A top Republican legislator was ready to pounce after Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, informally said on Dec. 7 that he plans to run for governor in 2021.
"If he is a man of his word, Mark Herring’s resignation will be on Governor (Ralph) Northam’s desk by the end of the year," House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said in news release four days later.
For nearly three decades, it was customary for Virginia attorneys general to resign when they ran for governor. The tradition was broken in 2013 by Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican who lost the gubernatorial election that year to Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Cuccinelli was criticized by many Democrats and editorial writers for remaining attorney general throughout the campaign.
Herring was on the Democratic ticket in 2013, making his first of two successful runs for attorney general. Gilbert says Herring made a "pledge" then to resign as the state’s chief lawyer should he run for governor. Gilbert points to the following paragraph in a Sept. 30, 2013 article in The Virginian-Pilot:
"In line with his pledge to take politics out of the office, Herring has said he would resign as attorney general if he decided to run for governor. Cuccinelli has weathered criticism for staying in office as he campaigns for governor, bucking a pattern set by several of his predecessors."
Gilbert said, "If Herring is serious about his announced plan to run for governor, he must immediately make good on his pledge to resign his office."
Michael Kelly, a spokesman for Herring, said the attorney general "will not be resigning anytime soon." Is this tantamount to Herring reversing his position on resigning, as Gilbert says? We put the matter to the Flip-O-Meter, which gauges whether politicians have been consistent on issues.
Timing is pivotal
Election Day for the next governor in Nov. 2, 2021 - almost three years ahead.
Nine attorneys general have resigned to run for governor over the last seven decades, and they all waited to the election year to step down. Here are their names, political party, and the month and year they left their posts:
- •Lindsay Almond Jr., D, August 1957;
- •Albertis Harrison, D, April 1961;
- •Andrew Miller, D, January 1977;
- •Gerald Baliles, D, January 1985;
- •Mary Sue Terry, D, January 1993;
- •Jim Gilmore, R, June 1997;
- •Mark Earley, R, June 2001;
- •Jerry Kilgore, R, February 2001; and
- •Bob McDonnell, R, February 2009.
There’s no precedent for an attorney general seeking a promotion in state government to resign three years before the next gubernatorial election - as Gilbert demands - or even one year out. It’s a stretch to assume that Herring implied groundbreaking action when he promised that he, too, would step down.
Kelly, Herring’s spokesperson, dismisses Gilbert’s statement as "manufactured outrage." Kelly noted the Pilot's article ran about a month before the 2013 general election and, at that time, Cuccinelli stayed as attorney general despite "campaigning full time for governor for many, many months."
Kelly added that "Herring has told folks what he intends to do in a few in a few years, but ain’t exactly ‘running a campaign’ at the moment, so the situations are very different."
In 2013, Herring said he would resign as attorney general if he decided to run for governor. Now that he has acknowledged his intention to run for governor in 2021, Gilbert is calling on Herring to honor his pledge and immediately step down as attorney general. Herring will not.
We don’t find this hypocritical. The next gubernatorial election is almost three years away. The nine attorneys general who have resigned to run for governor since 1957 all waited to the election year to do so. There’s no reason to believe that Herring, who did not specify when he would resign, was promising anything different. Herring "has told folks what he intends to do in a few years," his spokesman says.
Herring has been consistent. We rate this "No Flip."