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Representative-Elect Donald McEachin Says He’s Ready to Wade Into the D.C. Swamp



Donald McEachin poses for a portrait on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Armed guards loom in the background and the sun bounces off the expanse of marble. Two tourists wear coats that suggest 58-degree weather is chilly for them and consult a map. Oblivious to the photographer, they approach McEachin for directions to the visitor center.

It’s McEachin’s second week in Washington, but he points them in the direction of the entrance, which, like at Richmond’s Capitol, is underground. If McEachin seems at home already, it’s because he feels at home.

“In some respects, it’s the same stuff, just a different place,” he says. “You have the same sort of personalities. You have some of the same dynamics going on. Obviously, the issues are broader and the money is bigger, but the folks here seem to be just like folks in the General Assembly.”

The Henrico County lawyer, who was first elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1995, handily won a seat to Virginia’s redrawn 4th District in November and begins his term in January.

It’s the first time since 1991 that the city of Richmond will be represented by a single congressman. McEachin’s also one of only four Democrats in Virginia’s 11-person House of Representatives delegation — in a state that went 49.8 percent to Hillary Clinton. And he is one of the state’s two black congressmen.

But what a time to go to Washington. McEachin, 55, will be joining the “swamp” that President-elect Donald Trump has pledged to drain, two parties in various stages of disarray and a deep pool of politicians who precede him in seniority.

Like anyone with a new job, McEachin goes in with big plans and talking points fresh off the campaign trail — job creation, treatment of veterans and the environment, which he calls an overarching issue. “It touches job creation,” he says. “It touches national security and quality of life issues.”

To that end, he’s asked for committee assignments on Energy and Commerce, Armed Services and Natural Resources — the latter two more realistic to receive, he says. Party leaders will determine assignments in the coming months.

But the bigger question remains: What can a freshman representative whose party is in the minority of the House and Senate actually do? And in the midst of a Trump administration, no less?

Donald McEachin, 55, has served in the in the Virginia legislature since 1995 with a four-year break after a unsuccessful bid for attorney general in 2001. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Donald McEachin, 55, has served in the in the Virginia legislature since 1995 with a four-year break after a unsuccessful bid for attorney general in 2001.

A senator can filibuster and block legislation with stamina and the right pair of sneakers, but the minority party in the House is somewhat toothless.

“The party that controls the chamber, controls the agenda,” says Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “So from the standpoint of achieving power in Washington, it’s not the place to be.”

McEachin could join a majority coalition that crosses both parties, he says, but there are few legislative issues where Democratic votes will matter.

“Obama came to town eight years ago saying it was going to be a post-partisan Washington,” Rozell says, “and it didn’t take long till everything got voted up or down based on party lines. Not sure that will change in the next administration.”

McEachin isn’t digging in his heels quite yet, and says he will be “all on board and helpful” where there’s common ground to be found with Republicans.

“But to the extent where there’s an attempt to continue what we heard on the campaign — which is what I’ll call hate speech, the demonizing of ethnic groups, the demonizing of religious groups, the demonizing of any Americans,” he says — “that’s something that has to be opposed. And I’ll oppose that with every fiber of my being.”

He’s particularly concerned about Steve Bannon’s appointment as chief strategist and senior counselor to the incoming president, he says. Bannon also hails from the Richmond region, but “I can’t say I ever crossed paths with him.”

The representative-elect knows his effect on that administration is confined largely to commentary — but he’s been in that position before.

“It’s not unlike what we did in the state Senate during the Bob McDonnell years, where at one point they had control of everything,” he says. “I think people in the district, whether they’re Democrat, Republican or independent, expect their legislator to speak up or speak out.”

Delegate Jennifer McClellan cites McEachin’s trial-lawyer training as strengthening his understanding of the law, rules and procedure. “He can get up with very little preparation in response to someone else’s argument,” she says, “and that has served him very well in the [Virginia] Senate.”

McClellan, the Democrat endorsed by McEachin in the special election to fill his state Senate seat, has known him since 2001. They were both elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 2005 — McEachin’s second term there after an unsuccessful bid for attorney general.

She describes a close working relationship that yielded successful legislation, even when Democrats were the minority. And once McEachin moved to the Senate in 2008, they often sponsored corresponding bills in their respective chambers. She cites bills on predatory mortgage practices in the wake of the financial crisis, school-to-prison-pipeline legislation, judicial selection and LGBT issues.

Up in Washington, McEachin had been elected one of the class presidents of the bipartisan group of incoming members, as well as regional whip for his party. “That doesn’t surprise me at all,” McClellan says. “He’s a natural leader, when he sees something that needs to get done, even as a minority member.”

Donald McEachin comes to Congress representing a Democratic Party that’s in the minority in both houses, and during a Republican administration. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Donald McEachin comes to Congress representing a Democratic Party that’s in the minority in both houses, and during a Republican administration.

Rozell predicts that the new representative’s focus will be on constituency services for the next two years and afterward.

“That’s plain and simple as a newly elected member from a minority party,” he says. “If I were advising him, I’d say: ‘Stay close to your constituency. Build up your reputation as someone who takes care of folks at home. And make sure they send you back in two years.’ Inevitably, there will be a partisan shift in Congress.”

Constituency services often are a matter of sorting out state or local issues for a citizen, liaising with legislators back home. With a long career in Virginia politics, McEachin is in a position to thrive.

McEachin’s election was made possible by the recent redistricting of the 4th. Federal courts found that the Republican-controlled state legislature had diluted black voters among several districts. Now the district contains Richmond, with Petersburg, Hopewell and southeastern counties and cities through Chesapeake.

Republican incumbent Randy Forbes found the new constituency too blue-leaning and made an unsuccessful primary bid for the nearby 2nd District. Forbes is now mentioned as a possible secretary of the Navy in the Trump administration.

“Representing your hometown at the national level is just, I don’t even have the words to describe it,” McEachin says. “It’s such a wonderful, awesome and humbling feeling.”

He likes to tell people about John Mercer Langston, the first black congressman in Virginia during the days of Reconstruction. “Guess what district he represented?” McEachin asks. “The fourth. That to me is special.”

McEachin will be the third black congressman to represent Virginia since Langston and Rep. Bobby Scott of the 3rd District. Scott lost a portion of Richmond in redistricting, which he says he’ll miss, but is looking forward to working with McEachin.

“I got to know him as a very effective legislator in the General Assembly,” Scott says. “I expect him to do extremely well in Congress.”

Since former Sen. John Warner was dean of the Virginia delegation, Scott says, the bipartisan group has worked together closely to benefit the Commonwealth.

“Warner really set tone of delegation, and we have maintained that tradition,” he says. “I expect Don to fit right in.”

Rep. Dave Brat of the 7th District also lost a piece of Richmond in the redistricting. He starts his second term in January, having ousted Eric Cantor in the 2014 primary — an election some observers say foreshadowed Trump’s victory. Brat didn’t return an interview request.

McEachin attended a two-week orientation in Washington for new members of Congress. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • McEachin attended a two-week orientation in Washington for new members of Congress.

In the Rayburn Office Building on the House side of the U.S. Capitol, there’s a buzz in the room as new members of both parties prepare to pull their rankings from a box. Aides clutch giant three-ring binders labeled “New Member Orientation.”

While seniority is based on how long a legislator has held office, all 435 members of the House must be assigned numbers. Today, new members of the 115th Congress alphabetically pull white tokens labeled 1 through 50 to determine where they’ll land among 386 through 435.

When they pull numbers, anything over 20 elicits noises of disappointment. “Tough crowd,” the chairman says. Representative-elect Lou Correa, a Democrat from California, draws No. 1 to boisterous congratulations. Soon after, another member rubs Correa’s bald head for luck on his way up and draws No. 2.

McEachin is a playful participant in the proceedings. Nanette Barragan, a 40-year-old elected to California’s 44th District, draws No. 7 and gets a high five. Delaware’s Lisa Blunt-Rochester draws No. 4 and McEachin whoops. Finally, he draws No. 48 and offers a pout to the pitying room.

The ranking is largely meaningless for now, but will determine McEachin’s choice of offices. Sometimes ranking determines committee chairmanship, but that role for McEachin is far enough down the line that his merits within in the Democratic Caucus are likely to have more weight.

“It’s amazing how quickly it happens,” McEachin says of the transition. “It’s been like drinking water out of a fire hose.”

His wife, Colette, a deputy commonwealth’s attorney in Richmond, has joined him in Washington for part of the orientation.

“Colette still refers to [politics] as my ‘expensive hobby,’” he says. “But I think she thinks this aspect of it is a big deal.” McEachin plans to get a place in the nation’s capital for weekday sessions, but the proximity to Richmond will bring him home frequently.

Asked if he’s met anyone he feels kinship with in his class, McEachin doesn’t hesitate. “Jamie Raskin. He’s a state senator, like I was, from Maryland.”

A Democrat from the Washington suburbs, Raskin already has made a name for himself as a progressive firebrand, called “a vibrant new left-wing voice” by The New Republic. Raskin identifies with the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a left-leaning coalition of Democrats. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, also is a member.

McEachin has no plans to join caucuses beyond the Congressional Black Caucus for now, says his legislative director, Cody McClelland: “He’ll take his time to gather more information and educate himself.”

On the other side of the Congressional Progressive Caucus is the New Democrat Coalition that considers itself moderate and pro-growth. Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly of Northern Virginia is vice chairman of the caucus.

McEachin is Virginia’s third black congressman after 3rd District Representative Bobby Scott and John M. Langston, a 19th-century lawmaker from the 4th District. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • McEachin is Virginia’s third black congressman after 3rd District Representative Bobby Scott and John M. Langston, a 19th-century lawmaker from the 4th District.

McEachin is entering the fray at an interesting time for his party. Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump, frustration shown by the Sanders faction of blue-leaning voters and other lost congressional seats led to calls for new leadership within the party.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi faced a challenge from Tim Ryan, a 43-year-old congressman from a blue-collar Ohio district. But she beat him back 143 to 63 in a late-November vote among Democrats.

“I’m absolutely happy with that decision,” McEachin says. “I supported her, I was happy to support her.”

And Clinton’s popular-vote numbers are a significant signal, he says: “I think when you’re winning by two million votes, I can understand the need to tweak the message. But wholesale radical change doesn’t seem to be in order.”

Still, McEachin isn’t immune to soul-searching. “I do think the Democratic Party needs to be a broad tent, but yet have a core set of principles that we feel deep down in our souls,” he says. “I think, at times, during this last campaign cycle, that was lost.”

He’s quick to turn the conversation to the other side’s internal struggles — and the perception that Trump will embrace policies to improve the lives of the working class.

“What we’re seeing out of the Trump administration so far, in terms of their appointments and whatnot, is that they’re embracing the Wall Street elite,” McEachin says. “It seems as if the Cabinet he’s assembling is going to be very much what we would expect, especially when it comes to economics, of any Republican president.”

Yet some of McEachin’s own agenda is tempered by two weeks in Washington. He’s talked to generals about increasing dwell time, the period a people in the military spend at home between deployments.

“If the point is to increase the amount of time people have at home stateside, then you either have to reduce your commitment [abroad] or increase the size of your military,” he says. “So we talked a little bit about that, and they said they’d be more than happy to help me look at the options.”

The lack of concern for global warming and sea level rise from the Trump administration also concerns him, he says.

“At the same time,” he says. “We’re beginning to learn that, while the Trump transition team has talked a lot about how to undo some of the things [President Obama] put in place, they’re starting to find out it’s just not that easy.”

His office released a statement at the announcement of Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier, as Trump’s choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency, saying “It is akin to asking the wolf to protect the sheep.”

McEachin might have bipartisan support on one of his priorities: rural broadband connectivity. And infrastructure, more generally, is where he might be able to make a legislative difference — because there may not be a Republican consensus, Rozell says.

“So some Democratic support is going to be needed to move legislation,” he says. “It’s an issue where pretty much everyone agrees where something needs to be done.”

Grants for broadband, bridges, roads and mass transit will find their way back to state administrations and municipal governments.

“That’s going to be one of tests of his effectiveness in Congress: Can he bring resources back home to the district where they’re needed,” Rozell says. “If Trump is going to do infrastructure, McEachin needs to be in there fighting for the district.”

And McEachin says he’s ready to represent the district — and knows it well.

Donald McEachin won by a large margin a district recently redrawn to include all of Richmond as well as Petersburg, Hopewell  and southeastern counties to Chesapeake. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Donald McEachin won by a large margin a district recently redrawn to include all of Richmond as well as Petersburg, Hopewell and southeastern counties to Chesapeake.

“I think folks of the 4th District, whether it’s Richmond or Suffolk or Chesapeake, are hard-working individuals,” he says. “They don’t expect anything to be given to them, but they do expect a level playing field. I think they have a deep love for our country. And they accept the notion that anyone deserves a seat at the table.”

With two decades of political experience, McEachin is no stranger to having that seat. “What I told Bobby Scott was this,” he says: “When I close my eyes, whether it’s the Congressional Black Caucus or the big caucus, it’s like every other caucus meeting I’ve ever been in.

“You got a faction that’s always unhappy about something. You’ve got a group of people who are just quiet and want the meeting to be over with. And you’ve got a group of people who are really trying to push a particular agenda or two. It’s the same process, the same game, if you will. Obviously the stakes are a lot higher.”

McEachin’s instinct for observation and early leadership roles suggest he’s fitting in well — and could spell a long congressional career.

“Take your time, wait your turn,” Rozell says — “that’s pretty much how things work on Capitol Hill.”

“He’s not gonna do a lot on policy in the short term, but he can play for the long term,” he says. “Because of margin he won, if he does a good job taking care of constituent services, he could hold that seat for a long time.” S

Editor's Note: The print version of this story listed an incorrect number of U.S. Representatives. The number has been corrected in the online version. Style regrets the error.