RICHMOND, Va. — 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, 57, said he was “deeply, deeply sorry for the pain that I cause with this revelation.”
The attorney general issued the statement after rumors of a blackface photo of Herring had circulated at the Capitol for a day or more. But in his statement, he said nothing about the existence of such a photo.
The 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.
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.
Herring, who plans to run for governor in 2021, is among those who have urged Northam to resign after the discovery of a photo on Northam’s 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 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.
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.
Herring spent most of his life in Northern Virginia’s 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.