Virginia attorney general admits he wore blackface

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) on Wednesday said he had worn blackface to a party while he was an undergraduate in college, deepening a political crisis that has now ensnared the three top officials in the Commonwealth’s government.

In a statement released Wednesday, minutes after Herring held an emergency meeting with the state legislative black caucus, the attorney general took responsibility for appearing in blackface.

“In 1980, when I was a 19-year old undergraduate in college, some friends suggested we attend a party dressed like rappers we listened to at the time, like Kurtis Blow, and perform a song,” Herring said in a statement.

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“It sounds ridiculous even now writing it. But because of our ignorance and glib attitudes — and because we did not have an appreciation for the experiences and perspectives of others — we dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup.”

 

Herring, who had already announced plans to run for governor in 2021, is the third statewide elected official in Virginia to find himself embroiled in a fast-moving storm. All three are now battling for survival at the risk of halting their party’s rapid ascension to power.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is facing calls to resign after a photo from Northam’s medical school yearbook emerged, showing a man in blackface standing next to a man in full Ku Klux Klan robe and hood.

At the same time, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) — who would succeed Northam if the governor were to step down — pushed back against allegations that he had sexually assaulted a woman at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.

Herring and Fairfax were seen as rivals to succeed Northam in 2021, and Herring has called on Northam to resign.

Rumors of a photo showing Herring in blackface had circulated in Richmond political circles for days even as attention focused first on Northam, and then on Fairfax.

At virtually the same moment Herring released his statement, Fairfax released his own missive denying improper behavior. Fairfax acknowledged a sexual encounter with the woman, but he said it was consensual.

“At no time did she express to me any discomfort or concern about our interactions, neither during that encounter nor doing the months following it, when she stayed in touch with me, nor the past fifteen years,” Fairfax said. “She in no way indicated that anything that had happened between us made her uncomfortable.”

The new scrutiny of both Fairfax and Herring has made an already-tumultuous week in Richmond far more complicated. Northam considered resigning over the weekend, hours after the initial photograph emerged. But he later reversed himself, saying he did not believe he was either the man in blackface or the man in the Klan hood.

In a bizarre news conference on Saturday, Northam acknowledged that he had dressed in blackface for a costume party he attended as Michael Jackson.

Northam declined a reporter’s request to do the moonwalk.

If both Northam and Fairfax were to resign, Herring would become the new governor. If in the unlikely event all three Democrats resign, the governorship would fall to Republican Kirk Cox, the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates.

Cox assumed the speakership a year ago, after Republicans held on to their House majority by a single seat. The election for that seat ended in a tie; Del. David Yancey (R) kept his job only after a state official broke a tie by pulling Yancey’s name out of a bowl.

Making matters even more complicated, a federal district court ruled last month that district lines drawn by Republicans earlier this decade violated federal law by improperly diluting the political power of African American voters. The court adopted new district lines covering 11 seats — including Cox’s district, south of Richmond.

Republicans have pledged to appeal that ruling to the Supreme Court. If the new lines hold up, Cox’s district would become more heavily Democratic, putting his own job at risk in the 2019 legislative elections when Democrats believe they have the targets necessary to win back control of the Old Dominion.