“We really had an amazing send-off for our friend,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who spoke at the funeral, said later Wednesday. Kaine said that in his speech he described how McEachin lived by the theology of liberation after studying to become a minister while in his 40s, “and I talked about the theme of liberation in his life — even liberated from the health challenges that he struggled against so mightily in his last decade.”
Closing out his speech, Kaine sang a line from a gospel song: “Praise the Lord, I’m free.”
Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia L. Fudge and Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico) were among those in attendance to honor the late congressman, Kaine said. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) also attended.
“He was a patriot,” Pelosi said in her eulogy, according to a transcript released by her office. “In the State Capitol and in the halls of Congress, he was a true patriot who fought to advance justice for the oppressed, justice in every aspect of our big opportunity for the downtrodden and a brighter future for our planet and our children.”
As tributes to Rep. McEachin pour in, Youngkin weighs special election
In Congress, McEachin’s colleagues and friends have remembered him for his fierce advocacy for environmental justice, seeking to confront and mitigate the uneven ways in which climate change or air and water pollutants have long disproportionately affected marginalized communities.
“In fact, his environmental justice policy positions were all about stewardship of God’s gifts,” Clyburn said in his eulogy, according to a transcript his office released.
Clyburn first met McEachin at his wedding to Colette McEachin — who is now the Richmond commonwealth’s attorney — in the 1980s. Clyburn’s wife grew up in rural South Carolina with McEachin’s mother-in-law, and even in that first meeting, Clyburn said, “I knew right away that I was meeting someone special.”
Clyburn also described McEachin’s passion for civil rights, recalling the time McEachin enlisted his help to rename Virginia’s Fort Lee — named for Confederate general Robert E. Lee — for high-ranking Black Army veteran Lt. General Arthur J. Gregg by pointing out Gregg’s South Carolina roots.
“While Don won’t be here to witness the renaming, or the realities of so many of his stewardship efforts, such was not his goal,” Clyburn said. “He did not run for office to seek personal glory. He was the epitome of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s definition of a public servant. Don had ‘a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.’”
McEachin, the son of an Army officer and a teacher, was born in West Germany in 1961. Before his career in politics, he graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law and became a trial lawyer, representing personal-injury clients. He later also became an ordained Baptist minister after receiving a master’s degree in divinity from Virginia Union University in 2008 — something Kaine said he remembered surprised him at the time, considering McEachin was a father and husband and lawmaker and lawyer, and now working harder on his faith on evenings and weekends, too.
His faith was deeply important to him, Kaine said, and when he asked McEachin why he wanted to go back to school to pursue another degree, he recalled that McEachin seemed to be searching for even greater meaning in his public service.
“The way Donald described it to me, he said, ‘The next case I’m going to do, I know it will be helping someone. The next piece of legislation I do, I know that’s going to be helping someone. But it can’t just be the next case, the next campaign, the next bill,’” Kaine recalled. “‘There has to be a way to look at this all together.’ I think he wanted to put it into a bigger framework that he could understand as a mission in his life.”
First elected to the House of Delegates in 1995, McEachin became the state’s first Black nominee of a major party for attorney general in 2001, with now-Sens. Mark R. Warner and Kaine on the ticket. But when he lost that race, McEachin stepped back from politics to reorient himself, preparing for a second act a few years later.
“He didn’t take the defeat and say, ‘I’m going to take my marbles and go away,’” Warner said in a speech on the Senate floor last week. “No, he said he still had public service in him.”
During his tenure in the state Senate, McEachin also became an impassioned advocate for expanding Medicaid and health-care access — especially after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2013, challenging colleagues to place themselves in the shoes of someone staring down the same dire illness but without health insurance.
Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.), who served with McEachin in the state Senate, described him as a mentor in an interview after the memorial, which stretched nearly three hours. It was McEachin, she said, who encouraged her to run for Congress not long after he arrived on the Hill himself.
“He loved his job so much. He was just crowing about it, just how important the work is. He loved being a member of Congress so much, it inspired me,” Wexton said.
Though McEachin overcame cancer and rose to Congress, he developed a fistula as a complication of treatment in 2018, requiring two surgeries. McEachin had lost considerable weight amid his health challenges and in recent years had seemed to struggle physically, colleagues said.
The exact cause of death was unclear, though his staff pointed to his struggle with the secondary effects of the cancer treatment.
Last week, both chambers of Congress held a moment of silence for McEachin, as Virginia lawmakers in the House and Senate honored him in speeches. Youngkin (R) has not yet set a date for a special election to fill his seat.
Pelosi said she brought the flags that were lowered at the Capitol in honor of McEachin to his family. In the Capitol, she said, members have left a bouquet of flowers at the desk on the House floor where McEachin always sat.
“If you could see the number of members from both sides of the aisle who go there to pay their respects,” she said.