Senator Mark Obenshain currently represents the 26th District. Senator Obenshain is campaigning to run as the Republican candidate for Attorney General of Virginia in this state’s fall election. Mark graduated from VT with a BA in 1984, and his JD in 1987 from Washington and Lee University School of Law. Obenshain is one of the founders of the Harrisonburg and Charlottesville-based law firm of Lenhart Obenshain PC. Mark was elected to the Senate of Virginia in 2003 where he currently serves. He is married and is a father of two.
VV: Why do you want to be AG?
MO: We are at a unique time in our nation’s history, one in which we are dealing with changing relationships between the states and the federal government. The increasing challenges posed by federal government overreach, is one that coincides — or, it brings together my political interest with my legal background. I’ve been a practicing lawyer for 26 years, and I’ve fought Constitutional cases for most of that time. These fights that are being fought by the Attorney General’s office right now, are some of the most important fights in recent history; the fight over Obamacare, the fight over EPA overreach, whether it’s in coal, or agriculture, or storm water. I think we’re going to have fights ahead on our Second Amendment rights and on Right-to-Work laws here in the Commonwealth. These issues are going to have a significant impact on Virginia, our economy, our rights, and our freedom. They are fights that fall within my wheelhouse, professionally speaking as well, and that makes it an especially important and inviting opportunity for me to have a significant impact on these critical disputes.
VV: So you see from your background in Constitutional law that the federal government has finally broken the Tenth Amendment, to the point where it has to be addressed?
MO: Well, I think that anytime the federal government overreaches in a manner that affects the rights of citizens and the prerogatives of the state, it creates a situation where we are duty-bound to stand up and push back, and I think that this is just such a time. I think that with Obamacare there still are important issues that remain to be resolved with respect to whether it’s enforceable against states that have not adopted exchanges, and whether the employer mandate is Constitutional. These are fights that are going to affect our economy, they’re going to affect our rights; they’re going to affect just about every aspect of our life in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
VV: What do you think of as a signature piece of legislature, that you sponsored, brought to the floor, and got passed in your time as a member of our House?
MO: There several, the foremost is the property rights amendment. However, that’s one that certainly my opponent and I both carried; he carried it in the House, I carried it in the Senate. I think both of us would probably say that’s one of the most important bills that passed in recent memory. And I salute his efforts, and I’m proud of my efforts on that. Aside from that, I’m proud of the fact that, last year, I secured passage of the first meaningful school choice bill ever to pass in Virginia. It’s modeled after Florida legislation, that is right now providing 40,000 kids in Florida with an opportunity to attend schools of their own choice and their family’s choice.
I’m proud of the fact that, last year, I secured passage of the so-called Project Labor Agreement, the PLA Bill that prohibited the use of a penny of our state taxpayers’ dollars to finance a union-only construction project; think metro extension — that bill was opposed by none other than Mark Herring, my likely opponent for Attorney General. Herring stood up and was the leading voice in opposition of that. One of the reasons that is particularly important is, it was just re-bid. The bids came back in, and we had more bidders when the process was opened up to non-union shops. Not surprisingly, the bids came in $300 million under projection — on the first $2 billion portion of the project. Now, that’s a bill that is going to make a real difference, in terms of the tolls being paid by residents of Northern Virginia who have to commute. It’s going to make a real difference, in terms of being able to commit more resources to actually putting asphalt on the ground, rather than lining the pockets of out-of-state union labor.
Two more quick bills that I think are significant: This year, I secured the passage of a Bill that I’d been working on since 2005, and that is the Photo I.D. bill. It just makes sense. You have to show a photo I.D. in order to buy cough syrup. I can’t imagine an argument why you shouldn’t have to show a photo I.D., in order to be able to vote.
I also carried this year the Concealed Carry Confidentiality Bill. Like in New York, early this year a newspaper published an interactive online database, showing blue dots for every home where a gun was owned. In New York, of course, you have to have a permit to own a gun; Virginia, you just have to have a permit to carry concealed, but we have experience with the same thing. The Roanoke Times, in 2007, ran an online database showing the location — or, the names and addresses of every concealed carry permit holder in Virginia. It’s part of a larger effort to stigmatize and vilify gun owners in this country. Those are a handful of meaningful bills that I’ve been able to get results on; not just introduced, but actually get passed. In many of those instances, we’ve had to rely on support from across the aisle and build those bipartisan coalitions to get meaningful legislation passed that affects people’s lives.
VV: What is your greatest regret, legislatively speaking? In other words, you voted for it, and you saw the outcome, and you went, man, I wish I hadn’t done that?
MO: I have a hard time thinking of a bill that I had buyer’s remorse for, where I regret that I voted on a particular — or, in a particular way; I’m sure they’re out there, and we all make mistakes. But, I’ve tried hard to draw bright lines and to tell people long in advance where I stand on the controversial issues; I try to be predictable. What I find is that there are a lot of people who cast those hard votes, who hold their finger to the proverbial political breeze, and they cast a vote on the basis of what direction it’s blowing in a particular time. The legislators I’ve encountered, who have the most buyer’s remorse, or regret after voting for or against a bill, are folks who have run for office, trying to make everybody their friend, trying not to offend anybody. What they find is, that by trying to do that, somebody is mightily surprised when it finally comes time to cast a vote on those controversial issues. And I’ve always made it my goal to never surprise people on those bills. They may not like how I vote, but I find that I don’t get a lot of harsh blowback when I tell people up front where I’m going to be. Now, please understand, I’m sure that there’s a bill that I will admit I made a mistake on, but that is certainly the exception rather than the rule.
VV: With which of the Founding Fathers do you most strongly identify with?
MO: That’s a great question. I would say either — it’s hard for me to pick between Jefferson and Madison. Jefferson is the great philosopher of freedom, the one who had such a gift for articulating the philosophy of individual liberty and personal freedom. Madison was the architect of the system that protected that philosophy. Living in Virginia, particularly in the part of Virginia I live in, it is a region of the state that is particularly tied to our history. Both Jefferson and Madison, they lived within 60 miles of my home, and I’m a great admirer of them both. Notwithstanding the fact that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Hokie, I still am a TJ fan.
VV: Liberty has many aspects enshrined in our Constitution; which of those aspects of liberty do you feel is most important? They all have their place, but some are a little harder to recover than others.
MO: It’s all about freedom for me; it’s all about personal freedom and individual liberty. You’re exactly right, freedom, once lost in the natural course of human events, is seldom ever regained. That makes it all the more valuable and all the more important that we draw those hard lines and say we’re not going to give up another inch. It’s easy for those in the legislature and executive office to say, oh, it’s just a little bit, it’s just a small measure. Over the course of centuries, and in the context of our current history, in the course of months, it seems that we are giving up more of our personal freedom and individual liberty at an alarming rate. It is time for us, in my view, not to simply draw those hard lines, not to simply be on the defensive. I think that it’s time for us to go on the offensive and say we want to take back some of that liberty, some of that freedom that we’ve lost, particularly that which we have lost over the course of the past four years.
VV: A lot of legislators want to be able to go back home and say they’re tough on crime. The result is the classification of a given act is escalated. Misdemeanors become felonies, or, something that before wasn’t even against the law, now is against the law. I call this felony creep. Over the past hundred years the number of laws on the books has exploded. What used to be your business, can now be a felony. Liberty demands that we allow ourselves the license to make fools of ourselves, or to harm ourselves, but it doesn’t give us the right to harm others. As AG where would you stand on this?
MO: I believe that our criminal justice system needs to be focused on pursuing justice. That does not mean — it’s not synonymous with locking them up and throwing away the key. I think that we have a duty and obligation in our criminal justice system, as with our education system, and every other government program, to reexamine the premises upon which our decisions were made, concerning the crime, and whether the crime fits the punishment, and whether the objectives of our criminal justice system are being furthered by the response; is it making our communities safer.
Is it about making kids safer, is it reducing the societal ills that may go along with it, and dependence upon government? We need to consistently examine, what are the ends we seek to achieve; are those ends important enough to be protected, and, is the punishment one that fits the crime and is achieving those ends? I’m not so proud as to suggest that we shouldn’t go back and reexamine the work that we have done on an ongoing basis. I think we should, and I applaud the efforts of the Attorney General to conduct that kind of an examination.
VV: Why you, and not Rob Bell?
MO: Well, I prefer to answer that question this way. I believe that I have certain qualifications, and experiences that uniquely position me for the job; number one, the breadth of the legislative background that I have. My work on educational choice, on economic freedom, those are issues that are near and dear to my heart, in addition to my work in the area of keeping our communities and kids, and those most vulnerable in our communities safe; that’s number one. Number two is, I bring a rather unique background in my law practice to this; having the amount of experience that I have in Constitutional law and litigation is an unusual qualification, and it’s particularly fitting and important for this point in our state’s history. I’ve handled well over a hundred Constitutional cases, I’ve had dozens in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, I’ve fought writs in the Supreme Court.
I’m experienced in managing law firms. The Attorney General’s office is one of the largest law firms in Virginia and certainly is the most important, with 265 lawyers. I have run law firms; I was managing partner of a firm with about 70 employees, until ten years ago, or 11 years ago, when I decided to run for the Senate. I left that firm, started a new one from scratch, which was grown to nearly 50 employees; so I’ve managed law firms. I’d like to say that managing lawyers is something easy, that anybody can do; but these people are trained to argue, they are not the easiest people in the world to manage. That said, there are outstanding professionals in the attorney general’s office.
Finally, I know the personnel in the office. Ken and I, we’re personally and politically close. Four years ago, he invited me to serve on his transition team and I spent the better part of a month in conference rooms in Fairfax and Richmond recruiting, interviewing, and giving advice to the Attorney General as he structured and built his office. I know the office, the job, and the work. The experiences that I’ve had, I think make me a pretty darn well-rounded candidate, equipped to do the job, without missing — I can take the baton from Ken, build on his work, without missing a step.
VV: Mark Herring is your opponent in the fall. How will you beat Mark Herring in the general election?
MO: I think there are a number of things. Number one is, I think that it is important for Virginians to know that we’re going to stand up for their values; and we’re going to stand up for important principles, like good stewardship, like promoting Virginia business, like promoting jobs in Virginia, and fighting against unnecessary government regulations. I think that there is going to be a stark contrast between Mark Herring and me.
Mark Herring, on the Project Labor Agreement Bill, could not have been more clear in his advocacy for special interests, for organized labor, in a manner that was going to cost Virginians a hunk of change, $300 million as of right now. What I supported was good stewardship; saving the taxpayers’ dollars, Virginia jobs, Virginia businesses, making a meaningful difference in the commutes and lives of people in Loudon County, Fairfax County, throughout Northern Virginia. That’s a bread and butter issue that goes across the rest of Virginia, and, frankly, it’s important to Northern Virginia as well. Mark Herring has made it very clear that he wants out of what he characterizes as political fights, including the fight with the EPA, including the war on coal, or the war on stormwater.
We’ve got two great examples here, of Mark Herring and the democrats turning their back on the needs of Virginians. Mark Herring wouldn’t have fought the stormwater fight; Ken Cuccinelli and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors did. They did it in a way that saved Virginians — you could say Fairfax County residents– tens of millions of dollars in transportation costs, and Virginians– hundreds of millions of dollars in transportation costs. You know, that’s money that is otherwise going to be spent for politically correct, politically motivated ends, and it isn’t going to make anybody’s life any better. Second, on coal and energy, we’ve got a situation in which Mark Herring and the democrats would not push back against the EPA.
It’s not just a bunch of coal miners it affects; it is our transportation system, it is manufacturing and jobs in Virginia. If we shut down half of our power generation facilities in Virginia and build new power generation facilities, it’s going to drive up the cost of electricity. Manufacturers cannot afford to continue to do business in Virginia. And more basically and fundamentally than that, we have families who are going to be put in a position of having to make a choice between paying their electric bill, and buying groceries. I talked to a lady just yesterday on the telephone, in Southside, Virginia, who said, over the past two years her electric bill has gone up by more than 50 percent. That’s a direct result of the EPA’s efforts to change the economy in Virginia, by driving coal out of business.
What people are starting to realize is that this politically motivated war on coal, is a war on families in Virginia; it’s a war on wage earners in Virginia, it’s a war on everybody who has to pay an electric bill in the Commonwealth of Virginia. You know, we’re getting to a point where this is hurting real people across the Commonwealth of Virginia. I think that’s how we’ll win.