Exclusive: Interview with Republican Attorney General Candidate John Adams

Exclusive: Interview with Republican Attorney General Candidate John Adams

Running for elected office for the first time in his life, John Adams says he entered the race to stop what he views as the overreach and overt politicization of the Attorney General’s office.

A VMI graduate, former naval officer and a legal council for the George W. Bush administration, Adams has criticized incumbent Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring for what he says is picking and choosing laws to enforce that fit his political agenda. Currently a lawyer for the powerhouse McGuire Woods law firm in Richmond, Adams was unopposed for the Republican primary nomination and faces Herring in the November general election. Last month he spoke with the Tribune about why he felt it was so important to prevent another term for Herring and what he plans to do differently if elected.

This is your first run for political office, and you’re running one of the most important and high profile positions in the Commonwealth. What qualifies you to be Virginia’s next Attorney General?

Unlike a lot of other offices people run for, Attorney General is a real and serious job running a major law firm to represent the Commonwealth of Virginia. So, if you look at all the things you expect our Attorney General to do, as well as being a very skilled legal advisor to senior government officials, I’ve done that before, as a lawyer and a White House council. A lot of appellate work happens in the Attorney General’s office. Every criminal appeal in Virginia is handled by the Attorney General’s office, and of course the Attorney General represents the Commonwealth of Virginia in appeals for the U.S. Supreme Court and federal appeals. I’ve done that. I’ve argued a lot of appeals myself. I’m a co-chair of the Appellate team at McGuire Woods. I understand that process. I know how to effectively argue and represent my client’s interests.

Managing a big law firm — I’ve done that. I was department chair of a major American law firm. All of these things, working at the Supreme Court and wrestling with complicated constitutional issues. Virginia needs a lawyer who can do that. I’ve been a federal prosecutor. I’ve also been a defense lawyer. That’s a good thing. I’m somebody who understands both perspectives and what makes sense from a law enforcement prospective and what doesn’t. All of that leads me to present myself to the people of Virginia in a very clear way. Virginia needs a lawyer. I’ve been a lawyer my whole life and I’ve had some wonderful experiences. I think it makes me the most qualified person in this race by far.

How to you differentiate yourself from the incumbent?

The contrast is huge. One of the problems with the Attorney General’s office is that it has been politicized because we have elected folks, and in particular (Herring) who have just turned it into a political operation. That’s wrong. That’s not the way that office was designed to run. It actually robs the citizens of their ability to govern themselves. The whole process of self-government falls apart when those that are in charge of enforcing and defending our laws decide to take it upon themselves to be the ultimate decider of what the law should be, not what it is.

Why are you running?

When I saw the way the office was being politicized and then not doing the work of the client, the Commonwealth of Virginia, it occurred to me that somebody should run who isn’t a politician. You’re not running to be a representative of the people. You’re running to be their lawyer. I’m a guy who has never run for office, but saw a clear problem in the Attorney General’s office and with my background I feel I can fix it.

This is essential public service. I’ve never run for office before. I’ve done a lot of public service in my life, but this is an essential public service. Virginia is a sovereign state. It needs a good law firm to represent it. A lot of what the Attorney General’s office does is not very exciting stuff, but it really matters to the day-to-day operation of our government, and we need somebody who will get in there and really focus on that and run the office the way it should be run.

Herring made national headlines by refusing to enforce Virginian’s same-sex marriage ban before the U.S. Supreme Court banned any such laws. He also refused to enforce Virginia’s voter ID laws before they were ruled constitutional by an appeals court. You’ve said this presents a threat to our rule of law. Why do you feel Herring’s actions are that serious?

We live in this incredible country and Commonwealth where we the people get to decide how we govern ourselves. I always remind people that that’s pretty rare. We are living a society where the government works for us, we don’t work for the government. When the people of Virginia decide through the democratic process that we’re going to be a right to work state, that they want a voter ID law that they want a constitutional amendment that defines marriage a certain way. All of those issues, some people will agree with them; disagree with them. That’s the beauty of democratic politics. But once the people of Virginia have made that decision, that’s the result of the democratic process and to have someone say I’m going to attack that law, even though I’m your lawyer, or not enforce it and defend it, that kind of action erodes our fundamental right to self-government. Now there is an executive who is over-ruling the will of the people expressed through the legislative process. I think it’s dangerous. I don’t want to overstate it, I’m not a bomb thrower, but it doesn’t allow the democratic process to work the way it should.

I put this on my web site the first day; if the people of a state want to allow same-sex marriage in their state, the constitution allows them to do that. The constitution has turned into this weapon that the political parties use. Every debate we have turns into “if we do what you want to do, that would be unconstitutional.” The constitution doesn’t decide every problem for Americans or Virginians. It leaves it to them to decide. That’s the beauty of the process. It sets some parameters, but inside a large area of space, we get to decide.

The interesting thing about Herring’s move is that he voted for the (marriage ban) not that long ago (as a state senator). What you see again is politics. At some point, he put his finger to the wind and went “okay, now it’s not the popular thing to do and now we’re going to switch.” He should have stayed in the senate and said “I’m going to now sponsor the legislation to repeal it. That’s the appropriate place to take care of the shifting political views of society. You can’t do that when you’re the Attorney General and it’s the law of the land. It’s the wrong office. He treats the Attorney General’s office like he’s a super legislator, not like he’s the lawyer to the Commonwealth.

Would you enforce laws you don’t personally agree with?

If a law passes I don’t agree with, I will enforce it. I’ve been a lawyer my whole life. When you work with clients, you council them before they do something. If the General Assembly is going to do something as a policy matter I think is wrong, they’re probably not going to listen to me. If I tell them it’s legally problematic, I expect them to listen to me beforehand so I don’t have to deal with it afterwards. Once the law is passed, I’m the lawyer. My job is to defend it.

Herring has been on the forefront of challenging Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning travel from several predominantly Muslim countries. How do you view the ban from a legal sense and if you win, would you continue action against it?

I had some concern about the treatment of the folks who had green cards and the application of them. That was problematic. I don’t think any government should take any action against people based on their religious faith, their race, their sex. That’s not a good way to do it. I’ll tell you the current executive order will probably survive review from the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s my guess. The Fourth Circuit, I’m not sure what they’re going to do. They may affirm the District Court. My guess is ultimately the Supreme Court is going to say in an area like immigration, a president has fairly wide authority. If you start to second guess the motives behind it, you start allowing federal judge in some district to start second guessing things presidents have to do at certain times and places. I believe that challenge will stand.

There’s a saying that “bad facts make good law.” People say “well that doesn’t look right,” but the underlying principal has to stand true.

One of the things that makes this country great is the rule of law. We should have clear laws that are evenly and fairly applied across the board to everybody. If the law is bad, the people will learn the law is bad and they can change it. When we start picking and choosing what laws we’re going to enforce, you start giving license for a lot of people to do that. There’s a lot of people who could start ignoring laws that people on the left would not like, and people on the right wouldn’t like. We need, particularly in the Attorney General’s office, we need someone who will stand for the rule of law.

With respect to whether or not you file a legal challenge, that’s an important part of the office. You have to look at the facts on the ground and the law and you have to make a decision. Would I ever show up to a place late at night and grand stand? That’s not the place for the lawyer. The lawyer needs to be doing their homework, understanding the facts and applying those facts to law. It felt to me like it was more like the move of a politician. Now part of this is politics, and he clearly works hard on that side of that, no doubt.

Combating the nation, and the Commonwealth’s, opioid addiction crisis has been a major concern for Americans locally and nationwide and Herring has made this initiative a centerpiece of his efforts as Attorney General. What will you do in this area if elected?

A lot of people have tried to raise awareness. That’s a good thing. When you go out, and I spend a lot of time on this, when you go out and you meet with the sheriffs and the folks in the community who are community-based groups or face-based groups that are working hard to help these people, awareness is fine, but you have to have some serious action here. I have a great team that’s advising me, led by the former Chief of Staff of the DEA. It’s a nice variety of folks from the treatment side, the law enforcement side.

On one hand, we need to be smart about treating addiction, and we need to be smart about what we do with people who aren’t really career criminals but they succumb to the addiction and they’ve gotten involved in the criminal justice process. We need to be smart about that, we need to get them help and we need to be smart about. We also need to be serious about the people that are killing Virginians, because that’s what they’re doing. They’re killing them in astonishing numbers. As a former federal prosecutor and person who has great relationships across the board with federal agencies, with U.S. attorneys’ offices, I’ll be in a position to work hard to protect our kids, work hard to protect our mothers and fathers and daughters and sons.

This thing is unbelievable. When you get out there on the trail. I can’t even explain to you. Every visit. Even if it’s a meeting with the business community somewhere, this issue comes up because it’s touching so many people. It’s time for Virginians to have someone who has some serious experience on the prosecution side and the defense side to be in a position to really lead a team to do something about that. I get it.

Criminal justice reform is a major topic in this campaign cycle, with many politicians looking for reforms to prison sentencing relating to drug offenses in particular. How do you view criminal justice reform and what changes would you make if elected?

I’m a criminal justice reform guy. I look at a folks who have been hit by the heroin crisis and addiction. That applies to other drugs as well. It’s not just heroin. It’s cocaine, it’s marijuana, it’s crack. We have to be smart about those folks, but we have to be serious about those people that are bringing those positions into our Commonwealth. They’re killing our fellow citizens, and we have to be serious about it. You have to be smart.

Some people who get addicted, I’ve met a lot of them in jail, some of them turn to small time dealers to feed their addictions, especially if they’ve lost their job. No case is the same, but there’s a fairly identifiable downward trend. You have to separate the wheat from the chaff. Who is really profiting from introducing this to our society. You have to go after these people, and you have to charge them with what they’re doing – killing people. I’m advocating for smarter sentences. Some people need harsher sentences. Many people need help. You need to figure that out.

What have been some of the other issues and topics you’ve encountered while on the trail talking with voters?

The No. 1 thing is folks are fed up with government. You clearly see it on the left right now. They’re livid. But it’s still there on the right. Everybody feels like it’s a fundamental thing: we the people created the government, the government didn’t create us. I think people feel really disconnected. They feel their government doesn’t listen to them. It doesn’t respond to them. They’re not honest. They don’t do what they say they’re going to do. That is a core theme everywhere you go on the trail, whether you talk to the right or the left.

What I tell those people is stop electing career politicians. There’s a job to do in Virginia. We need a lawyer to run our law firm and represent our legal interests as a Commonwealth. How about me? I’ve been a lawyer my whole life. I’ve been a lawyer to a president, a lawyer at the Supreme Court, helping a Supreme Court justice, I’ve been a federal prosecutor, I’ve helped run a law firm. I’ve done prosecution, defense and I was a naval officer. I can run things. Why don’t we try that? Because the politicization in the Attorney General’s office is not good. It’s just not good.

A lot of people are also concerned about sanctuary cities. That issue comes up. That goes back to a rule of law issue. If we have laws we don’t like, we should change the law. When a jurisdiction says we’re just going to ignore these laws is a very dangerous precedent to set. We can’t have jurisdictions picking and choosing what laws they’re going to enforce. I’ve been in some jurisdictions where it might go the other way, and they say they might enforce laws that people on the left would rather see enforced. You can’t have that breakdown of civil society.

How do you view sanctuary cities? Would you support laws like in Texas that have banned funding for cities that limit cooperation with federal officials to enforce immigration laws?

It’s really more so for the legislature to determine how they want to do it, but you can’t have cities standing up and saying we’re going to ignore this whole area of law. It doesn’t work.

You’ve obviously contrasted yourself with Herring. How do you compare yourself to Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican Attorney General who preceded Herring in office and unsuccessfully ran as a conservative in the 2013 governor’s race?

I’ve met him on several occasions. He’s always been very nice to me. I think we’re very different in terms of personality and probably style. I know that Ken can point to several examples of defending state laws he doesn’t agree with. There are areas where we are different.

A lot of people on the left want to compare Herring to Cuccinelli. You really can’t. Even my Democrat friends tell me in confidence there’s no comparison. Herring has taken the politics of the office to an entirely different level. I don’t think it’s entirely fair to say that they’re similar in the way they handled the office.

Among the biggest criticisms toward your candidacy from Democrats is your involvement in the landmark “Hobby Lobby” Supreme Court decision, which ruled closely held private companies don’t have to comply with regulation it objects to if it based on religious beliefs. In that case, it meant the organizations didn’t have to provide contraceptives as mandated by the Affordable Care Act. Democrats have said this shows you will use the office to restrict women’s right to reproductive care. What’s your position on arguing on behalf of Hobby Lobby and how do you address those concerns?

I am completely blown away by this. It’s hilarious. I really am not interested in having involvement in (taking away) women’s birth control. The Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor case (a similar Supreme Court ruling) are about closely held family businesses and an order of nuns that have religious beliefs that need to be protected. That’s what those cases are about. Candidly I think it’s a great example of how far the left is having to stretch to find something to attack me on. I just think that’s crazy. If that’s what they want to say about me, we’ll answer it in due course but those cases, which we won in the U.S. Supreme Court, were about protecting the ability of family businesses and an order of nuns to exercise their faith in a way that was appropriate to them.

We’ve gotten to a point where everyone wants to make everything a right. If I have a right to everything I want and you have a right to everything you want, there’ is going to be conflict. At some point, there has to be a give and take in society. That’s why you see so many of these cases about religious liberty, instead of letting the democratic process play out. I have a lot of faith in the people of Virginia and the American people. I think if you let them operate in the Democratic process, they will figure it out.

One of the principles of leadership is that if you’re going to issue an order, let them have a say before you do it. Let them be a part of. What we see particularly in the Supreme Court is a massive expansion of rights for everybody for everything. We say it’s in the constitution. That’s where we end up with a conflict of rights. That’s where a lot of religious liberty cases are coming from. Religious groups are saying if everybody has all these rights, my religious belief says this. That’s where you’re seeing some of these conflicts.

At the polling place this November, why should Virginians choose you as their next Attorney General?

We get the politics out of the Attorney General’s office, which is a good thing and the one piece of this bigger picture of people who feel government isn’t working for them. The politicians are now out doing what’s best for themselves and what they think is right instead of serving the people. I can’t fix all of it, but I can fix this. I think I will be a much more effective Attorney General in terms of running the office in terms of my background. I think with my background as a federal prosecutor, I’ll be able to bring things to bare that will keep our families safer, keep our kids safer.