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Wednesday, July 28, 2021

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Democratic attorney general candidates debate police reform, injustice in Virginia

<p>Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring. <em>Photo courtesy of Herring's campaign </em><a href="https://herringforag.com" target="_blank"><em>website</em></a><em>.&nbsp;</em></p>

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring. Photo courtesy of Herring's campaign website

Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, criticized incumbent Attorney General Mark Herring in a debate on Wednesday between the Democratic candidates, saying that Herring allowed over-policing and injustice during his tenure.

The Democratic party will select its candidate on June 8. 

Jones, who drew on his experiences as a Black man, would move the office into a new era regarding policing and racial justice, he said. Jones would be the first Black attorney general in the state if elected, according to the Washington Post

Jones is also nearly 30 years younger than Herring, which was highlighted in a question during the debate.

Herring referenced his record as one of the most liberal attorneys general in state history. His record includes defending same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization, testing a backlog of rape kits and suing the Trump administration over policies such as the “Muslim Ban,” according to the Post

“We have made enormous progress over the last eight years, and we can't go back; we need to keep that progress and keep it going and build on it,” Herring said in his opening statement. “And I've got the experience and know how to do it. I have totally transformed my job into a progressive powerhouse and shown Virginians just what an attorney general could do.”

Herring, who has served two terms as attorney general, entered and dropped out of the gubernatorial race last year, according to the Roanoke Times

In response to questions regarding Herring’s response to events such as the Windsor traffic stop -- which was criticized by Democratic lawmakers and Jones as reactive instead of proactive -- Jones called out Herring, saying he failed to act in the recent shootings by police officers in Virginia Beach and Spotsylvania

In March, Jones and other Democratic lawmakers called on Herring to conduct an investigation on the Virginia Beach shooting, according to the Times-Dispatch. At the time, a spokeswoman for Herring said he could not conduct the investigation according to state law and that he supported the investigation by local police, according to the Times-Dispatch. 

At the debate, Herring defended himself saying he went to Virginia Beach to meet with Lynch’s father, and he had called for support of an independent investigation to the state legislature. 

Herring also pointed out that he had opened an independent investigation for the Windsor police stop. Jones was absent when Herring worked with lawmakers to try and establish policing legislation, Herring said.

Jones further condemned Herring for potentially not using the resources available to the office by inferring that the civil rights division in the attorney general’s office was not created until the current election cycle for political reasons. Jones had been unsupportive and tried to push forward a different bill that would have not been as effective in defending civil rights, Herring said in response.  

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Herring sought to expand civil rights from day one in office, and has undertaken efforts such as establishing the Office of Civil Rights in the attorney general’s office, he said.

Herring also called on Congress to end qualified immunity by passing the George Floyd Policing Act. Jones called out Herring for being silent on police shootings and failing to enact reform himself at the state level.

Jones brought up Herring’s 2019 Blackface scandal, where the attorney general called for Gov. Ralph Northam to step down for admitting to wearing Blackface, despite Herring also admitting to having once worn Blackface in college. 

Herring’s commitment to justice is too late, Jones said.

“I sat in the room two years ago with the Black Caucus when you disclosed that you wore blackface just days after you called on Governor Northam to resign,” Jones said. “I was there when you took that paper out of your jacket, smoothed it out on the table and read us a statement with no empathy, no compassion, no feeling for how we felt as Black legislators -- as Black people.” 

Herring apologized for the incident, saying that his actions then did not reflect the public servant he had later grown into. 

Despite endorsements of Jones by Northam and former attorney general Mary Sue Terry, an April poll conducted by the Wason Center at Christopher Newport University showed Herring with a 42% lead, Jones with 18% support and 32% of voters being undecided. 

Herring has consistently exceeded his opponent in donations, according to the Virginia Public Access Project

Herring touted endorsements from Senate Floor Leader Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Speaker of the Virginia House Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, among other Democrat lawmakers and officials throughout the state. 

The candidates were also asked questions by the moderator regarding COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The Your Voice, Your Future debate hosted by WJLA 7News was moderated by anchor Michelle Marsh with questions asked by anchor Dave Lucas. 

Jones would encourage private sector employees to get vaccinated and wanted to use the attorney’s general resources to get vaccines to underprivileged communities, he said.

Although college and university presidents will have the ultimate decision regarding mandates, there is a need to incentivize vaccines and confront history that causes some communities to be hesitant, Herring said.

The general election will be held on November 2, 2021.

Contact City & State editor Eileen Pomeroy at eileen.pomeroy@richmond.edu.

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