Interview with Jay Jones, Democratic Candidate for Virginia Attorney General

Below is the full transcript of my interview with Jay Jones. Delegate Jones is currently running for the Democratic nomination for Attorney General. He is currently the Delegate for the 89th district in Virginia. I want to thank Delegate Jones for taking the time to speak with me. Full audio of the interview is located on our podcast partners or at the end of the article.

What made you decide to run in this election?

For me, the answer has always been that we rise to meet big moments. I think this is a moment in Virginia’s history, where we have gone through a tremendous amount of pain and grief. That relates to the pandemic, the killing of George Floyd and a number of things we’ve seen across this commonwealth and this country. I think Virginia is ready to close the chapter we’ve just ended with Donald Trump and his administration on the way out. We’re picking up the pen in 2021 in the first elections of the post-Trump era and I think Virginia is ready for a new faces, different leadership, fresh perspective and I hope to be a part of that

You come from a very politically active family, your father was a member of the general assembly for 14 years, worked in the Warner administration and is currently a judge in the circuit court, your mother is also a current judge. How much of an impact has your family had on your goals and ideals in politics? 

My family is a big part of who I am. My story is not particularly unique to black folks across Virginia or the South. I am the descendent of slaves on both sides of my family. But, my grandfather, Hilary H. Jones is the one who really lights up my life. He was born and raised in Norfolk, like me. He left for college and law school, like me. When he came back in the 1950s, it was a different time. He had the opportunity to go to other places, but he chose to return to Norfolk, his hometown at a time when it wasn’t particularly friendly to black folks. I often tell people I wish I could ask him why he made that choice, and my father says, “it’s probably for the same reason you did, because you thought you could make a difference.”

He and my father and my uncle integrated a school here in 1960 and he was very engaged in the Civil Rights movement as an attorney. He was the first black member of the school board here in Norfolk. His commitment and his passion for helping communities that had been left behind or left out, left an incredible mark on me. Although, we never met, he died before I was born, it’s his example that guides me each and every day. Certainly my family has been involved publicly for quite some time. We try to give ourselves to help other people. I come by this through my own passions and my own desires to improve the lives of Virginians, all eight and a half million of us. Whether it’s familial or whether it’s learned through school or whether its life experience, we all come by this earnestly. For me, I think we’ve got this incredible opportunity ahead of us to seize the moment and take Virginia on a new path this next decade, that will highlight all the important things to us.

How do you define the role of the Attorney General’s office?

Every Attorney General’s office across the nation is different. They are all constituted differently in each state. The roles and responsibilities are not identical. In Virginia, the only thing the Attorney General can do is put out statues via the state legislature. It is a consumer protection office, it is the people’s lawyer. That’s what I hope to be. I think more than anything, the Attorney General is a symbol for justice and the legal system in the state. I tell people, who better to be the face of the state’s justice system than someone who looks like what that system has oppressed for 400 years. I think it would be a very symbolic gesture, not just to the state, but to the country about where Virginia is going. That’s important to me.

Also, we’ve got to make sure that every person in this commonwealth knows what the Attorney General’s office can do for them. They’re working for them day to day, making sure they are offering themselves up to be the lawyer for the people. It is very easy to sit in your office and join amicus briefs or put them out with federal lawsuits. That’s fine and good, but most folks, they need your help. You’ve got to be there for them and be in front of them. So we’re going to take the office to the people to really be the peoples lawyer. That is what I hope to do, but I do think this is an incredible opportunity as we forge ahead in this new Virginia decade. Standing shoulder to shoulder, to demonstrate to our citizens that we are not only there to protect them, but we are there to fight for them. And to lead instead of waiting for the winds to turn. We want to be the people meeting the moment and stepping up that we need in this time. I hope folks will elect me so that we can do that.

With the events over the summer, especially the murders of George Floyd and Brionna Taylor, how much will a focus on policing reform be a part of your plan as Attorney General? 

It’s a very important part of the conversation that we’re having at every level of government and I think it’s a necessary and overdue conversation. In general in Virginia, you have a limited role on the criminal side of things. We are hoping that I have a bill for the winter session that will create a civil rights office in the Attorney General, which would give full investigational power to root out institutional racism in our banks, in our government and even within the Attorney General’s office itself. This is a huge part of who we are. We have a moment to really redefine our policing system, to redefine our criminal justice system, to reform our criminal code. To really show people what we’re all about. We are working under a system that clearly has its roots in Jim Crow and the black codes that has been papered over for far too long.

As Attorney General and as a black Attorney General, I will use that office as a bully pulpit. I am coming out of the legislature with great relationships with my colleagues and they know where I stand on this. I will be relentless in beating the drum. It won’t take an incident for me to snap to it, it won’t take someone say it. It will be my lived experience that brought me to this point and that’s why it is so important to me. I will tell you Joe, I felt those bullets in my back when Jacob Blake was shot. I felt that knee on my neck when George Floyd was choked in Minnesota. As a black American, as a black Virginian, we feel these things. And it is important to me and to so many others across this commonwealth, that we address this problem head on and that is something I pledge to do as your next Attorney General.

What are some things you would change as Attorney General from what the office is doing under Mark Herring currently?

Obviously justice reform, we can lean into that in a way that was not done before. I think it’s convenient to come to the party when everyone else is there. Again, we will be leading from the front on that. I also think that labor is another issue. Worker declassification and wage theft are things that have gone unaddressed for far too long in this commonwealth. We are going to create a labor group that is going to address those claims, highlighting and valuing working people in Virginia. Then the energy and environmental space. I come from Hampton Roads, we are ground zero for climate change in Virginia.

It is important to me that not only do we have clean air and water, but that our utilities and energy companies are operating fairly. We are going to put resources into the energy group to make sure we have the firepower to compete with and against the regulating utilities, which frankly I believe are unconstitutional. In the system that we have though, they have far too much control. If you are the voice of the people to make sure you’re protecting the rights of the consumer. That’s something I’ve worked very hard on in the legislature. I’ve been an outspoken critic of Dominion and their practices and that will continue when I am Attorney General.

Speaking of Mark Herring, he is running for re-election. You have decided to stay in this race in the Democratic primary, how and why do you think you can beat him?

The beauty of this country is that if you feel like you have the vision, energy, passion for any office, whether it be federal, state or local, you can offer yourself up to the people and that’s what we’re going to do. I can’t speak for why the Attorney General has decided to run for re-election. We’ve been talking about this for the better part of a year now. We’re very excited and we’re building a coalition from across the commonwealth who believe in that. I’m proud of the fact we’ve been endorsed by over 80 elected officials, federal, state and local from every part of Virginia who say this is where we’d like to go in this new Virginia decade. I think we have an opportunity here to put some different people at the table. I think we all can agree that good things have happened over the last few years, but Virginia is at a crossroads. We are at moment in our trajectory where we can figure out who we want to be and where we want to go.

I think it’s important that we have a diverse set of folks who have lived experiences, who aren’t afraid of taking the bold stance and putting themselves out there to do these things. Frankly, I think it’s very easy for folks to write candidates off who aren’t the incumbent. If that was the case, we wouldn’t have competitive primaries. We’d just give these elections away to the folks who have been in office forever and ever. No seat is owed to one person, that’s very important, never forget that. This is an election that’s going to be competitive, it’s going to be a dogfight and it’s going to be a lot of fun. Because I think everyone is going to have the opportunity to put themselves out to the people of Virginia and ask for their vote, which is how we move forward.

How has it been running a statewide campaign under the stress of the pandemic and the limitations that come with it?

Obviously nobody expected where we’d be right now way back in December of last year. Those are the circumstances and I know we’re all working very diligently to make it better. The vaccine offers a glimmer of hope as it gets rolled out here and across the country. I hope everyone’s wearing their masks and staying distant. It’s changed the dynamics of how you campaign. It’s a lot of Zoom calls. Obviously large gatherings are no longer a thing. It forces you to be more active. I’ve spent a lot of time in front of a computer screen getting to know folks across the commonwealth and it’s been a joy.

Before the pandemic we were certainly traveling. I was the finance chair for the House caucus, so I got to go all over the state and help candidates stump and raise money that helped us flip the House in 2019. We’ve been building towards this for a while, but you’ve certainly got to be innovative and creative. The team we’ve put together certainly has the capacity and the ideas to do so and execute. You’ve got to make lemonade from lemons and we’re trying to do that best we can.

What is your position on mail-in balloting, and how will you defend that as Attorney General, especially as it continues to be a controversial topic? 

Certainly we want to make sure that the voting process is safe and accessible to everyone. In Virginia we did an incredible job expanding access to the ballot box, even before the pandemic hit. I think that speaks volumes to our commitment to the electoral process. Certainly as Attorney General we will be making sure to vindicate everyones right to express themselves at the ballot box. That is, to me, what makes us American. That we have the right to vote in this country and you should be able to go do so without intimidation or fear of retribution. We are not like some of these countries across the globe where the elections are rigged and there’s violence. As Attorney General, I want to make sure that everybody, no matter who you are or where you’re from, can go to express yourself at the ballot box.

Whether it’s early or in person, to it do safely, but mail in ballots have certainly been helpful. I voted absentee this year in the primary and in the general, because it’s the safest thing to do. So to the extent we can continue this practice we will and we will make sure it stays on the books.

You’d be one of the youngest statewide elected officials ever in Virginia if you were to win this race. How much is your age and thus your different perspective on issues going to matter in your campaign? 

You can’t see me right now, but I do have an incredible amount of gray hair on my head, so I might look a little older than I actually am. Look, in my day to day life I’m a trial attorney. I’m in the courtroom three or four times a week. I’ve been in the legislature for several years now. Combined with my lived experience, I’ve got everything it takes to be the next Attorney General and a fantastic Attorney General on day one. I’m ready to go right now. I do believe what you’ve seen these last couple of years, especially in Virginia, is that young people have gotten so involved in the process.

When I was elected several years ago, I was one of the youngest folks who came in. Now we have people in their 30s and 40s. This is not the General Assembly of Virginia of the past. Different folks, younger folks, are involved, staying involved and their voices are important to the conversation and dialogue we’re having. I do think we have been able to capture the energy and passion of the young people in Virginia. We’re going to continue to do that because our future is at stake. Our future depends on this and that’s very important to me as I continue on this campaign.

You are currently one of the only Democratic candidates in any of the three statewide races to come from the coastal area of the state. How important do you think your viewpoint will be coming from this area of the state when other parts of your ticket are likely to come from the Northern Virginia area? 

I think it’s interesting to note that two of the last three governors have come from Hampton Roads. Ralph Northam and Bob McDonnell were both from this area, and one of my first votes was for Ralph Northam. Hampton Roads is an important part of Virginia’s success. We’ve got great assets, the Port of Virginia, the naval base, we’ve got beaches. We’re important as well. Northern Virginia certainly is a growing area, it’s rapidly diversifying, but this is a state that has 8 and a half million people.

We have urban, rural, suburban, exurban, all races creeds and colors. I think that’s great and I think what you’ll see as we continue to forge ahead is that different folks are putting themselves at the table. Virginia is is rapidly diversifying and we would be well served to have those voices in the conversation and in the mix. I think what you see with a lot of the statewide candidates is that diversity. So, whether it’s geographic or racial, we have an embarrassment of riches. I think we’d do well to highlight some of the talent that is coming up in our ranks because that’s going to be important for appealing in general elections in 2021 and beyond.

What would be one of the day one issues you would fight for if you are elected Attorney General of Virginia? 

A day one issue will always be healthcare. Access to healthcare, protecting folks, giving them an ability to maintain their existing plans. Making sure people are not being denied because of pre-existing conditions. Who knows how long this pandemic will continue on, but I think that will always be at the forefront of folks mind. I will tell you, who knows what the future will hold. Things can change on a dime and in an instant.

Whatever happens on day one, we will be ready, we will surround ourselves with excellent people. The Attorney General’s office has always been stacked very well, but we will continue to put experienced and passionate folks in places that will allow them to succeed and that will allow them to serve the people best. Because at the end of the day that is what we are there for.

Joe is a college student studying Public Administration at George Mason University while also minoring in Journalism. Joe is the Head of the Interviews Team at Elections Daily, while also Deputy Director of the Elections Team. If you would like your candidate to be interviewed by Joe, you can DM him at his Twitter account @JosephSzymanski or email him @[email protected]

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