Attorney General Mark Herring and Republican challenger Jason Miyares debated in Loudoun County on Wednesday, defending their opposing political views and attacking each other in front of a group of business leaders.
Without any broadcast or livestream, the public had no way to watch or listen.
Herring, debating on his home turf in Loudoun, is seeking a third term in the job after deciding to forgo a run for governor. Miyares, a state delegate from Virginia Beach, often cites his family’s immigrant roots. His mother fled Cuba in 1965.
The two sparred over Herring’s liberal record and Miyares’ conservative positions. The challenger largely focused on crime and attacked Herring over an ongoing scandal involving the Virginia Parole Board.
“Our murder rate is the highest it’s been in Virginia in decades. We have a criminal first, victim last mindset,” Miyares said. “We need a check and balance in Richmond. As attorney general, I’ll be that check, and I’ll be that balance.”
Herring’s theme was that Miyares’ opposition to abortion rights, gun control and gay marriage put him out of touch with mainstream Virginians.
“Voters will choose between my proven record of protecting Virginians and expanding our rights, and Jason Miyares, whose record shows he is a right-wing, Cuccinelli-style conservative who would abuse the office and undermine both our safety and our rights.”
Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican, was Virginia’s attorney general from 2010 to 2014.
As he has done in the campaign and in TV ads, Miyares repeatedly referenced the Parole Board, which consists of gubernatorial appointees who consider whether to release from prison people who were convicted before Virginia abolished parole in 1995. A state watchdog agency found last year that the board violated laws and policies in the process under which people were released from prison. That included not adequately notifying victims and prosecutors of the releases.
Senior officials in Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration admonished and questioned the investigators, and the state inspector general told them his office wouldn’t look into any more complaints. The lead investigator was later fired.
Herring does not have a say in Parole Board decisions, but his office represents the board and all state agencies.
“He stood by, he did nothing, he said nothing,” said Miyares, who also slammed the Parole Board for releasing people who had been convicted of murder.
Herring said Miyares had been checked by the press more than once for misrepresenting Herring’s role.
“Jason is trying to blame me for decisions I didn’t make,” Herring said.
Herring promoted his record: refusing in 2014 to defend Virginia’s gay marriage ban; fighting opioid trafficking and supporting a settlement that will bring millions of dollars to Virginia to fight opioid addiction; reducing a backlog in rape kit testing; defending the federal Affordable Care Act health care law; and supporting gun control measures like limiting purchases of handguns to one per month and strengthening background checks for purchases.
Herring told business leaders that he fought to remove public monuments honoring Confederates, in contrast to Miyares’ record in favor of them. Miyares was among Republican lawmakers who voted against giving localities the authority to remove such monuments.
Herring attacked Miyares for opposing Virginia’s new law that legalizes small amounts of marijuana for personal use by adults.
“Virginia was needlessly criminalizing tens of thousands of Virginians, and the weight of that system was falling disproportionately on people of color,” Herring said.
Miyares said he voted against it because the law is flawed, in that it makes possession legal while the sale of marijuana remains illegal. But as attorney general, he said, he would defend the law and not supersede the will of the General Assembly and governor.
Herring also criticized Miyares for sending people to jail for small amounts of marijuana as a “junior prosecutor.” Miyares was an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Virginia Beach before working as a political consultant.
Miyares said that if elected, he would support a bill that would allow the attorney general to prosecute certain cases if a local commonwealth’s attorney fails to.
Miyares cited a case in Fairfax County handled by Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano, in which prosecutors reached a deal with a man who sexually abused a girl for years that would cap the man’s sentence at 17 years.
The girl’s parents opposed a plea deal and told The Washington Post they were disappointed in Fairfax County prosecutors.
“You have some commonwealth’s attorneys up here that have forgotten their victims,” Miyares said.
“If you’re not willing to do your own job, let me do it for you. Let me hold these scumbags accountable. Let me go after these rapists and these sick child molesters, because if you’re not willing to do your job, I’m going to do your job.”
The debate included an unusual moment when the candidates were asked to praise something about the other.
“I think Attorney General Herring is very sincere … I’m not going to question his motives,” Miyares said. “I think we just view the world very differently. In many ways, we want to achieve the same thing. We want to get there in a different manner. … I admire his service, I know he’s given up a lot.”
Herring thanked Miyares for voting in support of an opioid program Herring backed.
“You could have said, ‘Well, this is Mark Herring’s initiative, we’re running against each other, I’m not going to vote for that,’” Herring said. “But he didn’t. He voted for it.”
Miyares responded, “I appreciate that, and I have tried to reach across the aisle.”
The two candidates previously met in a virtual debate in June. The Miyares campaign said he has accepted a debate invitation from WRIC-TV in Richmond, but Herring has not.