By Gary Robertson
RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) – Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring wore blackface at a college costume party in 1980, he said in a statement Wednesday as the crisis sparked by racist photograph on the governor’s medical yearbook page spread through the state’s leadership.
With both Governor Ralph Northam and Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax contending with political scandals of their own, Herring was facing increasing scrutiny as the second in the line of succession to the state’s leadership.
Herring, who is a Democrat like Northam and Fairfax, said he now realized he showed poor judgment and caused pain to others by dressing as a rapper, donning a wig and brown makeup to perform a song with similarly attired friends.
“I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others,” Herring said in his statement. “It was really a minimization of both people of color and a minimization of a horrific history I knew well even then.”
Herring’s admission comes as Northam resists a chorus of calls to resign over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook, depicting a person in blackface makeup standing beside another person garbed in white robes of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan.
Northam, who is white, initially apologized and conceded he was one of the two people in the photo. But he changed his story a day later, saying neither figure in the picture was him and acknowledging he had dressed in blackface once before to portray pop star Michael Jackson.
The origins of blackface date to 19th-century “minstrel” shows in which white performers covered their faces in black grease paint to caricature slaves.
Fairfax is next in the line of succession for the governorship, followed by Herring and then the House speaker, Republican Kirk Cox.
Fairfax, 39, confronted a potential scandal of his own. On Monday he denied a sexual assault allegation that was reported against him on the same website that first disclosed the Northam yearbook photo.
The Big League Politics site posted a private Facebook message on Sunday purportedly obtained from the accuser with her permission by a friend suggesting that Fairfax had assaulted her during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.
Fairfax added to his earlier denial in a statement on Wednesday, repeating his belief they had only a consensual encounter but asking that the woman be treated with respect.
“I wish her no harm or humiliation, nor do I seek to denigrate her or diminish her voice,” his statement said. “But I cannot agree with a description of events that I know is not true.”
(Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Scott Malone)