RICHMOND, Va. >> The political crisis in Virginia escalated dramatically today when another top Democrat — Attorney General Mark Herring — admitted putting on blackface in the 1980s, when he was in college.
With Gov. Ralph Northam’s career already hanging by a thread over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook, Herring issued a statement saying he wore brown makeup and a wig in 1980 to look like a rapper during a party as a 19-year-old at the University of Virginia.
Herring — who has been among those calling on Northam to resign — said he was “deeply, deeply sorry for the pain that I cause with this revelation.” He said that in the days ahead, “honest conversations and discussions will make it clear whether I can or should continue to serve as attorney general.”
The 57-year-old Herring went public after rumors of a blackface photo of him had circulated at the Capitol for a day or more. But in his statement, he said nothing about the existence of a photo.
The disclosure further roils the top levels of Virginia government, which has been hit with one crisis after another since the yearbook picture came to light last Friday.
On Monday, Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who would become governor if Northam resigned, was confronted with uncorroborated allegations of sexual misconduct dating to 2004. He denied the accusations, calling them a political smear.
Herring would be next in line to be governor after Fairfax. After Herring comes the speaker of the state House, Kirk Cox, a conservative Republican.
Herring made a name for himself nationally by playing a central role in getting Virginia’s ban on gay marriage lifted, and he had been planning to run for governor in 2021.
The chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, Del. Lamont Bagby, said its members need time to process the news about the attorney general: “We’ve got a lot to digest.”
Democrats have expressed fear that the uproar over the governor could jeopardize their chances of taking control of the GOP-dominated Virginia legislature this year. The party made big gains in 2017, in part because of a backlash against President Donald Trump, and has moved to within striking distance of a majority in both houses.
The burgeoning crisis now threatens to take down the top three Democrats in Virginia state government.
In his statement, Herring said he and two friends dressed up to look like rappers they listened to, including Kurtis Blow, admitting: “It sounds ridiculous even now writing it.”
“That conduct clearly shows that, as a young man, I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others,” he said.
But he also said: “This conduct is in no way reflective of the man I have become in the nearly 40 years since.”
Northam has come under pressure from nearly the entire state and national Democratic establishment to resign after the discovery of a photo on his profile page in the Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook of someone in blackface standing next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.
Northam admitted at first that he was in the photo without saying which costume he was wearing. A day later, he denied he was in the picture. But he acknowledged he once used shoe polish to blacken his face and look like Michael Jackson at a dance contest in Texas in 1984, when he was in the Army.
Herring came down hard on Northam when the yearbook photo surfaced, condemning it as “indefensible,” ”profoundly offensive,” and “shocking and deeply disappointing.” He said that it was no longer possible for Northam to lead the state.
Herring earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Virginia and his law degree from the University of Richmond, and served as a county supervisor and a state senator before getting elected attorney general in 2013 by just 165 votes out of more than 2.2 million cast. He won re-election by a more comfortable margin in 2017.
Shortly after taking office for his first term, Herring announced he would no longer defend the state’s ban on gay marriage, saying it was time for Virginia “to be on the right side of history and the right side of the law.”
A federal judge overturned the ban, citing Herring’s opposition, and Virginia began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2014, nearly a full year before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide.
As for the allegations against Fairfax, the lieutenant governor issued a statement today reiterating that he had a consensual encounter with the woman. He said he was an unmarried law student at the time.
“At no time did she express to me any discomfort or concern about our interactions, neither during that encounter, nor during the months following it, when she stayed in touch with me, nor the past 15 years,” Fairfax said.
The Associated Press is not reporting details of the accusation because it has not been able to corroborate the account. The woman has not returned messages from the AP seeking comment.