As he prepares to leave office after eight incredibly productive years, during which he played a huge role in moving Virginia forward on a wide array of fronts, Attorney General Mark Herring certainly has a lot to be proud of. Unfortunately, Herring on Saturday will be turning the job over to someone (Republican Jason Miyares) who, let’s just say, does NOT share Herring’s vision or values, and who almost certainly will NOT be working to move Virginia forward. So we’ll obviously have to be vigilant in keeping an eye on that and in pushing back when necessary.
For now, though, let’s focus on Mark Herring’s eight years in office, what he accomplished, how he views the office, and what his plans might be for the future. See below for a condensed transcript of my chat with Mark Herring earlier this afternoon. And *thank you* to Mark Herring for his 20+ years of public service to Virginia, including the past eight years as by *far* the greatest Attorney General Virginia has ever had. Thank you!
Blue Virginia: Thanks for all your great work…it’s been an amazing two terms! What do you think were your major accomplishments during your eight years as AG? Is there anything you wanted to accomplish but weren’t able to?
AG Mark Herring – “Broadly speaking, I have been doing a lot of reflections on the last eight years, and I’m really feeling a tremendous sense of inner peace, pride and satisfaction from the amazing work that my team and I have done over the last eight years. I brought a whole new vision for the job, and the results are truly historic. I had a vision for the job as the people’s lawyer, someone who would stand up and fight for justice, equality and opportunity for all Virginians. I was never afraid to fight injustice and to stand up for people who are vulnerable, discriminated against or marginalized. And when you think about the difference between where we were 10 years ago when I first decided to run and where we are today, it’s truly transformative. Ten years ago, Virginia was literally persecuting a UVA professor [Michael Mann] for researching climate change. Virginia was doing everything it could to close women’s health clinics and limit access to abortion services. It was doing everything it could to further marginalize LGBTQ Virginians. And we put a stop to all of that, and we took up the side of people and helping them to really be more equal, and more fair in our Commonwealth – a more inclusive and prosperous place than it’s ever been before.” (won a landmark case for marriage equality; made sure DREAMers could get an affordable education in Virginia; successfully defended the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan from legal attack; got the first preliminary injunction to block Trump’s unAmerican Muslim ban; successfully defended attacks against the Affordable Care Act). “The thing that I’ll remember the most is all the people that we’ve been able to help; we have touched the lives of millions of Virginians in a positive way.” (e.g., breast cancer survivors worried about preexisting condition protections going away; members of the LGBTQ community on marriage equality; DREAMers literally in tears to be able to have access to an affordable higher education), “I have always tried to put people first…and to use the law as a tool to help our fellow Virginians.” “The wealthy, the well-connected, big corporations, they have lots of money and resources to protect their interests. But everybody else needs to have an Attorney General who will stand up and fight for them, and that’s one of the things that I’m really proud of.”
Blue Virginia: Having held the job for eight years, you certainly know that office inside and out. In your view, how much positive for Virginia can a good AG do, and how much damage to Virginia can a bad AG do? On a related note, of course, you won your first election for AG by just 165 votes out of 2.2 million cast, over a far-right-wing guy, Mark Obenshain…just trying to imagine how differently things would have gone with Obenshain instead of you as AG.
AG Mark Herring: I remember that night [at the 2013 Democratic “victory party” in Tysons Corner]. We were in the hotel room watching the results come in. Some of my campaign staff said, I think there are still enough precincts out there. As we were writing the concession speech, more results came in and it got closer and closer. So then I wrote a speech about how it’s going to be a long night. “Even then, as close as it was, I never hesitated to fight injustice and to stand up for people who really needed the arm and shield to protect them, right out of the box…” “That really showed a lot of people that their grassroots activism and work on campaigns can make a difference. With a race that close, it really showed that, well, what would have happened if maybe some of the people who phone banked or knocked on doors didn’t do that, it might have gone the other way. And then all those accomplishments that I just talked about would probably never have happened, or at least not as quickly as they did. So I think it really helped energize grassroots Democrats and progressives to say, hey, we can make policy change, we can improve the lives of people in our communities by engaging in the political process…and trying to help elect people who will stand up and fight for us.”
“This is a job I absolutely love…law…public policy…helping people…so yes, I would have liked to be able to continue the work, but…it in no way takes away from an incredible run of 8, 10 years that I’ve been engaged in this.”
Blue Virginia: What % of the Virginia AG’s job do you view as being “Virginia’s Top Cop” – which is exactly how Miyares has described the job – and what % is all other parts of the job?
AG Mark Herring: “I think Virginia voters in the past, before I ran in 2013, probably associated the job primarily with law enforcement and criminal prosecution. But I presented a different vision. And while public safety has always been a big priority for me as AG, I also know there are a lot of other aspects to the job. And I would stack my public safety record up against anyone’s. We eliminated the backlog of untested rape kits. We created new tools including things like the Hampton Roads human trafficking task force which is becoming a national model…invested huge amounts of resources into protecting children from exploitation…continued to keep violent predators out of our communities. So I’ll stack my public safety record up against anyone’s.” There’s also a lot of other aspects to the job that impact everyone’s lives on a day-to-day basis: protect people’s healthcare, crack down on predatory lending, combating the opioid crisis and helping to break down the stigma of addition, holding pharmaceutical companies accountable for their role in the opioid crisis, protecting the rights of new Virginians and new Americans, protecting a woman’s right to choose, new gun safety laws. “All of these are victories that once seemed unimaginable. But these are historic achievements that I think illustrate how an AG can really help our fellow Virginians…I think I’ve helped to change people’s expectations of what an AG should do and set a high standard and I think Virginians will demand that their AG is one who stands up and fights for them.”
Blue Virginia: AG-elect Jason Miyares talks a LOT about crime, and spends a lot of time going after what he calls “far left Commonwealth Attorneys” for supposedly putting “victims and law-abiding citizens before criminals.” What do you think about Miyares’ attacks on progressive prosecutors?
AG Mark Herring: “I have not been a person to try to exploit people’s fears. Instead, when it comes to criminal justice and meeting our public safety goals, I think they go hand in hand. I think making sure that we are continuing to work to make our criminal justice system more fair, constantly looking at ways to make policing safer and better – those are things that help advance our public safety goals because the public will have more confidence in our criminal justice system, people will have more trust in the law enforcement that serves their communities. So I don’t see that those work at cross purposes, rather they go hand in hand.”
On the relationship between the AG’s office and CAs: “We’re all in this together, and if we work cooperatively with one another, the strengths that we can each bring serve as kind of a force multiplier and advance the community’s and the Commonwealth’s goals.” Herring said he believes in “working cooperatively [with Commonwealth’s Attorneys offices, not by trying to bully or push our way around.” He also noted, “Most crimes are investigated and prosecuted at the local level with separately elected Commonwealth’s Attorneys.”
Blue Virginia: What are your plans for the future? Do you plan to stay involved in Virginia politics? Run for future office? Or after being involved in politics for 20+ years, are you planning to do something different?
AG Mark Herring: “I know I’m going to have a lot of great professional opportunities in the future.” Says he’s going to take some time to catch his breath, then start thinking about what the next chapter is going to look like. On the political side, he says he’s rejoined his local committee. “I’m sure I will stay involved in some way…we’ll see what that looks like in the future.”
Blue Virginia: Do you have any recommendations for Virginia Democrats on how best to defend the tremendous progress we’ve made the past few years?
AG Mark Herring: “I think it’s important for Democrats when making arguments about why voters should elect their candidates or to continue to strengthen the policies that we’ve gotten through successful is to focus on how they affect people [in their neighborhood, community, family…then you completely disarm a lot of the rhetoric that surrounds the back-and-forth that often happens in civic discourse and brings it down to a real live situation.”
On the last election: “it was an election which favored Republicans as the party out of power in Washington. I think as Democrats, we need to think hard about our messaging and how that message is getting delivered, and make sure that it’s communicated in a way that really resonates with rank-and-file voters.”
Blue Virginia: Do you have any thoughts as to why the Trump prosecutions haven’t moved forward more quickly? Is it that if you have the resources and are willing to file appeal after appeal, you can drag things on for years.
AG Mark Herring: “That is what has happened in this case.”
Blue Virginia: What was it like being on the front lines when Trump came into office? Was there a sense among Democratic AGs that you were defending American democracy under assault, or was it less dramatic than that?
AG Mark Herring: “Well, we have been literally defending our democracy…Most of us as Democrats, waking up the day after the 2016 election was awful. I will say, it was the Women’s March that really gave me hope that we could make it through the next four years…As it turned out, within just a few weeks we were right in the mix…Trump came out with his unAmerican Muslim ban…the next day I was at Dulles Airport; I’ll never forget the chaos that was unfolding. I remember a woman, when she heard that I was the Attorney General, pushed her way through the crowd and literally grabbed the back of my coat and pleaded with me, ‘please they have my 7-year-old son and won’t tell me anything.’ “I remember standing there telling America why this was so wrong, why this was unconstitutional, why this was unAmerican.” “Ultimately, we got involved in court…Suing the president of the United States is not something that you do lightly…but I felt compelled to do this; this is happening in our own backyard at Dulles Airport, and Virginia is the home of the statute for religious freedom…Nobody, especially a president, should be able to condition entry into the United States based on your religion or your faith. And that it is important for us as a state to protect Virginians, and that’s what we did…we got the first…preliminary injunction blocking it…And I remember to some people who live in Northern Virginia who happen to be Muslim, and they said when [Trump’s Muslim ban came out, they didn’t recognize what was happening in their country, but they felt at home in Virginia because they saw me at Dulles Airport and going to court fighting back against it and standing up for them.”
Blue Virginia: Would a Republican AG have done what you did in fighting back against Trump’s Muslim ban?
AG Mark Herring: “Well, the other Republican AGs came to the support of Trump over and over again…”