Virginia Attorney General Herring says he wore blackface at 1980 college party

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP/WRIC) — Virginia sank deeper into political turmoil Wednesday when another top Democrat — Attorney General Mark Herring — admitted putting on blackface in the 1980s, when he was a college student.

With Gov. Ralph Northam’s career in extreme peril 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 attorney general issued the statement 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 such a photo.

After Herring released his statement, he stepped down as co-chair for the Democratic Attorneys General Association. 

“Virginia AG Herring offered to step aside as co-chair and the committee accepted. District of Columbia AG Racine will step back in as co-chair for an interim period to lead alongside current co-chair Oregon AG Ellen Rosenblum,” Lizzie Ulmer, Communicators Director for the DAGA, confirmed on Wednesday. 

Sean Rankin, Executive Director of the Democratic Attorneys General Association, offered a statement regarding Herring’s resignation:

“AG Herring offered to step aside as co-chair this morning and the committee accepted. At this time, District of Columbia AG Racine will be stepping back in as the interim co-chair to lead the Democratic Attorneys General Association along with current co-chair Oregon AG Ellen Rosenblum. We will continue to support our Democratic Attorneys General in their ongoing work protecting civil rights, keeping our communities and families safe, and serving as the People’s Lawyers.”

                                                                                       –  Sean Rankin

State Senator L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) was visibly shaken up after Herring’s disclosure. Sen. Lucas declined to answer questions, but was clearly emotional, as reporters surrounded her as she was leaving the state Capitol on Wednesday.  

WATCH: Sen. Lucas emotional as she leaves the Capitol Wednesday, hours after Herring blackface scandal came to light 

Herring’s disclosure further roils the top levels of Virginia government.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who would be next in line if Northam resigned, was confronted with uncorroborated allegations of sexual misconduct earlier this week. He denied the accusations, calling them a political smear.

Herring would be next in line to be governor after Fairfax.

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.”

Virginia Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, two Democrats, responded to Herring’s statement on Wednesday. 

“I am shocked and incredibly disappointed. This has been a very difficult and painful time for Virginians, and this news only deepens that hurt.”  -Sen. Mark Warner 

Sen. Kaine echoed Warner’s statement. 

“I am shocked and saddened to learn of this incident. This revelation throws salt in a wound opened wide in recent days.” -Sen. Tim Kaine

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 yearbook profile page of someone in blackface standing next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.

Last Friday, Herring condemned that photo as “indefensible” and said that it is “no longer possible” for Northam to lead the state.

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 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 a mere 165 votes out of more than 2.2 million ballots 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 Wednesday reiterating that he had a consensual encounter with the woman 15 years ago. 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. “She in no way indicated that anything that had happened between us made her uncomfortable.”

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