Herring, Adams go on attack in first debate of Virginia attorney general’s race

VIRGINIA BEACH — State Attorney General Mark R. Herring and GOP challenger John Adams leveled spirited attacks over social issues and the role of the office Saturday in the first debate of the November election.

They offered opposite views on abortion, gay rights, religious liberties and actions by the Trump administration on the environment and immigration in a face-off before members of the Virginia State Bar during its annual meeting, held at the Sheraton Virginia Beach Oceanfront Hotel.

Herring, a former state senator from Loudoun County, is seeking re-election after becoming Virginia’s first Democratic attorney general since 1994. Adams, a white-collar defense lawyer from Chesterfield County, got the GOP nomination after state Del. Robert B. Bell, R-Albemarle, withdrew from the primary.

Herring said Adams, who is opposed to gay marriage and abortion rights, would be “the attorney general for the Republican caucus” if elected. Adams said Herring has applied his own personal views to the law rather than the intent of the legislature and the people.

Both have been on the attack in fundraising emails, but Saturday’s debate allowed Adams the first chance face-to-face.

“I decided to get into the arena for the first time because of what I believe is the extreme politicization of the Attorney General’s Office,” he said. “The way to get the politics out of the Attorney General’s Office is to get the politicians out of the Attorney General’s Office.

“I will always put the interests of the commonwealth of Virginia ahead of my own political or personal preferences.”

If Washington “exceeds its constitutional authority, … I will fight back,” Adams said.

Herring said his love for helping people and righting wrongs makes attorney general the best job. He highlighted his record on public safety, working with law enforcement to fight opioid addiction, pushing for testing of evidence in untested sexual assault cases, and in fighting Medicaid fraud.

“Voters will have a stark choice,” Herring said. “And there’s some interesting things in John’s background but he doesn’t talk that much about the work that he’s done more recently. He has been part of a powerful Richmond law firm for the last seven years, and he and his team brag about how they specialize in shielding people who are involved in kickbacks, pyramid schemes, embezzlement, money laundering, tax fraud, bribery, obstruction of justice. It’s astounding.”

Herring said Adams protects the kind of people prosecutors work hard to bring to justice. “It’s like he’s trying to be the anti-attorney general.”

Adams, a former federal prosecutor, is on a leave of absence from law firm McGuireWoods, where he is chair of the government investigations and white-collar litigation department.

The firm and its consulting arm are one of the most powerful political entities in the state, representing corporations like Dominion Energy and high-profile players such as Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City; former Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones; and Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the businessman who testified that he tried to bribe then-Gov. Bob McDonnell.

McGuireWoods Chairman Richard Cullen is now representing Vice President Mike Pence amid a special counsel investigation involving Russia. Cullen, who completed Jim Gilmore’s term as attorney general, and who has a house in Virginia Beach, attended Saturday’s debate.

Adams defended his work.

“I’m a lawyer and I have clients and I am proud to do what I do on behalf of my clients,” he said. “Everyone deserves adequate representation.”

Abortion and birth control

Herring said Adams’ views on abortion are comparable to those of former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the 2013 GOP nominee for governor.

“He would ban abortion in all cases. He would even limit access to birth control,” Herring said.

Herring also referenced Adams’ work on behalf of Hobby Lobby. The retailer won a 5-4 decision in 2014 at the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that requiring family-owned companies to pay for contraception for employees violated religious freedom.

“Do you know what those cases were about? Limiting access to birth control,” Herring said. “He fought at the Supreme Court twice for that.”

Adams said his position had nothing to do with birth control, but instead religious freedom.

“I have zero interest in limiting women’s access to birth control. None. It’s not an issue I think about. It’s not an issue I care about,” Adams said.

“What I do care about is not allowing the government to force people — the Little Sisters of the Poor — to take actions that violate their religious faith. And I will stand up for the liberty of our fellow citizens to exercise their religious faith.”

When Herring later repeated his attack, Adams grew lively and repeated that his concern was religious freedom.

“There he goes again,” Adams said, referring to himself in third person: “John does not care about women’s access to birth control and limiting it.”

Gay rights

Herring gained national attention when he took office in January 2014 for refusing to support Virginia’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court later made the right to gay marriage the law of the land.

Adams has attacked Herring for not upholding the state law.

On Saturday, he noted that Herring had voted as a state senator for the amendment banning gay marriage — which Virginia voters approved in 2006 — and later changed his mind.

“What bothered me has nothing to do with the gay marriage decision, whatever you think about it,” Adams said. “What bothered me was that the attorney general for a state that had passed a constitutional amendment would not just refuse to defend the law … but that he would actually join the other side and attack his clients’ position.”

Herring said Adams would roll back rights and risk putting Virginia into economic uncertainty comparable to North Carolina after that state approved controversial measures on gay rights and use of bathrooms.

“You got into this race because of what I did on marriage equality,” Herring told him. “You want to roll it back. That’s why you got into this race in the first place.”

Herring said the attorney general should stand up for LGBT rights.

“And you know what? It’s also right on the law. Every single court we were in, we won. Even a conservative Supreme Court agreed we did the right thing.”

Trump’s travel ban

Herring has been among state attorneys general who fought both of the Trump administration’s proposed temporary travel bans from certain Muslim-majority countries. The constitutionality of the revised proposal now rests with the U.S. Supreme Court.

The initial ban caused Virginians to be detained at airports, and Herring and other officials traveled to Washington Dulles International Airport for a news conference.

“When people’s rights and Virginians are harmed, we’ve got to stand up,” Herring said.

Adams disagreed and said it wasn’t Herring’s job to go to Dulles “in the midst of a very tense and emotional situation and get in front of a bunch of microphones and feed those flames.”

Adams sided with Trump on the need for a temporary travel ban.

“I am deeply concerned about a case where we now have courts second-guessing the commander in chief on questions related to national security,” he said. “He is charged with keeping America safe, and there’s a lot going on in the world right now that has people unsettled.”

A person who disagrees with the policy should challenge it through the political process, he said. The court rulings stopping the ban from taking effect “should be troubling to us,” he added.

Gun rights

Adams and Herring disagree on stricter background checks at gun shows.

In late 2015, Herring took action to limit people from other states from carrying concealed weapons in Virginia if their state’s permit requirements didn’t match Virginia’s. The move was controversial, and a deal between Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and legislative Republicans overturned it.

Adams brought that up Saturday.

“Even his own governor overruled him by legislation with the Republicans within a few months,” Adams said.

Herring called for a return to Virginia’s previous policy of only allowing one handgun purchase a month. (McDonnell signed a repeal of the law in 2012.) Herring said Adams’ views were out of line with those of the public.

“I realize it’s not my job to close the gun show loophole,” Adams said. “It’s the job of the Virginia legislature, and what they need is proper legal advice.”

As a lawyer, he said, he would defend whatever decision the legislature took.

The debate moderator was Barbara Hamm Lee, host of “Another View,” a radio show on WHRO in Hampton Roads.

This story originally appeared in the Richmond Times Dispatch.