WASHINGTON — Virginia Rep. Donald McEachin, a lawyer-turned-state legislator turned U.S. congressman who fought for issues ranging from the environment to Fort Lee’s renaming, died Monday night of complications from colorectal cancer just three weeks after being re-elected to a fourth term on Capitol Hill. He was 61 years old.
McEachin’s office announced his death in an email shortly after 10 p.m. Monday, saying the Fourth Congressional District “lost a hero who always, always fought for them and put them first.” The statement did not say exactly when or where McEachin died.
“We are all devastated by the passing of our patron and friend, Congressman Donald McEachin,” spokeswoman Tara Rountree said in the email. “Valiantly, for years we have watched him battle and overcome the side effects of his 2013 colorectal cancer. 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.”
Rountree said the office will remain open and continue to serve voters “until a new representative is elected.”
McEachin had battled a series of health issues over the years, the biggest being colorectal cancer. Always a big, burly man, McEachin’s weight loss due to health was quite noticeable, but he didn’t let health setbacks stop him.
Tributes from colleagues started pouring in on the news. U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, who shared a statewide Democratic ticket with McEachin and now a senator. Mark Warner in 2001 said he met McEachin in 1985 “and we quickly became friends”.
“Our kids were the same age, we shared a statewide ticket with Mark Warner, and we’ve been on the Virginia federal delegation together for years,” Kaine said in a statement released by his office. He called his friend “a gentle giant, a compassionate champion for underdogs, a climate warrior, a Christian example, an understanding father, a proud husband, a faithful brother.”
Warner, who won the governorship of Virginia and was eventually elected to the U.S. Senate, also praised McEachin for his service and friendship.
“Until the very end, Don was a fighter,” Warner said in a statement. “Even though he has battled cancer and faced other hardships in recent years, he has never lost his interest in social and environmental justice. Tonight Virginia lost a great leader and I lost a great friend.
McEachin is the fourth Congresswoman from Virginia to die in office since 2000. The last was Republican Representative Jo Ann Davis of Gloucester in the state’s 1st District, who died of cancer in 2007 at age 57. .
Rep. Herbert Bateman, a Newport News Republican, died at age 72 in 2000. The following year, Democratic Rep. Norman Sisisky, who like McEachin represented the Tri-City area on Capitol Hill, died of lung cancer at age 71.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin is expected to announce as early as Tuesday a date for the special election to fill McEachin’s term. This election is scheduled for next January.
In a tweet, Youngkin said he was “so sad” to hear of McEachin’s death.
“A valiant fighter to the bitter end, he served Virginia admirably and worked tirelessly to improve the lives of his constituents and Americans,” Youngkin tweeted. “Suzanne and I are thinking of her family, friends and community during this difficult time.”
The Virginia Democratic Party called McEachin a “voice of reason.”
“A person of faith, Donald embodied the definition of service. He had a good and generous heart; and to so many he was a voice of reason and a man who listened to you, always showing compassion and caring,” the party said in a statement late Monday. “He was wealthy in the only way that really matter, with an abundance of friends and allies who loved and respected him. We could always count on him to advise and guide us. His voice will be greatly missed.”
Re-elected earlier this month
McEachin’s death comes 20 days after he defeated Republican Leon Benjamin in a 2020 election rematch. Benjamin, closely aligned with former President Donald Trump, never ceded the election to McEachin, repeating a unsubstantiated Trump theme of rigged votes to favor the Democrats.
For that reason, McEachin declined to debate Benjamin ahead of this year’s election. In an interview with The Progress-Index days before the Nov. 8 election, McEachin explained why he wouldn’t face him.
“My opponent is an election denier,” McEachin said in that interview. “He invents facts to engage his story.”
Just as he did in 2020, McEachin beat Benjamin with 61% of the vote on Nov. 8 in the 4th District, which stretches from Richmond south to the state line.
McEachin went to Washington after years at the state Capitol in Richmond, where he served in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate. He was first elected to Congress in 2016 and re-elected in 2018 and 2020.
In Washington, McEachin was considered a staunch supporter of Capitol Hill Democrats who often lent his name to legislation dealing with environmental issues. But he also fought to secure federal funding for projects in the 4th district, and earlier this year he successfully secured $3.3 million in community project funding for two projects in Petersburg – 2, $4 million for improvements to the Poor Creek sewage treatment plant in south Petersburg; and $900,000 to replace diesel buses with electric buses in the Petersburg public school system.
This year, the CPF’s 10 requests on its wish list for the 4th arrondissement have been included.
In one of the last statements released by his office, on Nov. 17, McEachin praised outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, for her time on the podium. McEachin said he was “grateful” to Pelosi for helping him make the transition from Richmond to Washington.
“I thank Speaker Pelosi for her vision, her courage and her commitment to the American people,” the statement said. “It was an honor to serve under his leadership and to help advance major legislative policies to improve the lives of Americans and strengthen our nation.”
Early life and politics
Born into a military family in Germany in 1961, Aston Donald McEachin attended St. Christopher’s School in Richmond. In 1982, he graduated from American University in Washington, DC with a degree in political history. He earned his law degree from the University of Virginia in 1986, and 12 years later earned a master’s degree in theology from Virginia Union University.
He co-founded the McEachin & Gee law firm in Richmond.
In 1995, McEachin won his first election to the Richmond House of Delegates. While a delegate, McEachin was chosen as the Democratic nominee for attorney general in 2001 alongside Warner as governor and Kaine as lieutenant governor. He lost the November election to Republican Jerry Kilgore.
In 2007, McEachin was considering a move to the state senate. In the Democratic primary that year, he defeated longtime incumbent Bennie Lambert, who drew criticism for supporting the then senator. George Allen, a Republican, in his losing re-election bid to Democrat Jim Webb. He went on to win the state Senate seat with 81% of the vote – the same seat once held by Douglas Wilder who became Virginia’s first black governor and the nation’s first colored governor at the time.
Fort Lee’s new name
But it was his willingness to change Fort Lee’s name that likely cemented his political legacy in the region.
In 2020, Congress passed a defense authorization budget that called for the renaming of 10 Army positions throughout the South whose current names honored Confederate war heroes. Three of them were in Virginia, including Fort Lee in Prince George’s County.
Early in discussions of new names, McEachin fervently pushed for Fort Lee to be renamed after retired Lt. Gen. Arthur Gregg, at one time the highest-ranking colored military officer in the United States. . Gregg began his military career at the then separate Fort Lee and was later considered a leading expert in Army logistics, including the Quartermaster service so important at Fort Lee.
On May 24, the Department of Defense Naming Commission announced that Fort Lee would be named Fort Gregg-Adams in honor of Gregg and in memory of Charity Adams, the first black woman in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and Commandant of the first World War II. battalion with black women as the only members.
In the interview a few days before the election, McEachin said he did not view the renaming of the post as a proud political achievement, but rather a personal one. Gregg was close friends with McEachin’s father, and the congressman said he also grew to love and admire Gregg.
“Gregg was a man I grew up with,” McEachin said. “I don’t know if I can categorize it because it’s so emotional for me.”
Fort Gregg-Adams wasn’t the only naming honor McEachin sought and received. He also got Congress to approve the naming of the U.S. Post Office branch in downtown Hopewell after the late civil rights icon Dr. Curtis Harris, former mayor of Hopewell.
McEachin’s office said funeral arrangements will be announced “over the next few days.” In the meantime, Rountree said the family “requests privacy.”
McEachin is survived by his wife, Richmond Commonwealth Solicitor Colette McEachin, and their three children.