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State Sen. Mark Herring is striving to paint rival Mark Obenshain as a dangerous extremist.
Sen. Mark R. Herring, D-Fairfax, is the Democratic candidate for Virginia attorney general.
Sunday, September 22, 2013
After his nomination as the Democratic candidate for attorney general, it didn’t take long for state Sen. Mark Herring to emphasize the stark contrast between him and state Sen. Mark Obenshain of Harrisonburg, his Republican rival.
On June 15, four days after his victory in a statewide primary, Herring, from Loudoun County, lashed out against Obenshain at the first attorney general debate in Virginia Beach. He painted Obenshain as an extremist with a “dangerous ideology,” who would restrict women’s rights to choose their own health care and discriminate against Virginians based on their sexual orientation.
Herring, 51, has wasted few opportunities to renew the attacks on his opponent, tying him to Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, who, says Herring, has used the power of his office to preserve Virginia’s traditional values and resist social change.
On the attack
“Obenshain has been on the far, far right, on the extreme social agenda, ever since he has been in the Senate — and that’s what Ken Cuccinelli did. And we’ve seen what happens when we elect an attorney general with that kind of ideology-driven agenda,” Herring said in a recent interview.
“It hasn’t been good for Virginia. It’s been costly, it’s undermining the credibility and the integrity of the office, and Mark would be the same way,” he said.
Since his nomination at a statewide GOP convention in May, Obenshain has largely resisted countering Herring’s personal attacks. Instead, he has tried to moderate himself, drawing a clear distinction between his legislative record and the duties of the attorney general, largely to defend Virginia law and to represent and advise the agencies, boards and commissions that make up Virginia’s government.
Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Obenshain’s strategy leaves Herring little choice but to highlight his opponent’s record in the General Assembly.
“Herring appears fairly mild-mannered, but he’s been on the attack. He understands that only an aggressive campaign on his part, plus coattails, can reverse the Virginia trend to vote Republican for AG,” Sabato said. “He can’t let Obenshain get away with redefining himself ideologically.”
Herring said he doesn’t think examining a candidate’s record is being negative.
“In all the years that I’ve been in the Senate and watched Obenshain, he’s never been embarrassed or ashamed with his right-wing social agenda,” he said.
“Now that he is in a statewide election, all of a sudden he wants people to think all of that is irrelevant. But it’s not. It tells a lot about the decisions he would make and the approach he would bring to the office.”
An uphill battle
Herring knows that he faces an uphill battle.
The last Democrat elected attorney general was Mary Sue Terry, who won a second term in 1989. Republicans have won the past five elections for attorney general, even in 2001 and 2005, when Democrats won the governorship.
And while Herring calls out his opponent for what he terms social extremism, the Democrat’s own record in the legislature is to the left of that of his running mate, Sen. Ralph Northam of Norfolk, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor.
For example, Herring has supported such issues as gun control and women’s rights. Most recently, Herring touted his support for overturning Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage. In 2006, 57 percent of Virginians voted to amend the state constitution, defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
Herring voted for that amendment — but later changed his views.
“Over time, I’ve come to view it very differently. I talked to a lot of people, I thought a lot about it, talked to my family and I have seen how I would not want the state to tell my son or my daughter who they can and cannot marry,” Herring said.
“Virginia keeps making a name for itself on late night comedy shows, and every time that happens, whether it’s attacking women’s rights, or whether it’s being hostile to gays and lesbians and minorities, it sends a message that Virginia is an unwelcoming place,” he said.
After the landmark Supreme Court ruling in June which struck down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act, some Republicans expressed doubt that Herring, as attorney general, would defend Virginia’s gay marriage ban if it were challenged in federal court.
For a while, Herring avoided taking a clear position on the issue. When asked in a news conference in July, Herring said he did not want to “speculate” on future court cases.
But in a recent interview, he outlined a strategy that he would take as attorney general if the constitutional amendment were challenged in court.
“Whenever there is that kind of challenge or question about a law the General Assembly has passed, as to whether it is constitutional, what I would do is poll the attorneys in the attorney general’s office who have the expertise in the particular subject matter that is at issue,” Herring said.
“I would review their legal analysis, the arguments, and make a thoughtful or deliberate decision whether or not I thought the law was constitutional or not.”
Contrary to Obenshain, who said that it is the duty of the attorney general to defend all laws on the books in Virginia, Herring said that there are times when the attorney general should not accept a case, “just like when a private attorney should not accept a case. I don’t think an attorney general should defend a law that is unconstitutional.”
Herring said that he would subject Virginia’s new photo ID law, sponsored by Obenshain, which will require voters to present valid photo identification at the polls, to a similar review, “to see if it would stand up to legal scrutiny.”
The photo ID law takes effect in July 2014.
Priorities in office
If elected, Herring wants to set his own tone running the attorney general’s office.
“I want to take politics out of the office and put the law first. What I would do is refocus attention on protecting Virginians and keeping their families safe, protecting the rights of women to access the full range of reproductive health services, protecting voting rights, standing up for equality and making sure that our ethics laws are enforced.”
In light of the Star Scientific controversy around Gov. Bob McDonnell and Cuccinelli, Herring has been a vocal supporter of ethics reform ideas put forth by Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, while criticizing Obenshain for, in Herring’s terms, not being proactive on the issue.
“Public officials should not use their office for private benefits,” Herring said. “Ordinarily, the attorney general would be able to investigate and take appropriate action, but Cuccinelli is knee-deep in it with his own mess. I contacted the Justice Department and wrote a letter in April, asking them to investigate it. Mark Obenshain was silent, for months.”
Obenshain’s campaign dismissed Herring’s attacks.
“We’re familiar with Mark Herring’s false and divisive campaign rhetoric,” said Obenshain spokesman Paul Logan.
“Mark Obenshain believes Virginia voters expect and deserve better. That’s why he’s been traveling all over the state laying out detailed plans for what he’ll do in the office. And that’s why we’re seeing more and more independents and Democrats supporting him in the race,” Logan said.
But Herring also works across the aisle, reaching out to conservatives. Last week, he announced a coalition of Republican ex-legislators who support him, led by former state Sen. Russ Potts of Winchester, who ran for governor as an independent in 2005.
Herring challenged Potts for the state Senate in 2003. Potts won by about 8,000 votes out of nearly 45,000 cast.
“Mark Herring is the toughest and most qualified opponent I have ever faced in my 16 years in the Senate,” Potts said last week, while calling Obenshain “one of the most far-right extremist senators in the history of the Virginia Senate.”
Road to state Senate
Herring said his modest upbringing in Loudoun, which was more rural in the 1960s than today, helped him form his values.
“My parents separated when I was young and my sister and I were raised by our mother. Our family had a lot of ups and downs,” he said.
At 13, Herring bought three hens and supported his family by selling eggs in the neighborhood. Later, he worked construction.
“We didn’t have a lot of money then, and the only way to make it through was hard work,” he remembers.
Herring worked himself through college, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s degree in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia. He earned his law degree at the University of Richmond and opened his own law firm in Leesburg. Herring and Laura, his wife of 24 years, have two children.
After working as the town attorney for Lovettsville in northern Loudoun in the late 1990s, he served on the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors from 2000 to 2003.
In a 2006 special election, Herring was elected to the state Senate, defeating Republican Mick Staton. The seat had opened when then-Sen. William Mims resigned to become chief deputy to McDonnell, then attorney general. Mims is now a justice on the state Supreme Court.
Herring represents the 33rd Senate District, made up of parts of Fairfax and Loudoun counties.
Herring sponsored legislation in 2011 that banned the sale of synthetic drugs in Virginia.
“When I think about how many kids’ lives would have been endangered had we not come together to get that done, it’s staggering,” he said.
Herring was also the patron of a measure that helped protect seniors from financial fraud and abuse. His efforts won him the 2012 “Champion of Justice” award from the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys.
What it takes to win
Obenshain was nominated in a convention in May, while Herring secured his nomination in a costly primary, a month later and less than three weeks before end of the latest reporting period.
“There’s no question, we are going to have the resources that we need [by November],” he said. “We are on track.”
Some political analysts believe that it will not just take more money, but a McAuliffe win to assure victory for Herring on Nov. 5.
“If Cuccinelli wins, Obenshain will be fine,” Sabato said. “Should McAuliffe win — Northam certainly will — the resulting coattail could pull Herring across the finish line even if Obenshain is the strongest Republican,” he said.
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