Column – Appreciation: Congressman A. Donald McEachin

Published 5:02 pm Friday, December 9, 2022

The elevator doors were closing one hot July morning in 1994 and I was about to ascend 13 floors to my office when a large man in the lobby doubled his pace to catch the elevator. I stuck an arm against the door to hold it open a few more seconds.

“Thanks,” he said, extending his large right hand to me as the doors shut. “Hi. I’m Don.”

That was the first welcome I had been extended after my move here by a Richmonder other than my new colleagues at The Associated Press, where I had just started work as the Virginia news editor, and the realtor who was helping me find a house.

I will never forget that introduction. Don was Aston Donald McEachin, who would later become a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, the Democratic nominee for state attorney general, a state senator and a member of Congress. To me, he would always be just Don, a sweet man with a friendly smile, a warm handshake and an innate likeability.

Then only 33, he was a named partner in the McEachin & Gee law firm one floor directly beneath AP’s main Virginia bureau. There would be many elevator mornings, some shared lunches and discussions about government, the law, society and politics. He was candid about his desire to hold public office and make a qualitative difference. Two years later, in 1996, he won his first term as a delegate.

I am about 6 feet, 2 inches tall, but Don towered over me. His most impressive trait, however, was his gentleness, his remarkable intellect, his thoughtfulness and his ability to listen, a quality essential to good lawyering, good politics and good friendships. In a conversation, Don focused on the person before him, and it was clear he was drinking in everything he was told.

When I heard of Don’s passing Monday at the age of 61 after a long and very public battle with colorectal cancer, it was like a fist to the solar plexus. Beside the shock and the tears clouding my vision, my immediate thought was, “You deserved better, Don.”

Don had the skills to ascend much higher in public office than a seat in Congress. He had served almost six years in the House of Delegates when his party nominated him in hopes he would become Virginia’s first African American attorney general. Timing and luck had something to do with holding him back.

In the 2001 campaign, he seemed the odd man out in a Democratic ticket led by gubernatorial candidate Mark Warner with Tim Kaine running for lieutenant governor. Warner and Kaine won; Don lost.

No difference between the candidates was clearer than Don’s disdain for Warner’s cozy relations with the National Rifle Association and his promise not to seek new gun restrictions in a state that had voted reflexively Republican for years, depriving Democrats of every lever of statewide political power.

Don voiced his displeasure at Warner’s closeness to the NRA in a state Capitol news conference with former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected Black governor. Going public with such a rift within a ticket would have been enormously damaging but for an ominous quirk of history: It happened as terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. The explosive presser went unreported.

Don was a loyal Democrat, but he never let partisan leanings supersede friendships.

“This one hurts. This one really hurts,” said Bea Gonzales, a state Republican Party staffer before she embarked on a career as a well-regarded Richmond lobbyist. She had forged a friendship with Don and his wife, Colette – Richmond’s commonwealth’s attorney – that became even closer with the birth of Bea’s son, Sebi, and the interest the congressman took in the child. She marked his passing with a Facebook post of a photo of the McEachins holding her infant, now 8, during a dinner years earlier.

“I called him a bad-ass teddy bear,” she said. “People think of him as this huge person, (so) he must be mean, he must be angry, and he wasn’t at all. Even as sick as he was, if I had called him and said, ‘I need this for Sebi,’ he would do it. He just would, and so would Colette.”

What clearly brought Don fulfillment was identifying promising public servants and helping them embark on promising careers. One such person was Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, a young lawyer with a desire to serve in elective office as Don had. He remembers him as “a larger-than-life man, but he was just Don.”

“Didn’t matter if he was winning multi-million-dollar judgments, whether it was Senator McEachin or Delegate McEachin or Congressman McEachin. It was just Don,” Bourne said.

“To me, the thing that made him special was the encouragement he always gave to young, aspiring African American community leaders, political leaders, folks who thought they might want to be elected,” he said.

Don turned up this month at a screening of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” in Richmond to persuade the mostly Black audience to get checked for colon cancer, the disease that killed “Black Panther” actor Chadwick Boseman and would take his own life less than two weeks later. He spoke bluntly of the disease that had reduced the strapping hulk of a man I met 28 years ago into a gaunt, gray but still determined public servant.

“Don’t y’all fool around. Don’t do my journey. Go see a doctor,” he said.

It’s not an eloquent epitaph, but it’s powerful, plain, lifesaving counsel given freely to help others. It fits Don perfectly.

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at blewis@virginiamercury.com.