Republican state Sen. Mark Obenshain isn’t going to be labeled a carpetbagger in his Virginia state attorney general’s race. His Web site states: “He has served as the chairman of two Republican committees, has been a delegate to every Republican state convention since 1980, and was a member of Virginia’s delegation to the 1980 Republican National Convention. . . Mark has worked on the campaigns of virtually every Republican nominee for state and local office since he began practicing law in Harrisonburg in 1987.” His father was a respected Republican politician and a 1978 U.S. Senate nominee who was killed in a plane crash on a campaign swing.
Obenshain might also be the blameless victim of Republican gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli’s decision to hold a state convention rather than a primary, which caused moderate Bill Bolling to drop his race against Cuccinelli and which put controversial E.W. Jackson on the ticket as the lieutenant governor nominee. Obenshain could easily be the most moderate of the remaining candidates and the most likely to have crossover appeal — that is, if the other two candidates don’t drag him down.
I spoke to him on Friday afternoon by phone. His answers were long and discursive, which can be problematic for a pol, but he’s also got his philosophy of the race down pat. I began by asking him what will be the biggest challenge if elected. He said, “One thing that has really changed in the last four years is the changing relationship between the federal government and the states.” That extends, he says, to health care, regulation, entitlements and a host of other issues. In a lawyerly answer he says, “We are going to where appropriate and warranted. . . we’re going to push back.”
Had he been in the AG’s office, he “absolutely” would have challenged Obamacare. He told me, “Just because there is a possibility of losing a case doesn’t mean you back down where there is strong precedent and the interests of the Commonwealth are at stake.” He reminded me that it was a 5-4 Supreme Court decision, and most commentators were “stunned” by the reasoning of the chief justice.
Onn other fronts, he said, “We’re going to focus on [state] regulatory review. Here in Virginia, regulations kill jobs.” He praised former attorney general and now Gov. Bob McDonnell (the first Virginia Republican he would mention by name) for taking on the issue. “It’s not one of the more sexy issues,” he said, but nevertheless it is important enough to make the top of his to-do list.
He also said, “One thing both [McDonnell and Cuccinelli] did was making sure we’re doing our best to keep our communities safe.” He specifically cited the “growing problem of elder abuse.”
Abortion clinic regulation has always been controversial but is especially so in the wake of the Gosnell case. Obenshain plays it down the middle. “One of the roles of the regs is to protect women and children. It’s certainly been highlighted by the cases in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.” But, unlike Cuccinelli, he doesn’t sound like he’ll be embarking on a crusade. “The impression I have is those regs are consistent with Virginia law. If the board of health decides to revisit those . . . that’s their policy call if they want to modify” the regulations.
He is blunt when it comes to potential conflicts of interest that have bedeviled McDonnell and Cuccinelli. Once again he put on his lawyer’s hat. ” A lot of this comes back to the rules of professional responsibility,” he said. He cites his 26 years as a lawyer, including managing a 70-person law firm, in which he was charged with “making sure the firm — not just the attorneys but the staff” complied with its obligations. Coming close to criticizing Cuccinelli, he reiterated that ethical rules insist that an attorney avoid even the “appearance of impropriety.” He continued, “I’m sensitive to issues posed by donors and gifts. We are going to focus on making sure we have a system in place to check for conflicts of interest.” He tread carefully: “I don’t know anything was done that violates [conflict of ethics rules], but I’m always quick to learn from others’ experience.”
He acknowledged his race isn’t getting a lot of attention. Nevertheless, he predicted, “We’ll see increasing attention,” noting that the Democrats will be nominating their candidate on Tuesday. He seemed content that his race is somewhat under the radar. “Running for AG is not the same as running for governor. There will be a lot of money spent this year. What we’ll spend will be dwarfed by what the governor’s race will spend.” He insisted he is a “grassroots guy” who can reach out beyond the GOP base. “I wish it were as simple as running the flag with a big ‘R’ on it up the flagpole.”
I asked him about the danger that he’ll get lumped together with two other candidates. Obenshain sounded like he would rather not be. “Ken Cuccinelli will be running ads for himself. Terry McAuliffe will be running ads for himself,” he noted. He was quick to observe that Virginians have split tickets in the past. (McDonnell won the AG race in the year Democrat Tim Kaine won the governor’s race.) What about E.W. Jackson’s radical rhetoric? He said, “I can give you E.W Jackson’s phone number.” No tiptoeing there.
We wrapped up by talking about discrimination. He recounted, “I grew up in Virginia in the 1960s. I remember my dad was a Republican who was part of the party trying to make sure there was equal opportunity for blacks and for women.” He argued that voters want “everyone treated on their own merit. That’s always been my philosophy in running a law firm.”
Cuccinelli tried to prevent state universities from prohibiting discrimination against gays in employment. Obenshain was blunt: “Governor McDonnell issued a statement on employment. I know there was an [opposite] opinion of the attorney general.” Here he put some distance between himself and Cuccinelli: “My personal view without drafting an attorney general’s opinion right now for you is that I don’t want Virginia discriminating. I don’t believe Virginia is a state where we should be discriminating against employees except on their qualifications.”
Obenshain is a conservative but fully aware that the state is more diverse and cosmopolitan than it was 50 or even 10 years ago. If he wins, he may well be the next Republican in line for governor. (E.W. Jackson sure isn’t going to be.) For that reason alone, his is an important race to follow.