Virginia Congressman Donald McEachin died on Monday at age 61, weeks after winning a fourth term representing all of Richmond, parts of Henrico and Chesterfield counties, and the Tri-Cities area in the 4th Congressional District.
McEachin’s death was sudden, but his illness was not. He had been suffering from the after-effects from the successful treatment of colorectal cancer eight years ago.
“We are all devastated at the passing of our boss and friend, Congressman Donald McEachin,” Tara Rountree, the Democratic congressman’s chief of staff, said in a statement on Monday night.
“Valiantly, for years now, we have watched him fight and triumph over the secondary effects of his colorectal cancer from 2013,” Rountree said. “Tonight, he lost that battle and the people of Virginia’s Fourth Congressional district lost a hero who always, always fought for them and put them first.”
McEachin, who was elected twice to the House of Delegates and served nine years in the Senate, had just defeated Republican Leon Benjamin on Nov. 8 for the second time. His fourth term was scheduled to begin in January.
“Until a new representative is elected, our office will remain open and continue to serve our constituents,” Rountree said.
His wife, Colette, is Richmond’s commonwealth’s attorney. McEachin, a lawyer who lived in South Richmond, also leaves behind a son and two daughters.
“The family asks for privacy at this time,” Rountree said. “Arrangements will be announced over the next few days.”
He lost 60 pounds and underwent a number of surgeries to correct the condition, which he treated as temporary and not an obstacle to his work in the House of Representatives.
McEachin was first elected to congress in 2016 after a court ordered redistricting of the 4th District as part of its response to alleged racial gerrymandering of the 3rd District by General Assembly Republicans.
The 4th District now includes all or part of 15 cities and counties, stretching from Richmond to Brunswick, Greensville and Southampton counties. It gets about three-fourths of its votes from Richmond and from eastern Henrico and eastern Chesterfield.
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-3rd, hailed McEachin’s legacy as “a trailblazer in Virginia politics” as the first African American to run as the nominee of a major party for attorney general in 2001, ultimately losing to Republican Jerry Kilgore, and as the third to be elected to Congress from the state.
(John Mercer Langston, elected in 1888 to represent the 4th District, was Virginia’s first African American in Congress. Scott became the second 105 years later.)
“Donald was a thoughtful and principled legislator and respected by people on both sides of the aisle,” Scott said.
Before serving in Congress, McEachin had a long career as a personal-injury lawyer and co-owner of the McEachin & Gee law firm in Henrico County, but he also has a master’s degree in divinity from Virginia Union University. He did not lead a church, but helped at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Beaverdam.
“There’s ministry in the church, and there’s ministry outside of the church,” he said in 2018.
McEachin’s priorities in Congress included protecting the Affordable Care Act and women’s reproductive rights, combating climate change and promoting environmental justice, and preserving Black cemeteries.
He introduced the African American Burial Grounds Preservation Act, a measure that would provide $3 million annually to preserve and restore Black cemeteries.
McEachin took personal pleasure in leading a successful effort to rename Fort Lee after Lt. Gen. Arthur J. Gregg, the Army’s highest ranking minority general when he retired in 1981, and Lt. Col. Charity Adams. Gregg was a lifelong friend of the congressman’s father, a U.S. Army veteran.
“It’s a great day in Virginia,” the congressman exclaimed after a congressional naming commission announced its choices in May to replace the former Confederate general’s name on the sprawling base outside of Petersburg in his district.
On Twitter Monday night, Gov. Glenn Youngkin wrote: “It’s so sad to learn of the passing of @Rep. McEachin. A valiant fighter until the end, he admirably served Virginia & worked tirelessly to improve the lives of his constituents & Americans. Suzanne & I are thinking of his family, friends & community during this difficult time.”
U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, in a statement late Monday said: “Tonight, I am mourning my friend, colleague, and mentor Congressman Donald McEachin. He was a good man who endeavored to make others feel important and heard whether in the courtroom, the General Assembly, the U.S. Congress, or simply in a quiet moment.
“He brought his passion for people, his sense of humor, and his abiding faith in God to his work every day — and he was a relentless advocate for those who needed a voice, our natural resources, and the people he represented.”
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., in a statement said: “Up until the very end, Don was a fighter. Even though he battled cancer and faced other trials in recent years, he never lost his focus on social and environmental justice. Tonight, Virginia has lost a great leader and I have lost a great friend.”
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a former Richmond city councilman and mayor, recalled first meeting McEachin in 1985 and attending a party for his wedding to Colette.
“Our kids were the same age, we shared a statewide ticket with Mark Warner [in 2001], and we’ve been together in the Virginia federal delegation for years,” Kaine said in a statement. “I was last with him on election night three weeks ago, celebrating his win.”
“He was a gentle giant, a compassionate champion for underdogs, a climate warrior, a Christian example, an understanding dad, a proud husband, a loyal brother,” he said.
“It is with profound sadness that we join the people of Virginia and the McEachin family in mourning the loss of our dear friend and colleague, the honorable Congressman Donald McEachin. Congressman McEachin was a tireless advocate for the people of Virginia and our nation. He dedicated his life to advancing America’s working families, creating economic opportunities, and promoting environmental justice for all. He leaves an unparalleled legacy of excellence and integrity, and we will honor that legacy with our continued dedication to the issues which he championed,” said Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Joyce Beatty, in a statement.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, a close political ally, said called McEachin “a progressive champion” and “a true public servant who, in sickness or in health over a 22-year career, always put the people first and never stopped working for and loving his community.”
“His imposing frame was eclipsed only by a fundamentally kind and generous spirit, and the legacy of his many contributions to the welfare of this city will live on.”
Gallery: Congressman A. Donald McEachin