RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – The race to become Richmond’s top prosecutor will be settled during the June 8 Democratic primary when voters in the city pick between a newcomer and an incumbent who has held the office for the last two years.
The candidates in this year’s race both consider themselves to be the progressive prosecutors, but each have pitched different initiatives during their campaigns.
Colette McEachin took over as Richmond’s commonwealth’s attorney after Michael Herring stepped down in 2019, winning a “firehouse primary” in August of that year. Serving in the office for over 20 years, McEachin was deputy commonwealth’s attorney before Herring made his decision to join the McGuireWoods law firm.
McEachin was eventually elected to the office later that year, becoming the first woman to do so, and is now vying for re-election for another four years.
Tom Barbour hopes to upend those plans, running on a platform to make the city’s commonwealth’s attorney the “chief reform and chief public safety office,” not just a prosecutor, as he competes with McEachin in the primary.
Barbour, 36, has a criminal defense practice, is the founder of the Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative and previously served as an adviser to Herring when he was Richmond’s commonwealth’s attorney. During his campaign, Barbour has called to end mass incarceration by only advocating to incarcerate those deemed as being at high risk of committing crimes against people.
McEachin considers prosecuting cases and working to help rehabilitate those who are incarcerated as the key responsibilities of the city’s commonwealth’s attorney. In a phone interview last week, McEachin said her experience in the city gives her an edge over Barbour when it comes to community outreach.
“I have much more broad base of knowledge of the city and its actor and the things we can to mitigate the gun violence and a lot of the trauma that the residents are experiencing,” McEachin said.
During the call, McEachin also highlighted her office’s efforts to increase expungements and the creation of the Community Justice Reform Unit. The unit aims to “examine the use of prosecutorial discretion,” which authorizes prosecutors to review individual cases to consider dropping or changing charges.
Barbour questioned McEachin’s execution of her plans, saying in a phone interview last week that she’s mainly only spoken about initiatives but has not moved forward to implementing them.
“We are missing this moment, this historic moment for criminal justice reform,” Barbour told 8News.
Accusing McEachin’s office as being stuck in the past, Barbour said certain legal tools, such as a special grand jury, have been underutilized in Richmond. Barbour said using a special grand jury would have allowed the commonwealth’s attorney to directly question police accused of misconduct during last summer’s protests, keeping them more accountable.
“The most important change would be to organize the office around people, not cases,” Barbour said when asked how he would approach his first days in office if elected.
McEachin said on her campaign website that her office will continue to oppose seeking cash bail for most non-violent offenders, whereas Barbour has pledged to end cash bail within his first 100 days in office. Barbour, who touted leadership skills he developed during his time as a captain in the Marine Corps, said while each candidate has portrayed a progressive agenda, he believes their platforms are different.
“The candidates have to balance between expertise and public policy, so voters may think we should have a say,” Rich Meagher, a political science professor at Randolph-Macon College, said when asked why voters elect top prosecutors.
General elections for Richmond commonwealth’s attorney aren’t competitive, with Republicans acknowledging the long odds of winning and deciding not to run. McEachin did not face a challenger in the 2019 general election and Herring ran unopposed in 2009, 2013 and 2017.
With no other candidates in the running, the winner of the Democratic primary on June 8 will presumptively hold the office for the next four years. Early voting has already begun for the primary.