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State Attorney General Mark Herring to run for Virginia governor in 2021

MANASSAS, VA - Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) says he will run for governor in 2021. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring will make a run for governor in 2021, attempting to use his perch as the state’s top lawyer as a springboard to the Executive Mansion.

Herring, a Democrat who surprised many by taking a pass on the 2017 governor’s race, has been spreading the word to allies and donors in recent weeks. He confirmed his plans to The Washington Post on Friday.

“Our work to reduce gun violence, protect healthcare, and pushback on the Trump Administration has been some of the most important work I’ve ever done, and it’s made Virginians’ lives better in real, tangible ways,” he said in an email. “I’ve been really honored to play a part in building a safer, stronger, more economically dynamic and inclusive Commonwealth as a county supervisor, a state senator, and as attorney general, and I think the best way to continue that work would be as Governor. There’s still a lot I want to accomplish as attorney general, but when the time comes I’ll be ready.”

A former state senator from Leesburg, Herring, 57, is getting a jump on what could be a fierce competition for the Democratic nomination. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax is considered a likely contender. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and former congressman Tom Perriello are often mentioned as possibilities.

“He’s the first. I’m sure he will not be the last,” said John Findlay, spokesman for the Republican Party of Virginia. “We look forward to a very divisive Democrat primary.”

Larry Roberts, Fairfax’s 2017 campaign chairman, said Fairfax will announce his plans “in due course.”

“At this time, he is focused primarily on preparing for the important 2019 General Assembly session, helping Democrats win control of the General Assembly in 2019, and expanding economic security and opportunity for all Virginians,” Roberts said in an email.

Herring is a year into his second four-year term as attorney general. He considered running for governor in the 2017 cycle but bowed out, avoiding a nomination battle against his popular former Senate seatmate, then-Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D).

Northam, who won the governorship last year against Republican Ed Gillespie, declined to comment through Mark Bergman, senior adviser for the governor’s political action committee, The Way Ahead PAC.

“The governor’s got a pretty full plate ahead of him,” Bergman said. “He’s got a budget to roll out, he’s got a legislative session ahead of him and legislative elections in the fall. It’s hard to comment on a race that’s three years away.”

In a string of sweeping actions early in his first term, Herring marshaled the powers of his office to legalize same-sex marriage, challenge President Trump’s immigration ban and grant in-state tuition to certain immigrants who were in the country illegally.

The moves made him a star to some in the party’s liberal base, but also made him a target of Republicans’ wrath. Herring had run for attorney general in 2013 on a promise to take the politics out of the office — a swipe at his GOP predecessor, Ken Cuccinelli II, a conservative who had used the post to investigate a university climate scientist and oppose abortion rights.

Although Herring contends that all of his actions were firmly rooted in the law, critics contend he took the conservative politics out of the office and swapped them for the liberal variety.

Va. attorney general to seek re-election, won’t run for governor in 2017

Herring is making his move as Democrats have been on a roll in Virginia, the only Southern state that Trump lost in 2016. A year later, in a blue wave widely seen as a rebuke to Trump, Northam led a sweep of three statewide offices, and Democrats picked up 15 seats in the House of Delegates, all but erasing the Republicans’ 2-to-1 advantage in the chamber. This year, Sen. Tim Kaine (D) easily defeated Corey Stewart (R), a Trump-style provocateur, and Democrats flipped three congressional seats.

With suburban voters energized against Republicans, Democrats hope to take control of the state House of Delegates and Senate in legislative races in November. They need to pick up just two seats in each chamber to gain control. Republicans have not won a statewide election since 2009.

“People used to say that we don’t have a good bench in Virginia, but every year we have a stronger and stronger bench of really good candidates,” said Del. Mark D. Sickles (D-Fairfax). “If Justin Fairfax and Mark Herring run, we’ll have two great candidates for Virginians to choose from.”

State Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) cheered Herring’s plans, signaling support from at least some quarters of the legislative black caucus. Fairfax and Stoney are both young black politicians and African American turnout has been a key part of Democrats’ recent successes in Virginia.

“I’ve always appreciated how seriously he takes issues that matter to the African American community, like criminal justice reform, reducing gun violence, and addressing the rise of hate crimes,” she said.

State Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax County) called Herring “principled and determined. . . . He’s always been someone that I’ve seen as a rising star.”

Bob Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist, said Herring needed to make his plans known early since he bowed out last time around.

“There was some sense that maybe he just wanted to be attorney general for life,” Holsworth said.