The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Candidate for Va. AG wants to take politics out of the office. Sound familiar?

John Adams leads fellow GOP candidates Jill Vogel and Ed Gillespie into the new Henrico campaign headquarters. Adams kicked off his campaign for state attorney general on July 1 with stops up and down the I-95 corridor, greeting supporters along the way. (Reza A. Marvashti/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

RICHMOND — John Adams, the prominent Richmond lawyer who wants to be Virginia’s next attorney general, is no fan of the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage across the country.

"Totally made up, totally made up," he told a Tea Party gathering in Virginia Beach last year. "Not in the constitution anywhere."

But the Republican also told the crowd they had to live with the high court’s ruling unless one of two things happens. Either Virginia secedes from the union, something that did not work out so well 150 years ago. Or the court gets a big makeover.

“I’m an optimist,” he said. “I clerked for Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court. You give me four more Clarence Thomases, we’re good. OK? I’m not kidding. We’re good. Because they will fix that court in a minute.”

A former Naval officer and federal prosecutor trying to unseat Attorney General Mark Herring (D), Adams is running as both blunt conservative and strict adherent to the rule of law. The premise of his campaign is that Herring is neither – that the sitting attorney general has bent the law to advance a liberal agenda, starting just 12 days into his term, when he refused to defend the state’s constitutional ban on gay marriage.

“For the life of me, I’ve never understood why the Virginia House of Delegates didn’t move to impeach him when he did that,” Adams told the Tea Party group.

Herring, of course, flatly disagrees with that notion. He won election four years ago promising to “take the politics out of the office,” a swipe at the activist tenure of his conservative Republican predecessor, Ken Cuccinelli II.

As attorney general, Herring went on toadvance gay rights and abortion access, offer in-state tuition to certain illegal immigrants and to tighten gun control. Herring contends all of his moves were grounded in the law. Yet he is hardly running this time around as a dispassionate dispenser of legal advice.

Virginia to fight same sex marriage ban

“As Attorney General, Mark will NEVER stop resisting Trump’s agenda,” Herring fund-raising appeal reads.

Virginia’s race plays out as national forces have politicized the office of state attorney general around the country. Herring and other Democratic attorneys general are branding themselves as the “resistance” to President Donald Trump, much as Republicans cast themselves as a firewall against President Barack Obama’s “overreach.”

Ahead of Virginia's November election — the nation's only attorney general's contest in 2017 —the Republican Attorneys General Association voted early this year to scrap a long-standing "gentlemen's agreement" with its Democratic counterpart to stay out of contests with an incumbent. RAGA's vote to abandon that "incumbency rule" was first reported by Reuters.

Since then, RAGA has poured $250,000 into Adams’s campaign and the Democratic Attorneys General Association has given $500,000 to Herring’s.

Long regarded as head of the state’s law firm and sometimes as Virginia’s top cop, the attorney general has evolved in recent years into a high-profile, highly politicized figure, said Bob Holsworth, a longtime Richmond political analyst.

“Cuccinelli began the change,” Holsworth said, referring to the attorney general who filed the first suit against “Obamacare,” investigated a university climate scientist and played hardball with the state Board of Health over abortion.

“While he [Herring] ran against the Cuccinelli record, he essentially adopted the Cuccinelli perspective that the attorney general should be an activist, but in his mind for progressive issues,” Holsworth said. “What Adams is saying is, he wants to turn against that form of activism.”

Adams, 43, faces an uphill battle as he seeks to unseat a Democrat in a swing state that increasingly tilts blue. The attorney general’s race, like the contest for lieutenant governor, is typically overshadowed by the one for governor, which this year pits former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie against Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D).

Democrats look unified, Republicans in disarray in wake of Virginia gubernatorial primary

The Herring-Adams contest could grab more of the spotlight than usual. Republicans plan to play up the down-ticket race since Herring is more of a lightening rod than the low-key Northam.

“Mark Herring fires up our base,” House Speaker-designee Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said with a mock shudder.

And Democrats are zeroing in on Adams’s conservative views as they try to paint the Republican ticket as too far right for a changing Virginia. Gillespie treads lightly on social issues, as does the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, Jill Holtzman Vogel (Fauquier). Adams speaks far more frankly.

While his stump speech focuses on the law, Adams answers directly when voters ask about his views on hot-button issues like abortion, which he opposes. And while he describes his beef with Herring in terms of process — a refusal to defend a same-sex marriage ban that voters had approved in a landslide just eight years earlier — Adams volunteers his personal opposition to gay marriage on his web site.

“I tell people my views on things because people want to know them when you’re running for elective office,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. “But if you look at ... [the campaign], it’s about returning the rule of law to the office and starting to concentrate on the things that really matter, like the heroin-opioid epidemic and keeping us safe.”

Raised Baptist, Adams said his views are grounded in religious faith. He is the grandson of the Rev. Theodore F. Adams, who was on cover of Time in 1955 as president of the Baptist World Alliance. Another, more distant relative is his namesake: President John Adams, who as a young lawyer put his own feelings aside to represent British soldiers charged with murder in the Boston Massacre, ensuring they got a fair trial.

Democrats say Adams takes after someone else: Cuccinelli. They have seized on pro bono, friend-of-the-court briefs Adams wrote supporting the rights of two organizations – the Hobby Lobby retail chain and the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of Catholic nuns – to be exempted from an Obamacare birth-control mandate due to religious objections.

"He did it on his own, in his spare time," Herring said in a June 17 debate with Adams in Virginia Beach. "That's where his passion is, in taking people's rights away from them."

Adams said his only interest was in protecting religious freedom.

“I have zero interest in limiting women’s access to birth control. None,” he said. “It’s not an issue I think about. It's not an issue I care about. I’m not limiting anybody’s access to birth control. It’s silly. Political talk. It’s silly. What I do care about is not allowing the government to force people – the Little Sisters of the Poor – to take actions that violate their religious faith.”

Within hours, Herring was out with a fund-raising appeal based on a snippet of that exchange.

“At our debate this morning, here’s what my opponent, John Adams, had to say about women’s access to birth control: ‘It’s not an issue I think about. It’s not an issue I care about,’” it began.

Adams is a partner at McGuireWoods, the Richmond legal and lobbying powerhouse where he is chairman of the government investigations and white collar litigation department. An older brother, Theodore F. “Tray” Adams III, directs the firm’s Virginia government lobbying arm.

An associate White House counsel under President George W. Bush, Adams is on a leave of absence from McGuireWoods while he campaigns.

Adams grew up in Chesterfield County and lives there today with his wife, Lisa, and their four boys: Thomas, 12; Daniel, 10; Andrew, 6; and Henry; 5. He attended Virginia Military Institute at a time when the Justice Department was suing to make the all-male, state-supported school admit women.

"VMI, as a single-sex institution, is a wonderful thing," he told the Associated Press in 1994, as a junior.

Two years later, the Supreme Court ordered the school to admit women or go private. Today, Adams thinks it’s good that VMI went co-ed. But that’s beside the point. Like it or not, the high court has spoken.