LANDSDOWNE — Democratic Attorney General Mark R. Herring and GOP challenger John Adams on Friday morning debated gay marriage, the law, business growth and whether Herring has been too political in office.
The two appeared before the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce at the National Conference Center in Lansdowne to answer questions about issues on the chamber's public policy agenda. It was their second and final debate before the Nov. 7 general election.
Herring cited his endorsements by business groups and called himself a "pro-business, pro-opportunity attorney general," tying himself to Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration economic successes and capital investment announcements. Adams countered by reminding the chamber audience that Herring opposes Virginia's "right to work" law, which makes it illegal for an employer to require union membership.
Herring attacked Adams over his conservative stances on social issues, saying Adams wants to ban abortion in all cases.
"John is fixated on conservative social issues. We've had experience with that and it wasn’t good," Herring said.
Adams replied: "I think Mark is fixated on social issues. I’m fixated on the law. The law matters."
Despite policy disagreements, the race for attorney general has remained civil. Herring, a former state senator, is seeking a second term. Adams, a white-collar litigation supervisor at McGuireWoods, is a first-time candidate.
Herring was, at one point in his term, thought to be a possible candidate for governor this year. He opted to seek re-election.
Adams, a former federal prosecutor, stayed after the debate to chat with reporters and lamented on Twitter that the Herring campaign would not agree to a livestream. Herring left the debate without taking a question from an Associated Press reporter who approached him.
The issue of gay marriage has been a factor in the race. Adams, an opponent, argues that regardless of his personal position, he would have defended Virginia's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage.
Herring gained national attention by opposing it, and the the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage the law of the land.
When asked Friday about whether an attorney general should have discretion in which laws to defend, Herring responded that the attorney general should not defend a state law in "rare, rare instances" when it conflicts with a federal law or the Constitution.
On Virginia's same-sex marriage ban, Herring said, "I looked carefully at the law, took an independent view and concluded if Virginia's marriage ban came before the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court would likely strike it down.
"I had to think about, well, in what circumstances is it appropriate for an attorney general to take up the side of the challengers. And I thought in this case it was exactly the right thing to do. Because the fundamental right to marry of so many Virginians was at stake and because of our own unique history on getting landmark civil rights cases wrong and going all the way up to the Supreme Court defending things like school segregation, (and a ban on) interracial marriage."
Adams called Herring's move a problem because Herring didn't uphold a law passed by the citizens.
Herring's position was "an unbelievable position for a lawyer for a client to take," Adams said. "Virginia was entitled to have its attorney general defend the case. ... He got on the other side and sued his own client."
Adams also noted that Herring, as a state senator, voted against legal same-sex marriage.
"It's politics, ladies and gentleman," Adams said. "When he was a senator, politically, it was worth voting for and supporting that amendment. And politically he changed his mind when he was the attorney general. And that has to stop."
The candidates discussed other issues including drug addiction, judicial vacancies and efforts to combat Medicaid fraud. Adams brought up two recent news reports about Herring's office, one being a decision by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the legislature's watchdog, to do a review of the attorney general's office.
Adams said that should include a look at how Herring used money from a settlement to give raises to select political appointees and his chief of staff, Kevin O'Holleran, who managed Herring's 2013 campaign for attorney general.
Herring called the JLARC review - pushed by Republicans - "election-year shenanigans" and added: "Maybe John got some of his buddies in the General Assembly to push a review through a few weeks before the election."
Adams responded: "I don't really have that many buddies in the General Assembly. I've never been in politics before."
Adams also referenced a complaint made to the Office of the State Inspector General about how Herring's office handled a 2016 settlement in a lawsuit filed against Dominion Energy over the death of a little girl who drowned at Dominion-owned Lake Anna. He said the inspector general's office is investigating.
Dominion brought the state into the lawsuit. Then-state senator and now U.S. Rep. A. Donald McEachin, a Democrat and political ally of Herring, represented the girl's family and had filed suit against only Dominion. Dominion argued that the state should be responsible for any financial judgment against the company, and the fraud complaint alleges that Herring's office did not challenge Dominion's claim.
Of a $5 million settlement, Dominion paid $1 million while the state paid $4 million. McEachin's law firm received $2 million of the settlement. Herring's office has defended the agreement, saying the governor and numerous lawyers inside the office and outside the attorney general's office agreed with how it was handled.