across the district: one in Lawrenceville, two in Richmond, one in Highland Springs and one in Petersburg.

The 4th District has its population center in the Richmond area and stretches south to the North Carolina border.

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