Slow but steady

Larger than expected voter turnout delays election results

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 12/22/2022, 6 p.m.
Eleven volunteers were still hand-counting ballots at Free Press deadline to determine the winner of Tuesday’s Democratic “firehouse” primary in …
Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, right, and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine are shown after voting Tuesday in a “firehouse” primary for the 4th Congressional District at Diversity Richmond. Sen. McClellan hopes to succeed the late Rep. A. Donald McEachin, who was re-elected to the seat last month, but died 20 days later. The winner of Tueday’s election would be almost guaranteed to win the special election set for Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, given that the district that includes Eastern Henrico County and Richmond — and stretches through Petersburg into Southside Virginia — is rated solidly Democratic. If elected, Sen. McClellan will be the first Black woman sent from Virginia to Congress. Photo by Regina H. Boone

Eleven volunteers were still hand-counting ballots at Free Press deadline to determine the winner of Tuesday’s Democratic “firehouse” primary in the 4th Congressional District.

Richmond state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan remains heavily favored to become the party’s standard bearer over her three male rivals, including Petersburg state Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey, in the unfolding process to replace U.S. Rep. A. Donald McEachin, who succumbed to cancer Nov. 28 just three weeks after winning re-election to his fourth term.

The turnout of roughly 26,400 voters — about 5 percent of the district’s 554,000 voters — exceeded expectations for the balloting.

The party only provided eight polling places, creating long lines and waits of an hour or more — and drawing a federal lawsuit claiming the limit on voting violated the constitutional right to vote and seeking to bar such a limit in future elections.

The tabulation started around 10 a.m. Wednesday, with initially five volunteers, until the party called in reinforcements.

The winner of the four-way Democratic contest that also included former Delegate Joseph E. Preston and businessman Tavorise K. Marks will compete in the special election for the congressional post on Tuesday, Feb. 21.

The Republican contender is once again Leon Benjamin, a two-time, election-denying loser to Rep. McEachin. He won a three-way contest Saturday to gain the GOP nomination in a district considered heavily weighted to Democrats.

The process has been rushed since Gov. Glenn A. Youngkin set the election date, as state law requires party candidates and independents to be in place 60 days before the election, in this case Friday, Dec. 23. For Democrats, the good news is even if Sen. McClellan or Sen. Morrissey wins, they can still serve in the General Assembly in the upcoming session. The state Senate is now divided 21-18 with one Republican-leaning seat to be filled, so the departure of even one Democrat would top the balance of power.

If, as anticipated, Sen. McClellan wins this the initial party contest, she would be on track to become first black woman to represent Virginia in Congress.

“To be the first Black congresswoman from the area where I grew up would just be incredible,” the senator who was born in Petersburg said before she announced. She also noted that she would be following in the footsteps of John Mercer Langston, who won the 4th District seat in 1890 to become Virginia’s first Black congressman.

Sen. McClellan, who will turn 50 next week, became the front runner after she announced Dec. 13.

She corralled at least 200 endorsements, including the backing of Rep. McEachin’s widow, Colette W. McEachin, Richmond’s commonwealth’s attorney.

Just days after she announced, Henrico Delegate Lamont Bagby dropped his bid and his supporters, including Richmond Mayor Levar M. Stoney and Delegate Delores L. McQuinn, coalesced around Sen. McClellan.

She also outraised her opponents, collecting $100,000 in campaign donations the first day.

Sen. McClellan said if she does win the seat, she would model her service in Congress after that of Rep. McEachin. First elected in 2005 as a delegate, she served with him in the House of Delegates and succeeded him in the state Senate in 2017.

“He was a champion for the 4th,” she said “a social justice champion who really brought a servant leader’s heart to solv- ing problems and improving people’s lives, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the past 17 years — fighting for an opportunity for many communities that are often ignored.”

In a mailer and in multiple appearances during the brief campaign, Sen. McClellan has touted her record as a champion

on a long list of issues, ranging from tackling climate change and environmental protection to upholding women’s rights on abortion, protecting voting rights and reforming Virginia’s criminal justice system.

Sen. Morrissey, a disbarred attorney with a checkered past, also campaigned as a champion for the voiceless and pointed to his record of pushing legislation to end the death penalty, re-establish parole for juvenile offenders and cap insulin prices, which Sen. McClellan also supported.

“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 Virginia’s health care and preventing gun violence,” he said as he announced his campaign outside Petersburg City Hall.

Still, Sen. Morrissey appeared to be facing an uphill fight. Election observers noted that Sen. McClellan’s base is in Richmond and Henrico, where 50 percent of the voters in the district reside. There was a heavy vote both in the city and the county, boding well for Sen. McClellan, who was considered to have the greatest chance to pile up a winning margin in those communities.