RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) – Virginia’s attorney general on Wednesday admitted to having worn blackface at a college party, becoming the state’s third high-ranking Democrat caught up in scandal since the release Friday of a racist photo from Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook.
Attorney General Mark Herring said in a statement that he had donned brown face paint at a party in 1980 to impersonate a rapper, four days after Northam admitted having worn blackface – a practice that dates to 19th century minstrel shows caricaturing slaves – in 1984 to impersonate Michael Jackson.
At a time when U.S. Democrats have become increasingly focused on promoting diversity and rooting out patterns of sexual misconduct in many American institutions, Northam’s admission sparked immediate calls for his resignation from fellow Virginia Democrats and national political figures, including at least five 2020 White House candidates.
Democratic Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, who is black and would succeed Northam were he to step down, faced his own scandal after the same local conservative web site that released the Northam photo ran a report suggesting that Fairfax had been accused of sex assault in 2004. Fairfax in a statement on Wednesday described that incident as consensual.
Similar recent allegations have ended careers of elected officials in both parties. Florida’s recently elected Republican secretary of state last month resigned after a newspaper published a photo of him wearing blackface at a 2005 costume party.
Democratic U.S. Senator Al Franken resigned in 2017 after being accused of sexual misconduct.
Last week Herring, who like Northam is white and is second in line to succeed the governor after Fairfax, had called for Northam to resign.
Herring said in a statement on Wednesday he now realized he showed poor judgment 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,” he said.
‘STILL PROCESSING IT’
The days of allegations rattled the Democratic leadership of Virginia, a key swing state that will be a major focus in the 2020 presidential campaign.
“I’m still processing it myself,” Monique Alcala, the president of the state party’s Latino caucus, said in a telephone interview. She said Democrats would end up calling for Herring to resign, too.
Northam on Friday apologized and said he was one of the people in the photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook that depicted a person in blackface makeup standing beside another person garbed in white robes of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan.
He changed his story a day later, saying neither figure in the picture was him but acknowledging he had dressed in blackface 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. Blackface remained a trope of Hollywood entertainment into the mid-1980s, including comic movie “Soul Man” featuring a protagonist who posed as black to get into an Ivy League college.
After Fairfax, 39, and Herring, 57, the next in the line of succession for the governorship is state House speaker Kirk Cox, a Republican.
The Big League Politics website, which posted the initial Northam photo, on Sunday published a social media post 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 repeated his belief on Wednesday they had a consensual encounter and asked 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 and Bill Trott