When he’s not down in Richmond championing causes like immigration, gun control and marriage equality, you just might find Attorney General Mark Herring at King Street Coffee, a few blocks from his Leesburg home.
And you can be pretty sure he’s going to get recognized.
With public stands on high-profile issues putting him in the national spotlight, Virginia’s Loudoun-raised attorney general is taking his newfound celebrity status in stride and keeping up his image as an earnest, nose-to-the-grindstone public servant. But he can’t avoid a little bit of local fame—and lots of attention when he’s in town.
On a recent, unexpectedly balmy Friday afternoon, Herring strolled a few blocks from the downtown home he shares with Laura, his wife of nearly three decades, to the cozy, bustling café. He was greeted with handshakes and shout-outs from constituents, many he first knew as friends and neighbors.
It’s clear that Herring (who got almost 60 percent of the vote in Loudoun in November) is pretty darn popular in the town he represented in the state senate for eight years. And since he was elected to the AG post—by a hair in 2013 and by a much more comfortable margin last fall—he’s still a familiar face in Leesburg, where locals catch him on weekends jogging on the W&OD trail and heading to church or the grocery store.
November’s ubiquitous campaign signs touting Herring as “Loudoun’s Own” were pretty much spot on: Herring has been a Loudouner since the age of 12 when he moved to Hamilton with his mother and older sister. He sold eggs from a flock of three dozen hens to earn pocket money as a middle schooler and graduated from Loudoun Valley High School in 1979—when there were just four high schools in the county.
“It was a very different place,” Herring said. “But it was a great place to grow up. I have a lot of fond memories of the area and my friends.”
High school friends describe Herring as a quiet, hardworking achiever (and a solid tennis player). A guy they knew was going to succeed at something—but not necessarily a politician in the making. The son of a divorced single mother, Herring says he got plenty of life lessons from his mother, Jane, who died last May at 84.
“I can see in hindsight that things were tough on her. I could see it at the time, but she was strong, she was determined to raise her children, and she did,” Herring said. “I learned a lot of really important values from her—things like the importance of hard work, honesty. The importance of never turning away from injustice.”
He went to the University of Virginia for his undergraduate and master’s degrees and went on to law school at the University of Richmond. The summer before law school, he met Laura through mutual friends, and they married in 1989. After earning his law degree, Herring considered offers from big firms in big cities, but he and Laura decided their future lay in Loudoun.
“I thought, how neat would it be to go back to my hometown in Loudoun County and establish my law practice there and raise our family there. Laura and I talked about it and she was game so we did it,” he said. “It was a great decision.”
The newlyweds’ first home in Loudoun was a rented cottage north of Leesburg at Temple Hall Farm owned by the well-known Loudoun philanthropist A.V. “Val” Symington. Herring went into practice in Leesburg and took on a part-time gig as town attorney for the Town of Lovettsville.
His first foray into public office was a successful bid for the Leesburg District seat on the Board of Supervisors in 1999, after the county’s explosive growth in the early ’90s left school seats in short supply. His daughter, Peyton, now 25, and son, Tim, now 21, both attended public schools in Leesburg starting in the late ’90s so Herring had a firsthand view of the need for new schools.
“The schools were chronically overcrowded,” he said. “The way my mom raised me was if you see a problem in your community, you’ve got a responsibility to try to fix it and keep at it until you do.”
Advocating more funding for schools, helping plan for Metro stations in the county, and approving central Loudoun’s Bolen park were some of the highlights of his single four-year term.
“I love the job I have but I can also say that serving as a county supervisor was one of the most fulfilling things that I’ve done. Serving your community in that way is very fulfilling.”
Herring lost a 2003 Virginia State Senate race to incumbent Russ Potts in the more rural 27th District, which before redistricting in 2011 included parts of Leesburg and most of western Loudoun, along with a wide swath of Fauquier, Clarke and Frederick counties.
Herring and his family moved to downtown Leesburg just in time for him to run in a 2006 special election for state Senate from the more suburban, and more left-leaning, 33rd District. That seat opened up when Republican William C. Mims, now a Virginia Supreme Court justice, was appointed deputy attorney general. In an interesting twist of fate, Herring snagged back the seat that his stepfather, Democrat Charles L. Waddell—who was married to Jane for nearly 20 years before her death—held from 1972 to 1998.
Herring was re-elected to the state Senate seat in 2007 and 2011. Midway through his second senate term in 2013, when his predecessor, Republican Ken Cuccinelli, took a shot at the governorship, Herring jumped into an open race for attorney general, defeating current Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax in the primary.
And while opponents may place Herring in a similar social warrior category as his conservative firebrand predecessor, he prefers to frame his stances as rolling up his sleeves for constituents.
“I’m a proud Democrat,” he said. “When I ran for attorney general, it was because I believe the attorney general should be the people’s lawyer and that’s the approach that I brought… Every time I’ve run [for office], it’s been because there were specific things that I thought needed to be done and that I was in a position to do something about them.
After a nail-biter win against Mark Obenshain (the state certified margin of victory was 165 votes out of 2.2 million cast), Herring brought the AG’s office 180 degrees in the wake of Cuccinelli’s tenure. Shortly after taking office, Herring made national headlines by refusing to defend Virginia’s statewide ban on same sex marriage.
“It had a real impact on the national conversation in a positive way,” he said.
Herring also took a highly publicized stand in support of the Obama administration’s case to preserve the Affordable Care Act in 2015. And things ramped up even more when Donald J. Trump was elected president in 2016, putting Herring, along with a handful of governors and attorneys general across the country, in a position to take on the White House. Last March, Herring filed a high-profile amicus brief in a lawsuit against Trump’s controversial travel ban.
“It was happening right here in our own backyard,” Herring said. “Dulles Airport was one of the major epicenters. … I felt it was especially important for Virginia’s voice to be heard, and so many minority communities, particularly ethnic and religious minorities—especially the Muslim community—felt very threatened by this. I’ve heard from so many how much it meant to them to see their own attorney general standing up, and they felt proud to be a Virginian.”
As part of a statewide blue wave, Herring more easily won reelection in November, with more than 53 percent of the vote statewide. And he says that while some of his positions are headline grabbers, everything he does is about his constituents.
“My focus has been and will always be on what’s best for Virginia, but sometimes the work that we’re doing to help Virginians has national implications,” he said.
Earlier this year, Herring made news when he joined a coalition of 22 state attorneys general in suing the Federal Communications Commission for its rollback of net neutrality regulations. That effort got kudos from Leesburg resident Claire Crook, who waved Herring over while enjoying coffee with a friend at King Street Coffee.
“Our state is one of the states banding together to take some action and it makes me really proud because I think it’s really important,” Crook said.
And like many of her Loudoun neighbors, Crook likes the fact that Herring still hangs out in his old neighborhood.
“He seems really accessible. He’s around in the community. In this day and age, so many politicians are totally out of touch…It makes a difference when you’re around and you kind of get a feel for what people are thinking, what’s important to them…I feel like he’s the real deal.”
Herring is still known to neighbors as a down-to-earth local, despite a full professional plate, with a brand new administration and a brand new legislative session in Richmond, and plenty of controversial issues in Washington.
He spends most work weeks in Richmond, where he and Laura have an apartment. But they’ve kept their house in Leesburg, where Laura works as a middle school teacher.
“Leesburg is our home,” Herring said. “We don’t get to see each other as much as we would like to. … As a couple and as a family, we try to get together whenever we can.”
He spends as many weekends in Leesburg as possible, and he can usually be spotted around town—at Wegmans, Home Depot, Leesburg Presbyterian Church where he and Laura are longtime members, and occasionally at one of the town’s restaurants or craft breweries.
And yes, some local fans can get just a little starry-eyed—with one constituent reporting “geeking out” after shaking hands with Herring at a downtown First Friday event and jokey confessions on left-leaning Facebook groups about crushes on Loudoun’s own “silver fox.” But jokes aside, these social media fans make it pretty clear that it’s really his political stands that make them swoon.
Some observers were surprised when Herring opted not to run for governor in 2017, but Herring is cagey about future plans.
“I love helping people and using the law to help others,” he said. “I’m sure there will be a time in the future when I’ll need to think about how I can best serve, but that’s down the road.”
And whatever the future holds, it’s likely that Loudoun will have a prominent place in it.
“One of the things that both Laura and I appreciate so much is that folks here in Leesburg and Loudoun still welcome us as friends and neighbors,” Herring said. “I love Richmond. I love traveling all over Virginia. It’s a great state, it’s a diverse state. But there’s no place like home.”