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Candidates for Va. attorney general sharpen attacks in what could be final debate

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/13/2021 Justin Jouvenal

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring painted his Republican challenger as a conservative throwback in a debate Wednesday, someone who would undo hard-won progress on a host of critical issues from gun safety to same-sex marriage to health care.

Del. Jason Miyares attacked Herring, a Democrat, as someone who put politics above public safety. He said the attorney general had pursued policies that failed to hold violent offenders accountable and protect victims of crime.

Amid polls showing a tightening race, the candidates spent much of what could be their final encounter before Virginians head to the polls in November launching jabs and framing each other as too extreme for mainstream voters.

“[Miyares’s] record shows he is a right-wing Cuccinelli-style conservative who would abuse the office and undermine both our safety and our rights,” Herring said in his opening statement, referring to Virginia’s former Republican attorney general Ken Cuccinelli.

Herring then ticked off a list of differences between himself and Miyares. He said he had defended gun control measures in the state, but Miyares would try to roll them back. Herring said he had worked to protect access to abortion, but Miyares opposes the procedure in most situations. Herring said he had won a landmark ruling on same-sex marriage, but Miyares was hopelessly mired in the past on the issue.

Miyares offered his own sharp critique in his initial remarks.

“Our murder rate is the highest it’s been in Virginia in decades,” Miyares said. “We have a criminal-first, victim-last mind-set that has come forth from one-party rule in Richmond. I think we need a check and balance.”

Miyares went on to say Herring was part of that problem because he had failed to speak up about the early release of a handful of violent felons by the state’s parole board, which was criticized by the state’s inspector general over its handling of the cases. Miyares returned to the theme more than any other during the debate in Leesburg that was sponsored by the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce.

He also blasted Herring for endorsing liberal Fairfax and Loudoun county prosecutors, who Miyares said had been too lenient in a series of recent cases involving domestic violence and child sex abuse.

[Virginia family fights proposed plea deal in child sex abuse case]

Herring pushed back on the parole board criticism, saying he had no control over their decisions and cited a political fact-checking site that found Miyares’s efforts to tie Herring to its controversial actions were unfounded.

Herring criticized Miyares more than once over his stance on the debate over the recent removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond. Herring said such statues are weighty symbols of discrimination that must go. He made reference to a Confederate statue that stood outside the Loudoun County courthouse until last year.

“How do you tell a Black man or Black women they can get a fair hearing inside this room when the courthouse is literally blocked by a monument to a system that has enslaved millions,” Herring said.

Miyares didn’t address the statue removal during the debate, but said in an interview with The Washington Post he supported keeping the Lee statue, but advocated supplementing it with those of prominent Black Virginians, like former governor Douglas Wilder.

If elected, Miyares said he would investigate the parole board’s actions leading up to its release of the violent felons, support a law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls and push for a new law that would allow the attorney general’s office to take over domestic violence and child sex crimes cases that local prosecutors decline to prosecute to the full extent of the law.

“You have some Commonwealth’s Attorneys up here who have forgotten their victims,” Miyares said of the prosecutors in Loudoun and Fairfax. “If you are not willing to do your own job, well let me do it for you.”

Besides sparring on issues, Herring and Miyares outlined starkly different visions about the proper role of the attorney general. The office provides legal advice to state government and officials, prosecutes some crimes and defends the constitutionality of state laws, among other duties.

Herring described himself as the “people’s attorney,” a legal advocate for the poor, the discriminated against and others who need the help and protection of the law. Miyares criticized Herring for politicizing the attorney general’s office, saying he infused ideology into his decisions. He said he would focus on calling “balls and strikes.”

Miyares would be the state’s first Latino attorney general if he wins in the November election. During the debate, he highlighted his mother’s flight from Cuba in the 1960s and the joy he experienced when she cast a ballot for her son in a race for the Virginia House of Delegates.

Miyares, a former prosecutor, grew up in Virginia Beach and has represented the area in the General Assembly since 2015.

Herring is seeking to become one of Virginia’s longest-running attorneys general by winning his third term. He was first elected in 2013 and has carved out a record as one of Virginia’s most liberal top lawyers.

He gained national prominence in 2017 after declining to defend the ban on same-sex marriage. He has also won the nation’s first preliminary injunction against former president Donald Trump’s ban on travelers from some Muslim-majority nations and took action to get onerous restrictions on Virginia’s abortion clinics lifted.

He previously served as a state senator and on the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors.

[Republicans gain ground on Democrats in Virginia races, poll shows]

The debate came the week after a survey by Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center showed Republican candidates gaining ground on their Democratic opponents in November’s races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Herring led Miyares in that poll 49 percent to 43 percent, a six-point drop from a similar poll in August.

It’s unclear if the candidates will debate again. A Richmond TV station has invited both to a forum on Oct. 18, but so far only Miyares has accepted. The election is Nov. 2.

Youth voter turnout in Virginia soared with Trump in office. Will it stay that way? In dramatic 1 a.m. reversal, Alexandria City Council votes to put police back in schools temporarily Virginia Del. Jason Miyares (R), left, a candidate for state attorney general, and Attorney General Mark Herring (D) shake hands after a debate in Leesburg, Va., on Oct. 13. © Eric Lee/for The Washington Post Virginia Del. Jason Miyares (R), left, a candidate for state attorney general, and Attorney General Mark Herring (D) shake hands after a debate in Leesburg, Va., on Oct. 13.
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