Jay Jones, who was elected in 2017 to the House of Delegates, in the same 89th district seat in Norfolk that his own father held for many years, has recently announced that he’s exploring the possibility of running for Virginia Attorney General next year. So far no other candidates have announced the intention of running. Jones and I bonded earlier this year over our support of Cory Booker for the Democratic nomination for US President; I couldn’t wait to interview him about his exciting news!
Cindy: Can you tell us just a bit about your family, because I’m guessing that most activists that are new and brought in by the 2016 elections probably don’t actually know about your amazing family history?
Del. Jay Jones: Family is obviously the most important thing to me, and I would be nowhere without my family, and their encouragement and their example. I feel very fortunate that I have generations of people who have come before me who have really made a mark on this world and I’m hoping to follow in their footsteps. I can trace my history on both sides of my family to slaves in the American South; my grandfather–my dad’s dad–was born in Norfolk in 1923, in the Huntersville section of town. He went to college at Virginia State. His education was interrupted by World War II, where he went to serve in the Italian theater. He came back to finish college and met my grandmother, Corinne, on the quad at Virginia State.
He wanted to be a lawyer and unfortunately during that point in our nation’s history, black folks could not go to law school in the South. So they went to Boston, where my grandmother was from originally, and he went to the Boston University School of Law, and then came back and were here for the duration. They were really drawn to the civil rights movement. My grandfather was an attorney and an activist, and even in 2020, I still get folks who said “your grandfather was my lawyer, he helped me buy my house, he helped me get out of a jam,” which really means a lot to me and is really special.
But they really wanted to change Norfolk for the better for people of color, and what they did that is most important and impactful to me is they had my dad and my uncle (his older brother) integrate Ingleside Elementary School in 1960. My dad was six years old, my uncle was ten, and they went up to this school a half mile from their house, where they were not supposed to be and they went in, and faced all of the jeers and the sneers and terrible stuff that that they had to endure. I can never really put myself in their shoes, because at six years old that’s never something that I could have contemplated. Their example was really important to the broader Norfolk community, and people still talk about that today. My grandfather also then was appointed to the School Board in Norfolk, he was the first black member of our school board back in the 60s which was obviously a big deal and a really symbolic thing for this city, which obviously has its challenges and has its roots in history…
His example really informed my father, who integrated not only his elementary but also helped to integrate Virginia Episcopal School in Lynchburg. Then he went to Princeton and to Washington and Lee for law school. He came back and clerked for the Supreme Court of Virginia, the first black clerk, that was 1980, and became an attorney in Norfolk. He got involved in the Democratic Party, and was elected to the House of Delegates in 1987, in the same seat that I currently hold. After he served for 15 years, he went to work for Mark Warner’s administration as Director of Juvenile Justice and after three years there, he was appointed as a judge in juvenile court.
That’s just one side of the family. I’m really fortunate because my mother’s family also got involved in the civil rights movement. They moved to Norfolk in 1960 because my grandfather took a position teaching history at Norfolk State University. They felt that same sort of pull to be involved, and the thing that I remember about them and the civil rights movement is that they were a test case for the YMCA beach club. There was a beach here in Norfolk that was whites-only, and they applied and were denied and a white family with the same identical information and family were accepted. My mother became a lawyer, she was a violent crime prosecutor for a long time. Tell me a story, they lived this stuff. I can’t begin to thank them enough for their sacrifice, the things they’ve done, their courage, their bravery; but it’s really helped inform me of who I am, and what I’ve been trying to do in public life.
My path to politics is a little bit accidental, because I was involved as a kid. I was going to Democratic Party meetings with my dad, was probably one of the only children running around in these rooms, but I got to know folks like Tom Moss and Billy Robinson and Ken Melvin and others who were prominent local Democrats here in Hampton Roads and around the state because of my dad and maybe without really realizing it, that’s what gave me the bug…I’ve gotten a lot of wonderful feedback from folks locally, but also folks from across the state who are very interested in this next generation of leadership, and bringing voices to the table that have not necessarily been there before. As we enter this new Virginia decade, I do think it’s an opportunity for us to really define where we are going and who we want to be, and what we want to project not just to our citizens but to folks across this country.
Cindy: Does your decision on whether to run for AG ultimately hinge at all on what Mark Herring decides to do as far as running for governor? If he decides not to run for governor after all and wants to run again for AG, does that affect your decision?
Jay Jones: I can’t speak for what the Attorney General is going to do, he’s publicly been on record that he’s running for governor, and that’s informing my exploration of succeeding as Attorney General. I could talk about all the things that I would love to do in that office, but you’ve got to ask him about what his next moves are going to be. But I’m certainly planning, or at least looking at it based on his public announcement that he’s still running for governor.
Cindy: Is there anything in particular that you would emulate from what he’s done or that you would think you would do differently from what he’s done?
Jay Jones: I respect everything that he’s done in his time as Attorney General, I think every new Attorney General sort of reinvents the office and it evolves to fit the mold and the vision of the occupant of the office. I’m excited about what I think the office can do. I do admire the work that he’s done as it relates to consumer protection, going after payday lenders; and making sure right now with COVID, making sure Virginians are not being gouged on prices for products that are necessary to our everyday life. I think it’s a powerful platform, and it’s a place to really help as many people as you can; and you want to be visible, you want to be open and accessible to the community. I do believe that most folks probably don’t know what the Attorney General does, and how they can actually benefit their lives on a day to day basis and so certainly it’s important to me to be as visible and as involved in our communities as possible while also executing the job and administering the office to the best of your abilities and to the needs of Virginians.
Cindy: He’s made it look really fun because he sues Donald Trump every week.
Jay Jones: That’s probably not something that was foreseen in 2013 when he was elected, or when anyone was elected before 2016. I think Donald Trump has certainly changed the landscape for all politicians from the federal level to the state level to the local level, because things have become so nationalized, Twitter has become so important because that’s the way that the president speaks to people. It’s really changed the political landscape. I’m not sure if it’s for the near term or what, but in this environment of Donald Trump, attorneys general from across the country have really had an opportunity to step up and to sort of push back in the same way state legislatures have and in the same way that the governors have too.
Cindy: You’ve mentioned bringing a “fresh generation of leadership” in your video, but people may think that you’re somewhat young–you just graduated from UVA Law in 2015. Can you describe a little bit your legal experience, what are some legal accomplishments you’ve had?
Jay Jones: I’ve been practicing now this is my fifth year, going into my sixth year in the Fall. I’m in the courtroom three or four times a week. My practice is very diverse, so I do civil, criminal, some real estate as it comes up; but really have focused my practice on employment and commercial litigation. I do a lot of federal employment litigation as it relates to the EEOC, making sure that folks are getting a fair shake from their employers, and representing folks who have been wronged by a contractor or someone who’s offering services. So I have been in the courtroom as an advocate. I think the local Bar down here would agree that that attitude and those skills would serve well our next Attorney General.
Cindy: When Mark Herring ran in 2013 he said he was going to take the politics out of the office, he said he wanted to be “an independent point of view” regardless of what party the governor belonged to. Do you think it’s correct that the office should be free of politics, or do you think it’s inherently a political office?
Jay Jones: I think ideally it should be free of politics–the stated purpose of the office of the Attorney General is to be a lawyer, you’re defending agencies, you’re defending our higher education institutions, you’re giving legal advice. But I think in these times when things have become so partisan, there has been so much noise from the federal level… like I said, nobody foresaw Donald Trump becoming president. So I think that has totally changed the way that the office can be, but the office from a traditional standpoint is the people’s lawyer, and I hope to be the people’s lawyer. Now more than ever, the Attorney General is going to fight to protect everyday citizens from price gouging, from getting taken advantage of, to making sure that they’re not getting removed from their homes unlawfully during this challenging time. From a broader perspective, I would hope that if I run, and if I’m elected, we’re really focused on making sure that everyday Virginians are being served by the office as best they can because I think we all can agree that your state and local officials have an outsized impact on your life and to use that opportunity, to use that platform to do so would be an honor of my life.
Cindy: What do you think the attorney general’s office can do to make itself as accessible and accountable as possible, and in particular if lawyers who interact with the office have complaints about the way the office itself is run or complaints about a particular deputy, how do they ever have an opportunity to voice that complaint without putting their future clients in jeopardy?
Jay Jones: First, let me dispel the notion here: over the course of a couple decades, folks have come to think of the OAG as the chief prosecutor, which is not what the job is supposed to be. You’re defending state agencies, you’re issuing opinions, giving legal guidance, the office of the Attorney General is not going to be locking up criminals all the time. But I will say that part of what I would hope if I do pursue the office would be to really get down into the communities. I will tell you that my predecessor in the House, Daun Hester, who is now the Treasurer of the City of Norfolk, and she’s been a mentor for me for a long time, she said “look, whatever office that you hold whether it’s a local office or if it’s federal it is about constituent service and you’ve got to get into the communities and you want to challenge yourself, challenge your office to be to be everywhere, to be in situations that aren’t necessarily comfortable for you. I think the average Virginian probably doesn’t know what the office can do or how the office can help, so it’s not just having a robust digital presence it’s making sure that you’ve got an outreach program from all corners of this Commonwealth and especially for the folks who need it the most… I think our obligation as public servants is to be as invested and as involved in our communities from top to bottom as we can.
Cindy: You said you don’t see the job as being the top prosecutor–that leads into some questions that I have about the criminal system and the AG’s role. Do you see the Attorney General’s job as defending convictions that come in on appeals and in habeas proceedings, or do you think it’s the Attorney General’s job to be reviewing convictions to make sure that the cases were accurate and fair and the sentences were appropriate?
Jay Jones: The OAG in my opinion should be offering the best advice and making sure we are adhering to the principles of justice and equity. For me, I think it’s really important because we are in a time when most everybody will acknowledge that our criminal justice system here in Virginia has been disproportionately impactful to black people and brown people more so than anybody else. Which is why it’s important to me, if people are going to associate the OAG with criminal justice, why not have somebody who looks like the population that has been disadvantaged to be the leader on that? It is a powerful position to have somebody who is black or who is brown or who looks like the communities as a symbol, but also to be the one who will use the office to ensure we are administering our justice system as fairly and as impartially as possible.
Cindy: Let me follow up with a more specific question, suppose a case was prosecuted and the accused is facing a severe sentence such as the death penalty and there’s an argument that they had ineffective assistance of counsel, or that there was important evidence withheld from the defense, or any issue like that in a habeas petition. Is it the Attorney General’s job to try to defend against that claim, and to try to uphold the conviction, or is it the Attorney General’s job to dig deeper in and see whether there was ineffective assistance of counsel or whether they agree with that, and accede to the defense’s request for a new trial?
Jay Jones: I think that the OAG has an incredible amount of resources at its disposal, so there’s a way probably to do both. You can opine on whether or not you think that there’s been some sort of misstep along the way, and let’s not kid ourselves, there have been plenty of missteps along the way for plenty of people who are currently incarcerated who probably need a fair shake. Part of what is incumbent upon the AG is to make sure that folks are getting a fair process, and so while defending that conviction, which is part of the enumerated principles of the job, that’s not to say that the AG can’t also say however, there are some glaring issues here that give my office an enormous amount of concern and therefore we’d argue that we need to take a look at that and to get back to a place where we can then say okay, was this conviction properly obtained.
Cindy: One more follow-up: currently there’s a deputy AG who is assigned to review innocence claims–the Director of Actual Innocence; and that same person is also tasked with litigating death penalty cases, which seems like a strange conflict to me. Would you create an independent robust conviction Integrity Unit that would proactively look for cases to review and review formal and informal claims of innocence, including if they’ve pled.
Jay Jones: If I run, and if I’m elected, I do think that there’s a role for independent review. I can’t tell you—it’s an interesting question–whether the contours of that should be that they go out and actively look for claims, or if they’d use the resources–you know that there’s plenty of advocacy groups like the Innocence Project to bring these claims to their attention. Some of these cross my desk, some of these folks have been in my district, and in fact, going back the Norfolk Four, that’s something that’s been at the forefront here in this town. My father actually defended Omar Ballard, the fifth guy in that Norfolk Four, he’s actually serving a life sentence and those other guys have gotten out. So I think the OAG really does have an opportunity to step up and to get more involved in that and really make a cleaner process. That’s certainly something that I’d look at if I ran and if I was elected because I do think that that issue pervades not just here in Virginia but across this country.
Cindy: And the two people who are on Death Row were both also convicted by the same Norfolk prosecutors I believe.
Jay Jones: And I’m sure that the investigator—I think he was in the Norfolk Four case and in a whole bunch of other—there’s deficiencies in our criminal justice system that have been institutionalized over the course of many decades and that’s why there is a criminal justice reform element to this office and again, I think it’s important that you have somebody who looks like those populations to demonstrate, not just to the general population but to the folks who have been incarcerated that no longer are we going to use this system to perpetuate these long-standing issues.
Cindy: I have a couple of short death penalty-specific questions: the first is whether you would set an execution date before all the litigation at the Supreme Court has been finished?
Jay Jones: If I run and if I’m elected, I don’t think it’s useful or helpful for an AG to get involved at that level to set a date until the litigation is concluded.
Cindy: Would you have an open file discovery policy in all death penalty cases?
Jay Jones: I certainly think that the transparency is key in all matters when it comes to our criminal proceedings. Certain Commonwealth’s Attorneys’ offices have that policy already, which I think is a strong step. What we’ve seen is that the best way for folks to get their fair shake throughout the process is for folks to have access to all the information, and so I certainly think that there’s a chance for us to take a real step in increasing transparency as it relates to death penalty cases if I’m elected.
Cindy: The last is also about transparency: currently Virginia allows compounded lethal injection drugs and prevents witnesses from seeing the start of the execution by keeping up a curtain–they changed the policy after Ricky Gray when it took 30 minutes to get an IV started, so they changed their policy so that they do everything behind a curtain until the very end. Do you have concerns about the secrecy around lethal injections and how would you approach when there are legal challenges to Virginia’s lethal injection protocol?
Jay Jones: Certainly there’s a lot of concern, and appropriate attention that is put on the lethal injection process, not just here but across this country, and how we are administering these processes, which I think gives a lot of us pause. But if elected we would hopefully only have to use that mechanism as a last resort. There is a movement here across the country to rid us of the death penalty. There are folks who would say that it is not a deterrent, it does not show any statistical correlation to deterring folks from committing these heinous crimes. But if we are subjected to doing it, you want to do it in the most transparent open way possible and give everybody a chance to weigh in.
Cindy: What would you like to do as attorney general to reduce the corporate influence in our political system and just to level the playing field?
Jay Jones: The Attorney General has an incredible platform in that regard, but that really starts with the legislature, and we’ve got an opportunity to address some campaign finance reform issues, to reshape the way that you regulate some of our industries here in Virginia. I think those conversations are underway and that’s a good thing, but as Attorney General, your job is enforcing the rules on the books as the legislature passes and the governor signs them. To the extent that folks are not doing what they’re supposed to do and they’re not abiding by the rules, if I run and if I’m elected, we will pursue that as it relates to price gouging and competition and all of those things because again, this is a Commonwealth and folks deserve a fair shot and I think that’s what we’re all about. If as AG you have to step in, that’s your task and that’s what you do, because this is about eight and a half million people across the state, and you’re protecting them and you are making sure they’re not being taken advantage of by a payday lender, by a utility, by a person who’s masquerading as someone who’s supposed to offer services. Those are the things that you hope to do that people will look at, and I’m excited by the opportunity and the possibility of doing those.
Cindy: I recall a couple of months ago you sent a request to Mark Herring’s office for clarification on the so-called Second Amendment sanctuaries. What exactly is the role of the AG’s office to navigate between local law enforcement (or local prosecutors for that matter) and the laws?
Jay Jones: In that situation, certainly many of us knew the answer to the question before it was asked, but I was in a position where we were looking for guidance for not just Norfolk, because Norfolk was getting inundated with requests to do this, but for folks across the state, because it has become an issue that has moved to the forefront. The AG did exactly what I asked him to do, which was to opine on this issue and I think you hear a lot about the AG calling balls and strikes and he gave an opinion of the law which I hope was helpful, certainly it was helpful to the city of Norfolk and other surrounding localities. I think if asked, the AG should provide the guidance as the chief legal officer for the state that’s what the office is there for. I think there were a lot of folks who were misconstruing the interplay between the state and local governments, so I think it’s an interesting role and that just happened to be issue that popped up after the election last year. Who knows how those issues will manifest going forward.
Cindy: As the son of a long-serving legislator and current legislator yourself what does the Virginia Way mean to you? Do you think it is the polite civility and ability to compromise between political parties or is it the influence of big corporations and their lobbyists on the political process which is how we seem to define it today or both or neither?
Jay Jones: My answer is probably neither. I was fortunate to serve with David Toscano for a couple of years, and after he retired-he’s in the middle of writing a book, and he shared with me a couple of passages about the history of the Virginia Way. It’s actually deeply rooted in racism and it’s a way to institutionalize Jim Crow era laws and institutionalize disproportionately impactful laws at the expense of communities of color. So I’m never really particularly happy to hear that phrase uttered anywhere. I do think Virginia has at least attempted to perpetuate an idea of civility in our political discourse but I do also think that over the last elections cycles we’ve seen some cracks in the foundation of what I think people believe to be the commonly accepted way of doing things; that’s been helpful for our discourse. You’ve seen robust debate in the House and Senate on a lot of issues over the last few years, I think we’ve made an incredible amount of headway on issues that have been sort of stalled for quite some time—we expanded Medicaid, we were at a point when our budget was going to be working for all Virginians and not just some; we passed common sense gun laws. There might be a new Virginia Way that’s emerging that is sort of under construction, if you will, but certainly the historical connotations of that are probably not what people think. I do believe that we’re now at a crossroads, we have an opportunity to define ourselves here as Virginians going forward as we enter this new decade, and that’s why I’m so excited for a new generation of leadership, new voices at the table, for folks who look like what Virginia looks like, who have a diverse history of experiences to bring to this state.