Way back in November of last year, when State Senator Mark Herring squeaked into the attorney general’s office by a margin of 907 votes, nobody expected great things. Throughout his long career as a lawyer and elected official, Herring had developed a reputation as a capable-but-boring technocrat, a man who excelled at his job, but who was—in the words of a colleague—“as bland as a plain bagel.”
This cautiousness and lack of excitement also weighed down his campaign, which is probably why he came so close to losing to Senator Mark Obenshain, a far-right Harrisonburg Republican best known for attempting to criminalize miscarriage.
And yet, while all eyes were focused on newly elected Governor Terry McAuliffe and his ongoing battles with the General Assembly, Herring surprised everyone with a pair of decisions that couldn’t have stood in sharper contrast to the reign of ex-AG Ken Cuccinelli.
The first shocker came just days after Herring was sworn in, when Virginia’s new top cop declared that he would not defend the Commonwealth’s same-sex marriage ban in court. This, predictably, enraged Republicans and spawned a steady drumbeat of conservatives demanding his resignation.
The second surprise came earlier this month, when Herring publicly opined that any child who was raised in the Old Dominion is eligible for in-state tuition at Virginia’s public colleges and universities, even if he was originally brought into the United States illegally. “These ‘Dreamers’ are already Virginians in some very important ways,” he said in a statement. “Instead of punishing and placing limits on these smart, talented, hard-working young people, Virginia should extend them an opportunity for an affordable education.”
There is a growing narrative that Herring is basically a liberal version of Cuccinelli, using (and abusing) the attorney general’s office to push his own personal agenda, with little regard for legal precedent or judicial restraint. But if you compare Cuccinelli’s early days in office—when he expended much energy hounding a University of Virginia climate scientist and pressuring the state board of health to increase abortion clinic regulations—it’s hard to make the case that Herring’s actions are anywhere near as petty or vindictive. They are, for better or for worse, the exact sorts of legal opinions that are the traditional province of the attorney general’s office.
As Herring himself told Washington Post columnist Roger McCartney, “When I make these decisions, I’m following the law. The positions are also good policy. They’re consistent with where I think a majority of Virginians are…That stands in stark contrast with Ken Cuccinelli, whose views were far to the right.”
It should also be noted that Cuccinelli has recently launched a “gun rights” law firm that offers pre-paid legal services to gun owners who fear they might shoot someone, then have to defend their actions in court. To help advertise his almost comically misguided “murder insurance” scheme, Cuccinelli’s firm launched a website which linked to an article about infamous “stand your ground” poster boy George Zimmerman, who fatally shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, in Florida in 2012.
Stay classy, Cooch—and enjoy your new life courting paranoid gun nuts. Meanwhile, Mark Herring will presumably continue to do the job he was hired to do—and we will continue to enjoy watching him do it.
Odd Dominion is an unabashedly liberal, bi-monthly op-ed column covering Virginia politics.