His rival, Del. Jerrauld C. “Jay” Jones (D-Norfolk), rebutted in his opening remarks that Herring was focused on the past but that he wanted to talk about the future. Jones said he would reimagine the office to fit the values of an emerging Virginia.
“All the experience in the world doesn’t mean a thing if you have to be pushed to do the right thing,” Jones jabbed.
The contrasting pitches between experience and vision defined Wednesday night’s debate between the 59-year-old incumbent and the political newcomer, who is nearly three decades his junior. The debate was hosted by WJLA TV.
Jones, who is 32, would become the first African American to be elected attorney general in the state. The primary is June 8.
Herring frequently referred to himself as the “people’s lawyer,” an attorney general who has built a record as one of the most progressive in the history of Virginia. He touted winning the nation’s first preliminary injunction against the Trump administration’s ban on U.S. entry by citizens of a number of majority-Muslim countries; his work rolling back restrictions on abortion clinics; and expanding in-state tuition to “dreamers,” undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.
“I’ve broken barrier after barrier,” Herring said. “Even at times it wasn’t necessarily popular to do so.”
Jones said his lived experience as a Black man, his time as a trial lawyer and his experience in the legislature had prepared him well for what he called “this moment.” He said he viscerally understood why police reform was necessary and would be a strong representative for a diversifying Virginia.
“Over the course of 2020 and into 2021, we’ve seen dramatic injustices across this country,” Jones said. “When I saw that video of Derek Chauvin putting his knee on George Floyd’s neck, I felt that painfully.”
The debate was mostly cordial, but a few sharp exchanges occurred when the candidates sparred over their commitments to civil rights and a blackface scandal that engulfed Herring.
Jones criticized Herring as taking too long to create a civil rights division within the attorney general’s office, and Herring shot back that Jones had done little as a lawmaker to help him get a bill passed that codified the division this year.
Jones then questioned Herring’s “commitment to justice,” noting that a few years ago he had witnessed Herring apologize to the legislature’s Black caucus for darkening his face to look like a rapper during a college party in 1980. The episode was disclosed only in 2019 after Herring had called on Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to resign after he was caught up in a blackface scandal of his own.
“You read us a statement with no empathy, no compassion, no feeling for how we felt as Black legislators, as Black people,” Jones said.
Herring responded by again apologizing for appearing in blackface and said that episode did not reflect the public servant into whom he had matured. He pointed out that he fought to protect African American cultural resources as a member of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors and conducted the first investigation by the attorney general’s office into racial discrimination in a school system.
In November, Herring or Jones will go up against one of four Republicans competing for their party’s nomination. The GOP candidate will be selected at a convention Saturday.