By Camisha Jones
“I got interested in politics from reading about the Kennedy Administration and the Civil Rights Movement, which led me to believe that Government is one of the most important forces for change,” says Delegate Jennifer McClellan. Elected in 2005 to the Virginia General Assembly representing the 71st District, McClellan has from an early age made a life of activism. She has accumulated many accomplishments and awards for her work in the political arena including the Democratic Black Caucus of Virginia Leadership Award (2011) and being listed in 2009 as one of Politico’s “50 Politicos to Watch.”
McClellan uses her gift for advocacy both in her current position at Verizon and within the General Assembly. As Assistant General Counsel Mid-Atlantic South for Verizon Communications, she represents the company before regulatory commissions and offers legal advice on the impact of state laws and regulations on Verizon’s products and policies. Within the General Assembly, she represents the people of the 71st District and speaks out on ways that legislation will impact the citizens of Virginia.
During this year’s General Assembly session, for instance, there were bills related to voting rights that McClellan says would have had a “disproportionate impact on the elderly, people of color, and the poor.” McClellan adds, “Given Virginia’s past of disenfranchising voters based on the color of their skin, these bills were particularly troubling.” One bill would have required that voters present a government issued photo ID at the polls, eliminating the option of signing a sworn statement verifying one’s identity. “As a result of some of the discriminatory laws and practices in Virginia history,” says McClellan, “a number of Virginians born before 1946, particularly those of color, do not have a birth certificate, and could have been disenfranchised by this bill.” A birth certificate is necessary in order to acquire a government-issued photo ID. Another bill would require those without proper ID to vote using a provisional ballot and return to the polls later to prove their identity. For now the photo ID bill has been left in committee for the year. A bill was, however, passed and sent to the Governor for signature that eliminates the option for voters to sign a sworn statement of identity and requires voters without proper ID to vote by provisional ballot. It also expands the list of acceptable forms of ID and allows voters without ID to submit verification of their identity in a variety of ways.
Reproductive rights was another topic of concern for McClellan this session. One of the three bills under consideration – and ultimately, the only one of them signed into law by Governor McDonnell – mandates that women have an abdominal ultrasound prior to getting an abortion. Given that most abortions are performed in the first few weeks of pregnancy, McClellan argued: “For the vast majority of those pregnancies a transabdominal ultrasound is not going to show you anything…So you are forcing a woman to pay up to $1,500 for a picture of muscle.”
McClellan’s opposition to the bill, which originally required a transvaginal ultrasound, extended further than the cost and practicality. People began telling her their stories. She heard about Suzy who had a hole in her heart and despite being on birth control, became pregnant. Suzy would have to make the difficult decision of choosing whose life to spare: her own or that of her unborn child. McClellan considered what it would be like for Suzy to hear the fetal heartbeat during a mandatory ultrasound. She heard about Amy who had an incomplete miscarriage causing her fetus to die while still within the uterus. McClellan wondered if Amy should be made to view the deceased fetus in order to have the medicinal abortion necessary to remove it from her body. McClellan concluded that this was not a black and white issue. “Virginia law does not distinguish between these types of abortions, all abortion laws apply to them…” she wrote in a February 26, 2012 commentary in the Richmond Times Dispatch.
A survey conducted by Christopher Newport University and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, between February 4 and February 13, 2012, revealed that many in our state also objected to this legislation. Of the 1,018 registered Virginia voters polled, 55 percent stated that they opposed the ultrasound requirement and 36 percent supported it.
Virginia’s proposed legislation and the protests it sparked brought McClellan’s voice to the national arena earlier this month. The Rachel Maddow Show aired these impassioned words from McClellan’s March 1st speech to the General Assembly: “We cannot legislate medicine. We cannot legislate morality. We cannot legislate religion and when we try, we make mistakes…We need to be respectful of every Virginian, whether we think they are sinners or not.”
As the 2012 session of the General Assembly concludes, Virginia finds itself in the midst of Women’s History Month and a national conversation suggesting that a political “war on women” is being waged. When asked her opinion about this concept, McClellan replies, “I believe the social conservative movement is attempting to implement public policy in the name of freedom of religion that does not recognize medical fact or the political and social realities of our society today. The debate on birth control appears to have devolved into a debate on whether or not sex for anything other than procreation is moral. That is not the role of Government.”
McClellan will sit on a panel representing the differing sides of the debate on religious freedom and reproductive rights on Tuesday, March 20th at 7pm in the VCU Student Commons Theater. The event is free and open to the public.
Regardless of where you stand on these issues, McClellan’s example is one that illustrates the importance of participating in the political process. “We are a Government by, of, and for the people,” reminds McClellan, encouraging people to express their opinions on this and other issues important to them by contacting their state and federal representatives and by voting in every election.