As a 6-year-old, Jason Miyares helped his mother to learn the Pledge of Allegiance for her upcoming naturalization ceremony, an event that deeply affected both of their lives. More than a half-century later, on Jan. 15 of this year, he became the first Hispanic American to hold statewide office in the commonwealth of Virginia when he was sworn in as attorney general. His election to that office, after six years as a conservative voice in the Virginia House of Delegates, represents the culmination of a family journey that began decades ago in Communist Cuba. Miyares is an optimist about the American character, which he views not as the Washington-obsessed squabbling portrayed by the media but as civic-minded and charitable, with a citizenry that routinely reaches across partisan divides. He challenges those who doubt that spirit to attend a naturalization ceremony and witness how America remains the land of second chances.
Since his swearing in, which his mother witnessed in person, Miyares has signaled an activist stance as the state’s self-described “new sheriff” – firing 30 attorneys in his first week, including the entire staff of the civil rights division; urging the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs. Wade, writing that the decision should be made by the states; and seeking the dismissal of a school mask mandate in the commonwealth. It has been a busy start.
Just prior to taking his new office, Miyares spoke with Governing Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
From Cuba, The U.S. Is A World Away
Governing: Before you were elected as Virginia’s attorney general, you served six years in Virginia’s House of Delegates. Talk a little about your personal story.
Jason Miyares: I was elected almost 50 years to the day that my mother fled Communist Cuba as a scared, penniless, homeless teenager. It was a remarkable moment when she was able to walk into a voting booth and vote for her son. That’s the American miracle. We are still striving to become a more perfect union, but sometimes it’s OK to step back and recognize that, imperfect though it is, we have this miraculous system. America is a nation of second chances. We give more second chances to more people with more backgrounds, more faiths, more races and more creeds than any country in the history of the world. One of my earliest memories is seeing my mother become a U.S. citizen. Teaching my mother the Pledge of Allegiance as a 6-year-old child so she could then recite it at her naturalization ceremony made a formative imprint on my soul. This country is different. It is something to cherish and to preserve and to protect.
Governing: How worried are you about the politicization of the kind of work that you do?
Jason Miyares: Politics has poisoned so much in our society right now. One problem has been the way the news media has covered it. If you watch Fox News or MSNBC, you’ll think everybody has either a red or a blue jersey and that all they do is get together and yell at each other. The reality is that 99 percent of Americans do not live their life like that. We have never been a Washington-centric society. We were a growing nation when the Royal Court sent Alexis de Tocqueville over from France to give them an idea of how America ticks.
Tocqueville knew that if you really want to know about France, you go to Paris. If you really want to know what makes England work, you go to London. So he went to Washington, only to be immediately crestfallen by the backwater town with mud-thrown roads. The realization that America was not Washington-focused led to his tour of America and eventually to Democracy in America. Tocqueville found that while Americans were individualistic, they were also very community-oriented. There is not a society on the globe that gives the amount of money to charity or the amount of volunteer hours as Americans. That communal, civic-minded sense has always been part of the American character.
But the media portrayal of America is that we’re always at each other’s throats. I have dear friends that I socialize with, that I interact with every day and that think very differently than I do politically. Most Americans do. We don’t live our lives the way the media portrays us. Most elected officials realize that, and they’re more concerned about their local community, or their child’s school, or going to the game this weekend, than in what political food fight is happening in Washington or in their respective state capital. One of my favorite quotes from Thomas Jefferson says, “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.” That’s the way most Americans feel. The people in Washington, D.C., need a little dose of perspective. If you go to Arlington National Cemetery and walk along those crosses and Stars of David, there’s not an R or a D next to anyone’s name. Always be mindful that individuals very different from you politically have given the last full measure of devotion for this country.
“Civility is not weakness.”
— Jason Miyares
Governing: How do we move away from the vitriol and demonization that consume our politics?
Jason Miyares: Turning off our television sets would be a good step. Another is engaging with each other, breaking bread. Disagree without being disagreeable. Civility is not weakness. We would not have our Constitution if wise and illustrious men did not learn to compromise and reach an agreement. We have to have that sense of humility. The Wall Street Journal reported that in a poll of college students, 66 percent said it was OK to shout down the voice of someone that you differ with politically. An additional 23 percent said it was OK to use violence. That’s the opposite of how we should function as a country. Our higher institutions need to promote a marketplace of ideas where we respect the freedom of speech that allows people to engage and debate. The Socratic method is about asking questions, not making statements. We need to get back to that. There are countries that are rising up in this century that are diametrically opposed to the idea of individual freedom and dignity. We as a country can only confront these challenges if we’re a united people.
Governing: Some states have passed legislation that would appear, at least to critics, to be voter restriction laws. To what extent does the attorney general of Virginia have to think about these questions?
Jason Miyares: The voter laws in Virginia are determined by the General Assembly, the duly elected body, so I will defend those laws. I’m not going to arbitrarily decide that we’re not going to defend certain laws. My general philosophy is that it should be easy to vote and hard to cheat. People should have confidence in this. But I’m going to defend whatever laws the General Assembly passes, unless it violates the U.S. Constitution or the Voting Rights Act. But the Constitution gives the states a lot of leeway with election laws. We have divided government in Virginia right now. The state Senate is controlled by Democrats and the House is controlled by Republicans, so whatever is coming out of the General Assembly is going to be the result of compromise. We call it the Virginia way, which means that Republicans and Democrats can work together and get a lot of stuff done. I hope and pray that the poisonous politicization and partisanship we see in Washington gets stuck in traffic and never makes its way down to Richmond.
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
— Jason Miyares
Governing: Do you feel that the election of 2020 in Virginia was scrupulous?
Jason Miyares: I’m a former prosecutor. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Joe Biden won in Virginia. That wasn’t a shock to anybody that lived in suburbia. Was there fraud? Of course. You can find fraud in almost every election, but that’s not the question. The question is whether there was enough fraud to overturn the end result, and there wasn’t. Over 60 cases have been filed challenging the 2020 election, and after hearing the evidence, not a single judge gave any credibility to the claims. Election integrity is important, but the reality is that Joe Biden won Virginia, and that wasn’t a surprise to me. I know a lot of voters that have traditionally voted Republican that voted for President Biden but voted for a Republican for Congress.
Governing: If some of the anticipated decisions by the Supreme Court are realized, do you foresee a flurry of regulation legislation across the country?
Jason Miyares: Anybody who can predict the Supreme Court is way more intelligent than I am. I’m a passionate believer in the rule of law and an independent judiciary. That is critical. If you go to Cuba, to Russia, to China, to North Korea, there’s no independent judiciary. None. In Virginia, the General Assembly picks the judges, and then they’re sworn in. This is an example of the genius of our founders. It was in Federalist Paper No. 51 that Madison said that if men were angels, there’d be no reason for government. One way you get government to control itself is to separate powers. The General Assembly voluntarily gives up power to the judge. And while I may pass a law, I am barred by the Virginia Constitution from picking up the phone and calling a judge to tell them to rule a certain way. It’s a system that works. An independent judiciary is one example of the genius that protects our liberties.
Governing: How do you maintain your character in the face of the dynamics of American political life?
Jason Miyares: It’s important for anybody in any position to surround yourself with people that don’t care that you have any title next to your name. I have close friends that advise me. They have been my friends for 20-plus years, and they will be my friends well past my season of service. My wife is definitely one of those individuals. No matter what stage you’re on, if you’re in servant leadership, surround yourself with people who are not afraid to tell you when you’re flat out wrong or when you need to get your head out of your rear end. You need those individuals. I also maintain perspective. The more I study history, the more I realize that no matter what I do in this role, I’m going to be forgotten. One of my favorite things to do at the Virginia Capitol these past six years was to go in at night when it was abandoned and look at the photos from the sessions many years in the past. When I looked at those names, I realized that 100 years from now, someone else is going to be in this seat. It’s not my seat. It belongs to the people that elected me. Everything that I’m doing now is likely to be forgotten, and that’s not a bad thing. My job is to serve, not to be served. My sense of value and self-worth does not come from this title or any job. The second it does is when I’ll get in trouble.
“Anytime you think this country is on the brink and on the edge, go to a naturalization ceremony.”
— Jason Miyares
Governing: How worried are you about the future of this country?
Jason Miyares: Our political system is clearly broken. A wise person once said that politics is downstream from culture, and as our culture has gotten coarser, so has our politics and our political discourse. But going back to my earlier point, we’re not a Washington-focused country. Most Americans live their lives and don’t think about Washington, which is a healthy thing that gives me great faith. Anytime you think this country is on the brink and on the edge, go to a naturalization ceremony. That point where everybody raises their hand and takes the Oath of Allegiance to this country is an amazing moment. There are tears in their eyes. They know and understand why Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Lincoln described this country as the last best hope of Earth. If you ever doubt that this country is great, go to one of these ceremonies. It will fill you with gratitude, an important trait that we as a people need to have. You will be renewed. You will be refreshed. I have such faith in the American spirit because we are fundamentally a good and decent country.
You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the new Governing podcast, “Listening to America.” Clay’s new book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes — actively solicits even — your comments and critiques of his essays, interviews and reviews. You can reach him directly by writing firstname.lastname@example.org or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.