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Running for Virginia attorney general: 'You couldn't get Democrats to speak up until we did!'

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This is the third in a series of interviews with Democratic candidates for statewide office in Virginia.

It seems almost inconceivable that it was only two election cycles ago that Virginia truly cemented its transformation from perilously close swing state to leading member of the New South coalition. 2013 was the year we wrested control from Republicans of every statewide office in Virginia, for the first time since 1970.

While the national attention was on the governor's race, the nail-biter of the night month for Virginians was the race to replace current Trump darling Ken Cucinelli as attorney general, Three weeks after Election Day, the state Board of Elections finally certified the results: Democrat Mark Herring was declared the winner, by a mere 165 votes out of more than 2.2 million cast. It’s a number all the more startling if you’ve ever heard Herring talk about how he spent hours talking to voters waiting in line at his home voting precinct—likely more voters than the final margin of victory.

After being reelected in Virginia’s Blue Wave year in 2017, Herring is looking to serve an unprecedented third term as the attorney general of Virginia. As proud as he is of his work converting the office of the attorney general from the Republican Party's personal law firm and of being a champion for things like marriage equality, preserving Planned Parenthood support, and guaranteeing DREAMers an equal education, Herring knows "there is still so much more we need to do."

Given that narrow margin of the 2013 result, one might forgive a candidate for not making waves immediately upon taking office. But, as I chatted with him at length on the phone recently, Herring, 59, told me that thought never crossed his mind. "Two weeks (after taking office), I went into court and said no, I'm not going to defend (Virginia's) unconstitutional ban on marriage for same sex couples."

Instead, Herring told me, the closeness of the election night result is what drove him forward, alongside the prospect of helping Virginia lead the charge of the New South. "For me," he said, "I was just doing what I thought was right, to help as many people as I could. I wasn't weighing out the politics of it. My feeling was, I worked really hard to get elected attorney general, and I had four years to know what the future was going to hold. And I was determined to make the most of those four years, and do as much as I could help as many Virginians as possible."

That work, AG Herring says, is why the office of the attorney general in a single state can be so consequential, even nationally. "Folks from outside the Commonwealth are obviously going to be watching (Virginia)," he told me. That attention, Herring says, is the reason he was unapologetic about standing up for progressive issues that many Democrats were running away from in 2013: He was hoping to inspire others to take up the same mantle. "You couldn't get a statewide Democrat to speak up for marriage equality until I did. You couldn't get Democrats to speak up for the immigrant community, or run on a platform of strong gun safety laws, or marijuana legalization, until I led on those things."

Herring tells me that, if reelected, he intends to focus on "three buckets" of work that the attorney general's office needs to undertake to keep pushing Virginia, and the country, forward: racial justice and policing reform; health, safety, and well-being; and workers’ rights. However, he is pointed on what he sees as the biggest threat to the Commonwealth right now: "The white supremacist, white nationalism movement that continues to feel emboldened by Donald Trump and the politicians who want to idolize him."

Herring drew a direct line from the events of the Unite the Right rally in August 2017 to the attempted insurrection on Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol. It was "an affront to both our democracy and the very foundations of our country, fueled by baseless conspiracy theories and lies- and it's all rooted in white supremacy and anti-Semitism," Herring told me gravely, noting that elected officials have a special responsibility to speak out against it—emphatically—and predicting dire consequences for failing to do so. "We have to recognize it as the public safety threat that it is, the threat to our democracy it is!"

Having recently held a series of roundtables around the Commonwealth, Herring told me about how much it impacted him, hearing the stories of Virginians who moved here 30 or 40 years ago and raised families here, having "always!" felt welcome. "They never felt unsafe. And now in the last few years, they feel like they have to look over their shoulder.” And that—the way the current political and cultural climate has impacted lifelong Virginians, who no longer feel at peace in their own communities—is a big part of what is driving Herring forward in his re-election campaign. He says he’s unwilling to stop fighting until those issues are fixed—permanently.

But of all of the things we discussed over our 45-minute interview, there was one story I truly took to heart.

Given the close results of the 2013 election, there was obviously a lot of post-election work to do: recounts, canvassing, curing provisional ballots, and more. A week or two into the process, Herring stopped to thank some volunteers in Fairfax for their hard work, but was stopped cold by the organizers there.

“We have a voter you need to call,” they said to Herring. “You have to do it personally. We just can’t.”

It turns out that during the cure process, they’d called a voter to come in and fix their ballot. So the voter did … and then, a few days later, the electoral board voted not to count his ballot. Yet, a few short hours later, the electoral board voted to count a different ballot that was similarly cured. The Democratic observers obviously objected, and the Fairfax electoral board agreed to reverse their earlier vote … but only if the voter would come back in again and sign more forms.

With a grimace for the grief this voter had endured, AG Herring called this voter personally and left a message. Much to his chagrin, he didn't hear anything back. Well, he thought to himself, I guess they’re not going to have their vote counted.

A few days later, Herring found out he was wrong in perhaps the best way possible when the voter returned Herring’s call. He explained to Herring that he was gay, and tired of being treated like a second-class citizen. After consulting a nationally known gay rights organization that he trusted, the voter went back to fix his ballot—solely to ensure that he could vote for Herring.

After being thanked profusely by Herring for seeing the process through, the voter extracted a promise from the AG-elect: “Make sure you fight for the civil rights of all Virginians- not just the LGBT community, but everyone.” It’s a promise, Herring told me, that he was only too happy to honor.

I’ll be the first to admit I was skeptical about AG Herring running for a third term in office. He’s done a great job representing the Commonwealth, especially considering how things were before he was elected in 2013. But I’m a big fan of fresh perspectives.

This interview certainly answered a lot of those questions for me, between discussing the work Herring has done in office and the touchstone stories about what keeps him grounded. It is well worth reading the transcript its entirety. As a personal aside, when the attorney general told me that he refuses to use the name of my community as a shorthand for the white supremacist attack that took place here, I took notice. “Charlottesville” absolutely means so much more than the events of Aug. 12, 2017.

I haven’t decided who I’m voting for for attorney general this year, but I can promise you Mark Herring will get my serious consideration. And if you are a Virginia voter, he absolutely deserves yours, too.

Read the full, unexcerpted interview with Attorney General Herring here.

Visit his campaign website here.

Read previous interviews with Virginia gubernatorial candidates here and here.
 
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