Monday, June 06, 2005

GOP candidates for attorney general trade barbs as primary nears

Del. Bob McDonnell emphasizes his legal experience, while Richmond lawyer Steve Baril says he'll be "the people's lawyer."

Blue Ridge Caucus


The latest from our Blue Ridge Caucus politics blog

    From The Roanoke Times

    RICHMOND - The Republican candidates for attorney general talk plenty tough on issues of crime and punishment as they campaign for the June 14 primary.

    But in the waning days of their nomination fight, Virginia Beach Del. Bob McDonnell and Richmond lawyer Steve Baril are reserving some of their harshest language to describe each other. The primary contest amounts to a battle between an experienced, influential legislator with a long list of endorsements and a private trial attorney promising to be "the people's lawyer." The GOP primary winner will face Democratic state Sen. Creigh Deeds of Bath County in the general election. Deeds has no opposition for his party's nomination.

    The attorney general's office provides legal advice and representation to the governor and state agencies, writes advisory opinions for legislators and local governments, defends criminal convictions on appeal, and defends state laws when they are challenged in court.

    McDonnell, 50, is emphasizing his legal experience and a 14-year legislative career in which he played key roles in Republican-sponsored initiatives to reform the welfare system, abolish parole and enact abortion restrictions. McDonnell chairs the House Courts of Justice Committee that writes civil and criminal laws and screens judicial candidates. He also serves on the Virginia Crime Commission.

    "I'm trying to tell people 'I've been there, I've made these reforms, they're working,'" McDonnell said. "I've got all the experience it takes to get things done, and my opponent doesn't have any of that. He's the candidate with promises and plans and no track record. I think that's a major selling point."

    Baril, 50, is a lawyer with the Richmond firm of Williams Mullen, which also employs Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore. Baril has never held an elected office, but he does have family ties to one of the most respected families in Virginia politics. His wife, Mary, is the daughter of the late Gov. John Dalton, the Radford Republican who served as governor from 1978-82. Baril promotes his experience as a litigator and casts McDonnell as "a career politician."

    McDonnell effectively began running for attorney general in early 2002, lining up an impressive network of supporters that helped give him front-runner status. Baril decided to get into the race a year later, figuring McDonnell's early start already had chased other would-be candidates from the playing field.

    "I think I've worked harder than Bob," said Baril, who had raised more campaign cash than McDonnell through the end of March. "I think anybody would say we've made it a race."

    McDonnell said Baril has no grass-roots support to show for his efforts and has resorted to negative campaigning to spark his candidacy. Baril last week criticized McDonnell for representing clients before state regulatory agencies such as the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board and the Department of Environmental Quality, accusing the delegate of profiting from a practice that Kilgore condemned during his stint as attorney general.

    "This is wrong, this is unethical and it should be against the law," Baril said at a news conference, where he brandished a box of laundry detergent and urged McDonnell to "come clean."

    Baril also called on McDonnell to disclose the names of all the clients he represented in those matters, even though the law does not require specific disclosure.

    McDonnell fired back the same day, calling Baril's attacks "desperate" and defending his legal work. McDonnell produced an advisory opinion from the Virginia State Bar's ethics counsel, who declared that lawyer-legislators face no inherent conflicts of interest by appearing before state regulatory boards. James McCauley, the ethics counsel, wrote that barring lawyer-legislators from such work "would create a huge disincentive" for lawyers to seek public office.

    Baril also has questioned McDonnell's commitment to gun rights, noting that the lawmaker voted for legislation that limits handgun purchases to one per month. McDonnell said he now considers the 1993 law unnecessary and would support its repeal. Baril also wants the restriction scrapped from the books.

    The candidates also have squabbled over their platforms, which deal mostly with criminal justice issues. McDonnell has criticized Baril for demanding reforms in the state's criminal sentencing guidelines, which Baril blames for allowing too many offenders in theft and drug cases to avoid jail time. The co-chairmen of Gov. George Allen's 1994 commission on parole abolition and sentencing reform rallied to McDonnell's side, releasing a letter that called Baril's stance "factually wrong and unwise as a matter of law enforcement policy."

    Baril also wants to add 100 state troopers to deploy in crime "hot spots" around the state. And he has called for expanding the availability of drug court programs, which offer specialized treatment and training programs as alternatives to jail. McDonnell said any decision to expand drug courts should be deferred until the Virginia Supreme Court completes a study on the effectiveness of existing programs.

    McDonnell's major policy initiatives include a multifaceted plan to increase penalties for violent sex crimes and improve the state's sex offender registry. McDonnell wants to double the minimum sentence for raping a child and use global positioning system tracking devices to monitor released sex offenders.

    "I think it's a pressing public safety problem," McDonnell said. "That's why I brought that up and want to be a champion for that."

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