Virginia’s Democratic attorney general says he wore blackface at a college party in 1980, deepening state scandal

Mark Herring
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, shown here in a file photo, admitted Wednesday to putting on blackface in the 1980s when he was a college student. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, file)

Justin Fairfax
Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, shown here in a photo from last week, faces an accusation of sexual misconduct, which he denies. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Ralph Northam
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam arrives for a news conference in the Governor’s Mansion on Saturday. He is under fire for a racist photo that appeared in his college yearbook. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Mark Herring
Justin Fairfax
Ralph Northam

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia slid 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 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, 57, said in a tweet that he was “deeply, deeply sorry for the pain that I cause with this revelation.”

“Although the shame of that moment has haunted me for decades, and though my disclosure of it now pains me immensely, what I am feeling in no way compares to the betrayal, the shock, and the deep pain that Virginians of color may be feeling,” Herring wrote.

“Where they have deserved to feel heard, respected, understood and honestly represented, I fear my actions have contributed to them being forced to revisit and feel a historical pain that has never been allowed to become history.”

Herring wrote that as an elected official, he has felt an obligation to both acknowledge and address “racial inequities and systemic racism that we know exist in our criminal justice system, in our election processes and in other institutions of power.”

The 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.

In the 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. It was really a minimization of both people of color, and a minimization of a horrific history I knew well even then.”

Asked if Herring should resign, Democratic state Del. Delores McQuinn, an African-American, did not answer directly.

“We are going to govern — that’s what our constituents want us to do,” she said.

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,” he said.

The disclosure further roils the top levels of Virginia government. Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who would be next in line if Northam were to resign, was confronted with sexual-misconduct allegations earlier this week and denied the accusations, calling them a political smear.

Herring would be next in line to be governor after those two men.

Herring, who plans to run for governor in 2021, is among those who have urged Northam to resign as governor after the discovery of a photo of someone in blackface on his 1984 medical school yearbook page. The photo that appeared in Northam’s half-page profile shows someone in blackface standing next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.

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

On WTOP Wednesday afternoon, the director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, was asked if he could think of a time of similar turmoil in Virginia politics.

“I suppose it was pretty unstable in Virginia government during the Civil War,” said Stephen Farnsworth. “But if you think back over the decade that we’ve all been around there was nothing like this. This is just unbelievable.”

Herring spent most of his life in Loudoun County, where he practiced law after earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Virginia and his law degree from the University of Richmond.

He 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.

In 2006, as a state senator, he supported a Virginia constitutional amendment that outlawed gay marriage. But as term as attorney general, Herring made national headlines for his efforts to overturn Virginia’s ban on gay marriage.

Shortly after taking office, Herring said he would no longer defend the state in a federal lawsuit that challenged the state’s ban on gay marriage as unconstitutional.

“It’s time for the commonwealth to be on the right side of history and the right side of the law,” he said at the time.

A federal judge overturned the state’s gay-marriage ban, and cited Herring’s opposition to the ban as a “compelling” factor in her decision. Virginia court clerks began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples in October 2014, nearly a full year before the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling allowing gay marriage nationwide.

WTOP’s Jack Pointer contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up