RICHMOND — Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, said Wednesday he dressed in blackface during college, elevating the Capitol’s scandals to a new level that engulfed the entire executive branch of government.
“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. “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 acknowledgment comes as Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, faces calls for his resignation after a photo emerged on his 1984 medical school yearbook page featuring someone in blackface standing next to someone in Ku Klux Klan robes.
And early Monday, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a Democrat, denied the allegations of a woman who said he sexually assaulted her at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.
The scandals suggest a possible constitutional crisis. If Northam should step down, Fairfax would succeed him because of his position as lieutenant governor. Herring, as attorney general, would be next in line.
“It’s a mess,” said state Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, as he emerged from the attorney general’s office building shortly before 11 a.m. An aide stopped him from saying more.
Most of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, stone-faced, left Herring’s office around 11:15 a.m. and went directly into a meeting at the Capitol building. They said nothing and ignored a reporter who asked if they supported Herring.
Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Richmond, chairman of the caucus, looked sullen. Asked to explain what was happening, Bagby said, “I imagine we’re not praying enough.”
Virginia’s capital has absorbed one shocking blow after another, and while Herring had issued a statement Saturday calling for Northam to resign, he had not been seen or heard from publicly since then.
The Legislative Black Caucus, which has also called on Northam to resign, canceled a press conference that had been scheduled for Wednesday morning as rumors spread that another bombshell was about to drop.
The overlapping crises have hit during the busiest time of the year for Virginia’s part-time legislature, which is struggling through a stalemate over the state budget and tax code. Lawmakers trying to sift through hundreds of bills ahead of a deadline have tried to tune out the drumbeat of scandal.
Most have withheld judgment on Fairfax, who has maintained that the incident at the center of the sexual harassment charge was consensual.
Northam has retracted his initial statement that he was in the racist yearbook photo, saying now that it is not him and he doesn’t know how the picture got there. But he admitted wearing blackface later in 1984 to imitate Michael Jackson at a dance contest.
Virtually all of Virginia’s political establishment has called on him to resign, as have national Democrats. But he continues to meet with staff and administration officials to explore whether he can continue to govern.
Herring, 57, won the 2013 state attorney general’s race by defeating Republican state Sen. Mark Obenshain by fewer than 200 votes.
He became a hero to the left by refusing to enforce Virginia’s 2006 ban on gay marriage, placing the state at the center of the national debate.
Herring holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Virginia in economics and foreign affairs, and graduated with honors from the University of Richmond School of Law.
He was elected to the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, representing the Leesburg area, in 1999, and later joined the state Senate. He has been a member of the Loudoun Chapter of the NAACP and has attended Leesburg Presbyterian Church.
Herring and his wife, Laura, have been married for more than 20 years. They have two grown children.
The controversies are all the more shocking because they hit popular politicians who have been riding high on Virginia’s recent Democratic surge. The party’s gains in recent state elections nearly wiped out a generation-long GOP majority in the House of Delegates, and Democrats have been confident about regaining control of the Legislature this fall, when all 140 General Assembly seats are on the ballot.
The scandals have opened up raw nerves on issues of race and unresolved issues about Virginia’s past as the capital of the Confederacy and a hub of the slave trade. They come as Democrats nationwide are clamoring for more accountability in areas of past racial and sexual conduct, and are consuming a generation of Virginia’s top Democratic leaders.
Fairfax and Herring were already seen as the top candidates to succeed Northam at the end of his four-year term in 2021; the Virginia constitution prohibits a governor from serving consecutive terms. Herring had already announced his intention to run.
Since the weekend, the constitutional rules of succession have been a hot topic around the Capitol. If Northam, Fairfax and Herring were all so compromised by scandal that they had to step down, and if no other successors had been appointed, the governor’s chair would fall to the Republican speaker of the House, Kirk Cox of Colonial Heights.
Washington Post writers Jenna Portnoy and Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.