GOP candidate for Virginia AG pledges to defend state laws

In this Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017 photo, Republican candidate for Virginia Attorney General,...
In this Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017 photo, Republican candidate for Virginia Attorney General, John Adams, talks in his office during an interview in Richmond, Va. Adams is challenging incumbent Attorney General Mark Herring. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)(WHSV)
Published: Oct. 12, 2017 at 4:28 PM EDT
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In his bid to become Virginia's next attorney general, Republican John Adams likes to talk about three things: he's never run for office before, he's not political and his opponent has failed to defend the laws of Virginia.

With the contest between Adams and Democratic incumbent Mark Herring the only attorney general's race in the country this November, the election is drawing national attention.

Adams believes his message will appeal to Virginia voters, despite the traditionally conservative state's Democratic trend in recent state elections.

"I saw the way Mark Herring was treating the office, and I just found it to be really troubling, so when he said he was going to run for re-election, I jumped in. I said I could do a better job for Virginians than he's doing," said Adams.

A cornerstone of his campaign is his criticism of Herring for what he calls his "politicization" of the attorney general's office, most notably, Herring's decision in January 2014 not to defend Virginia's 2006 constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Gay marriage became legally recognized in Virginia in October 2014 when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear appeals from Virginia and four other states seeking to uphold bans on same-sex marriage.

Adams, who is personally opposed to gay marriage, frequently brings up Herring's refusal to defend the old ban. He also blasts Herring for filing briefs in court opposing "right to work" laws that say employees cannot be forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment. Virginia has a right to work law.

Adams insists he would defend the state's existing laws, no matter what his personal beliefs.

"At the end of the day, it doesn't matter — it shouldn't matter — whether Mark Herring has a certain opinion, or I have certain opinions. You're the lawyer for Virginia. It's what Virginia's law is that you're supposed to defend," he told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

Adams, 43, never thought he would run for office. His mother was the daughter of a coal miner and his father worked as a business manager for a telephone company.

Adams attended the Virginia Military Institute, served in the Navy for four years, attended the University of Virginia School of Law, clerked for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, then clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Adams later worked as an associate counsel in the George W. Bush White House. He worked as an assistant federal prosecutor in the Eastern Division of U.S. Attorney's Office in Virginia before joining McGuireWoods LLP, one of the most prominent law firms in the state.

McGuireWoods Chairman Richard Cullen, who counts Vice President Mike Pence among his clients, said Adams quickly became known as the lawyer who young associates at the firm wanted to work with. Within a year, Adams was named as the firm's head recruiter.

"He had an incredible resume, but what I liked about him was that he was just a down-to-earth guy," Cullen said.

Adams' legal clients have provided fodder for Herring, who has sought to portray him as a defender of money launderers and lenders accused of foreclosing on homeowners.

"John Adams — the best attorney general the powerful and well-connected can buy," a narrator says in one of Herring's television ads.

Herring has also criticized Adams' work for Hobby Lobby, a chain of arts and crafts stores.

In 2014, Hobby Lobby won a Supreme Court decision that said requiring family-owned companies to pay for insurance coverage for contraception for employees violated religious freedom.

Herring says the case shows Adams wants to restrict women's access to birth control. Adams said his argument was that the government cannot tell employers to do something that goes against their religious beliefs.

"I don't put limits on women's access to birth control. I would not do it," Adams said.

Adams said his top priorities if elected would be reducing the number of fatal opioid overdoses and locking up members of violent gangs, particularly MS-13.

On the campaign trail, Adams has an easygoing style and a boyish enthusiasm. "I'm John Adams, I was born and raised here. It's good to be home," he said to voters at an annual festival in Chesterfield, where he grew up.

Adams has been making a half-dozen campaign appearances a day, six days a week, a pace he says has been "crushing" to his life with his wife and four young boys, ages 5, 7, 10 and 13.

"It's all about getting your message out, and I think we're doing that," he said.