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Republican attorneys general unite in an attempt to shed their minority status; Virginia's Mark Earley is among those leading the charge.

General Quarters

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Seated in his expansive Main Street office overlooking the Capitol, Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley immediately brings to mind a few nouns.

"Lawyer" is one. Another is "politician." If you knew that he had six children, "family man" might come to mind.

But one word that definitely would not come to mind on that first glance is "minority."

But that's exactly what he is.

Earley is a Republican attorney general, and of the 43 state attorneys general elected to their office, only 12 are members of the Grand Old Party.

Last month, Earley and his fellow Republican attorneys general took a step to address their sparse numbers and what they perceive as a lack of representation within the overwhelmingly Democratic National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG).

"Our goal is to develop a forum for issues and do what we can to help see more [Republican] attorneys general elected around the nation," says Earley, who has been elected secretary of the group.

Earley and Bill Pryor, Alabama's attorney general, began seriously discussing its formation at last year's meeting of the NAAG. The attorneys general took up the idea again at the NAAG spring meeting in Washington, and from there the concept gained steam.

After securing support from the Republican National Committee, the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) announced its formation June 8 — patterned after the successful Republican Governors Association — one week before this year's summer NAAG conference in Nashville, Tenn.

While it may take some time, the potential effect of a solid majority of Republican attorneys general is considerable. In several recent decisions, the Supreme Court has reaffirmed the power of the states over the federal government, and that gives more power to the attorneys general, a state's chief legal officer.

In addition, Larry J. Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center For Governmental Studies, points out that "after the lieutenant governor ... the state attorney general position is probably the most important escalator to [higher] office." He jokes that the NAAG is often referred to as the National Association of Aspiring Governors, and cites Jim Gilmore and Gerald Baililes as two attorneys general among many who rose to the statehouse.

Earley also recognizes this. "It's plain from watching a lot of people move up in leadership positions around the nation," Earley says. "We as Republican leaders want to increase the pool of Republican leadership talent."

The timing of the announcement caused a few ripples at the Nashville NAAG conference.

Did the formation of a group dedicated to unseating Democratic attorneys general cause any friction at the NAAG meeting, which was teeming with Democrats?

"There was a little bit," Earley replies with a chuckle.

Mark Pryor, Arkansas' Democratic attorney general, was not laughing. On June 18, he sent a letter to all of the Republican attorneys general asking them to rethink the formation of the group. The letter begins, "I was concerned, in fact disturbed, to learn of your new organization."

Darrin Williams, Mark Pryor's chief of staff, explains that the Arkansas Democrat was very concerned that the group's formation would heighten partisan tension within the ranks of the attorneys general and prevent them from working together on litigation of concern to all of the states.

"The attorney general [office] is not partisan," Williams says. "[There is] no Republican or Democratic way to file an appeal, or represent the state."

Williams says that the job of attorney general is to be "the best advocate of the client, the state, without regard for partisanship."

He suggests the group was a ploy by some businesses and organizations to "divide and conquer" the attorneys general and prevent the group from filing suits, such as the class-action tobacco litigation and the antitrust suit against Microsoft, that have made the attorneys general a headline-making force.

Jonathan Amacker, Earley's deputy press secretary, categorically denies any special-interest role in the RAGA's formation. He says that the only people who were in on the group's conception and formation were the disenfranchised Republican attorneys general themselves.

Earley dismisses the idea of partisan politics getting in the way of attorneys general doing their jobs. "The vast majority of things we work on have nothing to do with partisan politics, and that's the way it ought to be." Earley says. To illustrate the point, he mentions his youth mentoring program and says that the program was adopted almost verbatim by Michael Moore, the Democratic attorney general of Mississippi and the former head of NAAG.

Alabama's Pryor says the group will focus initially on formulating policy, and slowly move into the fund-raising and election realm. "We can have a more immediate impact on the policy side than we can on the election side, but I think [the] two are equally important goals for the long-term impact of the organization."

Sabato thinks it'll take a few years to see any results from the group, a group he was very surprised to learn wasn't already in existence.

"They got a while to go," Sabato says. But he thinks they could begin to make an impact by 2002. "[They'll] need that long to organize and raise money. In the end it all depends on how much money they put into it, "Sabato says.

The group held one fund-raiser already, in late June, but Earley says a planned fall meeting of the RAGA will address the question of the group's precise direction.

Ben Dupuy, the new group's executive director, hopes to make an impact before Sabato's estimate . In the next two years, 13 attorneys general are up for reelection, and 12 of those are Democrats. "We're hoping to close that gap," Dupuy says.

Earley, whose own eventual gubernatorial run Sabato calls "inevitable," persists in taking a longer view, and a more conciliatory one.

"It shouldn't surprise you that we want to see the Republicans have a majority," Earley says. "But it also shouldn't surprise you that we want to work together while [Democrats] are in the

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