Virginia's leadership in tumult as Attorney General Mark Herring admits wearing blackface
Protesters gathered outside Virginia's statehouse on Monday and called for Governor Ralph Northam to resign. Northam has rebuffed widespread calls for his resignation since a racist photo surfaced Friday in his 1984 medical school yearbook page. (Feb. 5) AP
Virginia's leadership crisis deepened Wednesday as Attorney General Mark Herring admitted that he, too, once wore blackface in the 1980s, and the woman accusing the lieutenant governor of sexual assault released details of her claim.
The revelations came days after Gov. Ralph Northam said he wore blackface in 1984 for a Michael Jackson costume at a dance contest. Leadership on both sides of the aisle called for Northam's resignation.
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, in line to succeed Northam, vehemently denied the accusations against him. Herring is next in line after Fairfax. All three are Democrats.
Wednesday's developments accelerated a controversy that has dragged on since the weekend and put Virginia's leadership under an intense nationwide spotlight.
"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," said Herring, who has said he would run for governor in 2021. "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 one-time occurrence, and I accept full responsibility for my conduct."
Herring, who had urged Northam to resign, said "honest conversation" would make it clear whether he can continue in his own job.
Herring, 57, said shame from the incident "has haunted me for decades," but he listed his efforts to "empower communities of color" by working for equality in the state's criminal justice and electoral systems and fighting for equal access to health care.
"I will say that from the bottom of my heart, I am deeply, deeply sorry for the pain that I cause with this revelation," he said.
Northam said he wouldn't resign, and he resumed governing Tuesday, signing a $750 million Amazon incentive package and issuing a statement mourning the death of a state trooper.
Northam, 59, has been under siege since Friday when a racist photo from his medical school yearbook page in 1984 was published by the conservative website Big League Politics. The photo depicted one person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe.
Friday, the governor apologized for being in the photo, but Saturday, he said he was not pictured in the "offensive, racist photo." Northam did admit to blackening his face with shoe polish for a Michael Jackson costume at a dance contest in the 1980s.
The Democrat has been under heavy pressure from both parties to bow out. State Sen. Richard Stuart, a close friend, said he talked to Northam on Tuesday and believes the governor wants to remain in office and "face this head-on."
Members of both parties acknowledged that under state laws, removing Northam could be difficult. Northam has been essentially frozen out by fellow Democrats.
Fairfax, 39, issued a statement Wednesday saying it was important to listen to anyone who comes forward with claims of sexual misconduct or harassment. But he said that the accusations against him from 2004, while he was a law student, are false and that the encounter was consensual.
His accuser, Vanessa Tyson, is a political science professor at Scripps College in California. A statement from her said she met Fairfax at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. She said they chatted from time to time and Fairfax invited her to go with him to his hotel room to pick up documents.
"What began as consensual kissing quickly turned into sexual assault," she said in the statement issued by her lawyers. She said he physically forced her to perform oral sex.
"With tremendous anguish, I am now sharing this information about my experience and setting the record straight," she said in her statement. "It has been extremely difficult to relive that traumatic experience from 2004.
“Mr. Fairfax has tried to brand me as a liar to a national audience, in service to his political ambitions, and has threatened litigation. Given his false assertions, I’m compelled to make clear what happened.”
Tyson, who said she's a Democrat, stayed quiet about the allegations as she pursued her career, but by late 2017, as the #MeToo movement took shape and after she saw a news article about Fairfax’s campaign, she took her story to The Washington Post. The newspaper decided months later not to publish a story.
Fairfax said he never heard the claims until contacted by a media organization last year.
"At no time did she express to me any discomfort or concern about our interactions,'' he said in his statement, "neither during that encounter, nor during the months following it, when she stayed in touch with me, nor the past 15 years.”
The National Organization for Women called on Fairfax to resign immediately, saying, “Her story is horrifying, compelling and clear as day – and we believe her.”
Contributing: The Associated Press