Politicians General: A fight in Virginia over the proper role of an AG.

Mark Herring, Virginia’s attorney general, wanted to run for governor this fall. But Terry McAuliffe, the current governor, thought otherwise. And his endorsement of lieutenant governor Ralph Northam for the Democratic nomination for governor sent a blunt message to Herring: forget it.

Crestfallen but obedient, Herring has. He’s running for reelection. But he acts like a gubernatorial candidate, sounds like one, and may be one four years from now. When he was elected in 2013, he promised to get politics out of the attorney general’s office. He’s failed at that, mainly for lack of trying.

In a debate in June with his Republican opponent John Adams, Herring, 56, described himself this way: “When I see a problem, I want to fix it. When I see a wrong, I want to set it right. .  .  . Problems need to be fixed.”

Herring isn’t waiting for them to reach his desk in Richmond. In January, when President Trump’s temporary travel ban kept some passengers from several “Muslim-majority” countries from entering America, Herring rushed to Dulles airport to join McAuliffe at a press conference denouncing Trump.

In a sense, Herring has things backwards. Over the past four years, McAuliffe accomplished little as governor. He was stymied by the house of delegates, which is controlled by Republicans and led by McAuliffe’s nemesis, speaker William Howell. But Herring did plenty, acting more like a liberal politician than an attorney general.

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As a state senator, Herring voted for an amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, but as AG he refused to defend the law in federal court. Nor did he defend Virginia’s voter ID law or state regulations on abortion clinics. He also backed in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants and killed reciprocity for those with concealed carry gun permits from other states.

All this political activity created the issue on which Adams has based his campaign. He has vowed to be a nonpolitical AG, doing what Herring promised but didn’t. “The way to get politics out of the AG’s office is to get the politicians out of the attorney general’s office,” he said in the debate.

Adams is an impressive candidate, especially for someone who’s never run before. He’s a strong debater and a genial campaigner. Herring has led in polls from the beginning, but the margin has slipped to mid-to-low single digits in the weeks before the November 7 election.

A relative of President John Adams, he’s from Chesterfield County, a Richmond suburb. Herring is from northern Virginia. Adams was a Supreme Court law clerk for Clarence Thomas, a federal prosecutor, and an associate counsel in President George W. Bush’s White House. Prior to running, he worked for the McGuire Wood law firm in Richmond.

It was Herring’s “picking and choosing” which state actions to defend and his forays into politics that prompted Adams to run. He cleared the Republican field of primary challengers, notably state senator Mark Obenshain, whom Herring defeated in 2013 by 165 votes out of 2.2 million cast.

Herring says he wants to be “attorney general for all Virginians,” which sounds more like a justification for indulging in politics than a job description. Adams is quite specific. As AG, he wouldn’t be the lawyer “for the Republican caucus” in the general assembly, as Herring claims. And “no one will refer to me as the lawyer for the governor. .  .  . The governor has his own lawyer. The attorney general is the lawyer of the Commonwealth of Virginia.” That means defending state laws and actions and advising the legislature if it wanders in unconstitutional directions.

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The contrast with Adams’s spots is striking. “If you’re ready to get the politics out of the attorney general’s office, join me,” Adams says. He uses a cutout of President Adams in one ad and says grinningly, “I may be related to this guy, but this is my first campaign.”

The June debate was civil. So were visits by Herring and Adams to speak at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia recently. “They are quiet, even a bit shy, and not at all pompous,” said Professor Larry Sabato. The separate meetings “ran overtime because everyone was enjoying the conversation. That doesn’t happen too often.” After the blitz of TV ads, it’s not likely to happen again.

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