The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Will Herring be the anti-Cuccinelli?

Mark R. Herring, Virginia’s new attorney general, is working quickly to disassemble much of what his predecessor, Republican Ken Cuccinelli II, put in place.

Herring (D) dismissed two law firms hired by Cuccinelli to represent the office for former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his staff in investigations connected to $165,000 in gifts and loans McDonnell accepted from a businessman.

Cuccinelli had hired the firms, which have been paid $785,000 in public money, because he had a conflict of interest in representing McDonnell. Normally, the attorney general would defend the governor’s office.

Herring also seems to be shying away from aggressively defending laws relating to conservative issues such as laws related to abortion clinics, redistricting and gay marriage.

Herring, who beat Republican Mark Obenshain in a squeaker of an election in November, has not said precisely that he would or would not defend such laws, but some Republicans are taking no chances. Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) has proposed a bill that would give legislators legal standing to represent the state if the attorney general declines.

A Herring spokesperson told The Post that “the constitution of Virginia provides for a duly elected attorney general to do this very job.” During the campaign, Herring said he is not sure he would defend the abortion clinic regulations against a court challenge.  He has also declined to say whether he would defend the ban on gay marriage in Virginia’s constitution.

Interesting how the shoe is on the other foot. When Cuccinelli was the state’s chief legal officer, he charged ahead with a politicized legal agenda that included cracking down on abortion clinics and harassing a former University of Virginia scientist who researched the relationship between human activity and climate change.

Herring’s firm approach is an interesting riff on how the style of Terry McAuliffe, the new Democratic governor, is emerging.

At first, McAuliffe seemed to be pushing bipartisanship as a moderate, pro-business chief executive. Lately, he’s become bolder about a liberal cause dear to his heart: expanding Medicaid coverage to the state’s poor.

McAuliffe has already upstaged General Assembly Republicans on another issue – toughening Virginia’s lax ethics laws for state employees though an executive order.

It will be fascinating to see how his and Herring’s styles emerge.

Peter Galuszka blogs at Bacon’s Rebellion. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.