Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring issued a statement Wednesday saying he wore blackface while portraying a rapper in college in 1980, making himself the third Democrat in statewide office to be hit by scandal in the past week.
"In 1980, when I was a 19-year-old undergraduate in college," at the University of Virginia, "some friends suggested we attend a party dressed like rappers we listened to at the time, like Kurtis Blow, and perform a song. 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 said in the statement.
"This was a onetime occurrence and I accept full responsibility for my conduct."
Herring's admission came six days after a scandal involving Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam broke when a photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook appeared on the right-wing website Big League Politics. The photo showed a man in blackface and a man in Ku Klux Klan regalia.
Northam on Friday night said he was in the photo and apologized, but the next morning he said it was not him, although he admitted he had used blackface the same year while portraying Michael Jackson in a dance contest and said he had learned in 2017 from an aide that what he had done was hurtful. The photo led to near-universal calls from Democrats for Northam's resignation, and the way he handled it at a news conference Saturday prompted even further calls for his resignation.
As Democrats prepared for the possible ascent to the governor's mansion of Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a scandal hit him early Monday morning when he issued a statement in response to a story, again on Big League Politics, that he sexually assaulted a woman in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
The scandal involving Northam put the state government in crisis, and the unfolding scandal involving Northam and Fairfax continues as Herring makes his announcement.
Herring was among Democrats who had called for Northam to resign over the yearbook photo. Herring met Wednesday morning with members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, and there were tears in the room.
Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, who chairs the Black Caucus, said he and his members will be crafting an official statement.
“We have a strong caucus ... I think we will continue to take an opportunity to lead and let the Commonwealth heal," Bagby said.
The series of scandals comes ahead of the November elections for all 140 legislative seats that will determine control of the House of Delegates and the state Senate.
Meantime, as Capitol Square reeled from the new revelation involving Herring, some Republican lawmakers stayed quiet on the drama engulfing the other party.
“We’re really focused on doing the business of the commonwealth,” said Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County.
Herring, 57, was elected in 2017 to a second consecutive term as attorney general. He topped Republican John Adams after campaigning, in part, on his efforts to eliminate a backlog in testing of rape kits and to reduce sexual and domestic violence.
Herring, born in Johnson, City, Tenn., grew up in Loudoun County. He graduated from U.Va. in 1983 with a degree in foreign affairs/economics before earning a master's degree in foreign affairs from the school in 1986. Herring received his law degree from the University of Richmond in 1990.
Herring served as Town Attorney in Lovettsville, a town in Loudoun County, from 1992 to 1999. He served on the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors from 2000 to 2003. He won a special election for the state Senate in February 2006, to succeed Republican Bill Mims, who had been named chief deputy attorney general. Mims now serves on the state Supreme Court.
In 2013 Herring topped Fairfax for the Democratic nomination for attorney general by about 4,500 votes. In the general election Herring edged state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, by 165 votes in a contest that went to a recount. He was the first Democrat to serve as Virginia's attorney general since 1994.
Just 13 days into his first term as Virginia's 48th attorney general, Herring sparked controversy on a national stage when he announced that he deemed Virginia's 2006 ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Herring said he wanted Virginia to "be on the right side of history."
A month later, in Norfolk, U.S. District Judge Arenda Wright Allen ruled that the state's ban violated the equal protection clause under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In January 2016, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Republican leaders in the General Assembly announced a bipartisan deal on gun policy that, in part, effectively reversed Herring's move to sever concealed carry reciprocity agreements with more than two dozen states.
Herring's full statement:
"The very bright light that is shining on Virginia right now is sparking a painful but, I think we all hope, important conversation. The stakes are high, and our spirits are low.
"I am sure we all have done things at one time or another in our lives that show poor judgment, and worse yet, have caused some level of pain to others. I have a glaring example from my past that I have thought about with deep regret in the many years since, and certainly each time I took a step forward in public service, realizing that my goals and this memory could someday collide and cause pain for people I care about, those who stood with me in the many years since, or those who I hoped to serve while in office.
"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. 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.
"This was a onetime occurrence and I accept full responsibility for my conduct.
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.
"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. 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.
"This conduct is in no way reflective of the man I have become in the nearly 40 years since.
"As a senator and as attorney general, I have felt an obligation to not just acknowledge but work affirmatively to address the racial inequities and systemic racism that we know exist in our criminal justice system, in our election processes, and in other institutions of power. I have long supported efforts to empower communities of color by fighting for access to healthcare, making it easier and simpler to vote, and twice defended the historic re-enfranchisement of former felons before the Supreme Court of Virginia. I have launched efforts to make our criminal justice system more just, fair, and equal by addressing implicit bias in law enforcement, establishing Virginia’s first-ever program to improve re-entry programs in local jails, and pushing efforts to reform the use of cash bail. And I have tried to combat the rise in hate crimes and white supremacist violence that is plaguing our Commonwealth and our country.
"That I have contributed to the pain Virginians have felt this week is the greatest shame I have ever felt. Forgiveness in instances like these is a complicated process, one that necessarily cannot and should not be decided by anyone but those directly affected by the transgressor, should forgiveness be possible or appropriate at all. In the days ahead, honest conversations and discussions will make it clear whether I can or should continue to serve as attorney general, but no matter where we go from here, I will say that from the bottom of my heart, I am deeply, deeply sorry for the pain that I cause with this revelation."