Carlos Hopkins, L'96, was quite content at his desk in city hall. With an impeccably ironed suit and impossibly perfect bow tie, he surveyed a desk covered in orderly stacks of paper. In the few months since he started as a deputy city attorney for Richmond, he’d managed to assemble a good team and began to see movement on fixing some of the city’s tax and delinquent housing issues. He was getting into a good groove.
And then, the phone rang.
On the other end, he heard the voice of an old friend, Jenn McClellan, ’94. He’d known McClellan since she recruited him to volunteer at a mock trial in the late ’90s. Both were young lawyers starting their careers in Richmond. The two can’t remember whether he was a judge or an attorney, but for both, that’s where their nearly 20-year friendship started.
“One of my fondest memories of Carlos is the time we went around putting up Chuck Robb signs during his final campaign in 2000,” McClellan says. “The work is pretty tedious and tiring, especially late at night. But even at 1 a.m., Carlos makes stuff like that fun — he can find humor in anything and keep everybody entertained.”
Together they co-chaired the Metro Richmond Area Young Democrats. They’ve canvassed and worked countless Democratic races. As both became parents, they watched each other’s kids get older and take their first and next steps. All of that’s to say that even with a rich personal history, McClellan’s modest proposal — ok, so maybe it wasn’t all that modest — still seemed out of the blue. McClellan was calling Hopkins as chair of the transition team for Terry McAuliffe, who’d just beaten Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the Virginia governor’s race.
“Would you be interested in coming to work as counselor to the governor-elect?” she asked.
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McClellan didn’t know whether Hopkins, known to his friends as ’Los, would say yes to hearing more, but she knew him as a man whose career in civilian and military law showed that, when it came to public service, he had rarely, if ever, said no.
“He’s just a solid, steady person,” says David Hicks, a former Richmond commonwealth’s attorney who recruited Hopkins to work as a prosecutor early in his career. “He has an incredible sense of duty and responsibility. I met him when he was younger, and he was mature beyond his years. He’s probably just now catching up in age with where he was back then.”
Duty is a core value that was instilled in Hopkins from a very young age. His father served in the military, and his mother, a civilian, moved with him from base to base. But his parents were so committed to stability for Hopkins and his younger brother and sister that they wanted their children to be raised in one place by family in their hometown of Columbia, S.C.
“We weren’t the traditional military brats who would relocate every three years with our parents,” Hopkins says. “They wanted us to have one location to be raised in, to go to school in, so we stayed in Columbia.”
His grandparents and aunts became important in his life, raising him and instilling a deep appreciation of family and the quiet pride that comes in taking care of your kin.
“I never had to look outside my home for a mentor,” Hopkins says. His father was a sergeant major in the Army. His grandfather, a dairy worker, was up at 4 a.m. and came home after the sun set for more than 40 years. His grandmother is still the woman he’ll call for advice and help working through tough personal issues.
His aunt, Jestine Goodwin, talks about a young boy who was quiet, determined, and resilient. An overcomer. Their family grew up in the modest Edisto Court neighborhood in Columbia, S.C. “Carlos defied the odds of everything that said if you’re from this area, you won’t make it,” Goodwin says.
“We didn’t consider ourselves poor,” Hopkins says. “But we certainly weren’t wealthy either.”
Hopkins became the first in his family to go to college, attending the Military College of South Carolina — more widely known as the Citadel — on a full academic scholarship. When he graduated, two parallel tracks began: He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, and he began studying at Richmond Law. He followed his parents and grandfather in the tradition of military service while adding a slight twist — the law.
“I saw the law as an opportunity to help folks and to do it within the court system.” Hopkins says. “I didn’t have an a-ha moment, but it just felt right.”
Shortly after graduating law school, he left the ready reserve of the Army for a judge advocate position with the Virginia National Guard. Since then, he’s served in a range of positions both as a civilian and a guardsman.
After a brief stint at a small insurance defense firm, Hopkins was recruited by David Hicks to become an assistant commonwealth’s attorney for Richmond. Hopkins worked there nearly a decade, becoming one of Hicks’ deputy commonwealth’s attorneys before leaving in 2005. He then briefly opened his own practice before becoming the director of training for Virginia’s indigent defense commission. From criminal defense, he transitioned back to civil defense when he joined the city attorney’s office. In his heart of hearts, he’s a litigator.
“Probably the thing that makes me proudest of Carlos is that I’ve never seen him give up,” Hicks says. “He’s tried new things, and if it didn’t work he tries something else.”
His legal career in the military included a year as chief of Military Justice for Joint Task Force Guantánamo, where he coordinated and supervised the application of the Uniform Code of Military Justice to members of the armed services stationed in Cuba. His office handled disciplinary matters involving U.S. troops as well as all investigations involving detainees and service members assigned to the task force.
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Simply put, declining a request to serve the governor is not easily or often done. His first interview led to another with the chief of staff, and then finally with McAuliffe himself. Soon, Hopkins had said yes to the offer to serve at the pleasure of the governor and was packing up his city hall office to move across Broad Street to the Patrick Henry Building on Capitol Square.
Being counselor to the governor entails an interesting mix of duties. Hopkins is the primary legal adviser to the governor and his chief liaison to the attorney general and the Supreme Court of Virginia.
“At any given moment, anything may rise to the level that the governor needs to know about,” Hopkins says. “And you need to quickly become an expert in that field or at least knowledgeable enough that you can provide appropriate guidance. You could find yourself discussing anything from Medicaid and the relationship between the state and the federal government to the legal issues involved in the same-sex marriage debate or the constitutional authority of the governor in emergency situations.”
The governor’s office oversees 12 secretariats and dozens of state agencies. And that doesn’t include the various executive boards and commissions and constituent services the office interacts with. The everyday demands of the office include pardons and extraditions, executive orders, agency regulations — all of them part of the mix of sticky wickets landing on his desk, usually with a fast turnaround and a host of implications to consider. In the event of death row cases, Hopkins runs point on the governor’s review of clemency petitions. He’s the governor’s short-stop for anything with legal ramifications.
The workload is seemingly infinite. For that reason, it’s a role usually occupied by someone very close to the governor, someone who has been through thick and thin with the candidate. Part of what’s remarkable about Hopkins is that he had never met McAuliffe until his final interview for the job. Friends say that is a testament to his character and a strength he has for the job.
“He will say things that need to be said even if they’re not necessarily what someone wants to hear,” says McClellan. “That’s one of many reasons he was a good fit for counselor. We needed someone who wouldn’t be intimidated by a big personality or the office.”
The job can be tedious and tiring and serious. Hopkins has to anticipate the effect of existing law on policy proposals of the governor and to recommend potential changes to law and executive branch policies. He’s one of the last stops in the legislative process.
During the legislative sessions, his days are slam-packed with review of the nearly 2,500 bills introduced each year in the Virginia General Assembly.
His role as the governor’s counsel differs subtly from that of the attorney general, who is the state’s chief lawyer. Much like the relationship of White House Counsel to president, Hopkins operates as an important intermediary, focusing on the governor’s policy objectives and evaluating the legal and regulatory implications on them from existing state and federal law. He says the work requires most of the general skills needed when advising a client. But the big difference is that his client happens to be the elected executive of a state. And the issues can have a systemic impact beyond a single person or business.
“To rise to the level of being counselor to the governor is an incredible feat,” says David Hicks says of Hopkins. “It’s not just because a person is super smart. It’s really because you have a balance of experience and perspectives that allows you to give you proper counsel to a chief executive. Interestingly enough, some of the career paths, when they aren’t as straight of a line, prepare you better for positions like that.”
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Hopkins continues to serve in the JAG corps. Today he’s a deputy staff judge advocate and a lieutenant colonel in the Virginia National Guard, a commitment, he says, that is deceptively more time-consuming than it sounds. In addition to his day job with the governor’s office, he also manages a team of military lawyers for the guard. Supervising their work is an effort that often involves mission creep outside of the proverbial “one weekend a month and two weeks a year.”
Of the many types of law that Hopkins has practiced, he says he finds prosecution the most fulfilling — his current job excluded, he quickly adds.
Just like his days with the city prosecutor, he’s still juggling multiple issues with various due dates. He had good training on how to manage a calendar and multiple, often competing priorities, so this job wasn’t a baptism by fire. Hopkins also says the other benefit of having experience in many different areas of the law is that you quickly learn to control your emotions and see an issue from every side. Prosecution still holds a strong place in his heart because of the potential for some systemic change.
“I can see where folks come into the system and don’t expect to get a fair deal,” he says. “I felt like, as an African-American prosecutor in a predominantly black city, I had the opportunity to show that wasn’t always the case — that we can have a system that’s fair to everybody.”
As a prosecutor, he says, you have access to systems and people to help correct areas of concern and to make changes across the board rather than one client at a time.
“I enjoy my current job for that same reason,” Hopkins says. “I have the opportunity on a statewide level to assist the governor in promoting his agenda on behalf of helping all Virginians.”