Herring and Jones clash over police reform, blackface apology in attorney general debate ahead of primary

Virginia Politics

From left to right — Del. Jones (photo provided by campaign) and AG Herring (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – The two Democrats in the Virginia attorney general’s race met on the debate stage for the first time Wednesday, each taking swings at the other’s record while sparring over criminal justice and police reform ahead of the primary. 

While they are not far off on several policy issues, Attorney General Mark Herring (D) and Del. Jay Jones (D-Norfolk) tried to assure voters that their experience will help them take the office to new heights. 

Herring, who is seeking a third term, began the debate by highlighting his accomplishments while in office. He spoke about his work to fight Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriages, which Herring deemed unconstitutional not long after becoming attorney general in 2014, and his legal challenges to protect the Affordable Care Act. 

“With a lifetime in the law, I’ve learned that progress requires commitment, courage, experience and an ability to put that experience to work,” Herring said in his opening statement. 

Jones hit back at Herring’s choice of words, pitching himself as a fresh voice with a vision set on the future of the attorney general’s office. 

“All the experience in the world doesn’t mean a thing if you got to be pushed to do the right thing,” Jones said in his opening remarks. “This office can do so much, and we have to look ahead to this new Virginia decade. Imagine if we look at this old office in a new way.” 

Noting the generational gap between the two, Herring is 59 and Jones is 32, one of the moderators for WJLA-TV, which hosted the debate in its Arlington studio, asked each what makes them the most qualified candidate. 

Herring said no other attorney general in Virginia’s history had been more progressive, touting his work to help immigrants, those at risk of predatory loans and veterans. Evoking the murder of George Floyd and police shooting of Jacob Blake, Jones spoke about how his “lived experience as a Black man” drives him to build on the efforts that have already been made to address issues within the criminal justice system. 

Jones added that Virginia needed an attorney general who wasn’t going to remain silent on these issues. In his response, Herring disputed that he hasn’t taken action to address police violence. He cited his office’s work to change police training, with a focus on de-escalation, in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. 

This eventually led to the most contentious moment of the debate. After trading barbs over the creation of the Office of Civil Rights within the attorney general’s office, an idea Jones accused Herring of only backing after the primary was set, Jones spoke about Herring’s admission that he had wore blackface while in college. 

Herring apologized to the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus in a meeting days after he called on Gov. Ralph Northam to resign after his own blackface scandal.

“I was there when you took that paper out of your jacket, smoothed it on the table and read us a statement with no empathy, no compassion,” Jones said Wednesday. “No feeling for how we felt as Black legislatures, as Black people. And frankly, that still pains me to this day.”

“I am very sorry for what I did, one time at age 19. It was over 40 years ago, and I am very sorry for that,” Herring responded. “It does not at all reflect the person I matured into. Let alone the public servant I became decades later.”

The caucus reiterated their own call for Northam to resign after that meeting but said they were awaiting further action from Herring “to reassure the citizens of the Commonwealth of his fitness for leadership.”

Early voting for the June 8 primary is already underway. Voters will select Democratic candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. Some voters will select nominees for the Virginia House of Delegates and other local races.

Four Republicans are vying for their party’s nomination in an unassembled convention on Saturday. The GOP candidates are Leslie Haley, Chuck Smith, Del. Jason Miyares (R-Virginia Beach) and Jack White. 

This story will be updated.

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