The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s not the blackface, it’s the flip-flop: Herring explains call for Northam’s resignation

Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) gave a radio interview Monday, breaking a month of silence since he acknowledged wearing blackface in college. Days before his admission, Herring called on Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to resign over a blackface scandal of his own. (Bob Brown/AP)

RICHMOND — Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) on Monday said he demanded Gov. Ralph Northam’s resignation last month not because the governor had worn blackface decades earlier but because Northam (D) flip-flopped on the subject in a way that undermined his ability to lead.

Breaking a month of silence since acknowledging that he, too, had dressed in blackface as a young man, Herring took pains to differentiate his situation from Northam’s.

“The governor had said he was in the [blackface] photo, apologized for it,” Herring said during an interview on WAMU’s “Kojo Nnamdi Show.” “The next day, the governor came out with a different and contradictory account, and that was when there was an erosion of trust. That was what my [resignation] statement was about. . . . It was really about the public trust. I would hold myself to the same standard.”

Plagued by scandals, Virginia’s Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark R. Herring – all Democrats – are facing calls to resign. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

The attorney general said that after Northam’s revelations, he “agonized” about whether to disclose that he had dressed in blackface for a party as a 19-year-old student at the University of Virginia. He said he ultimately decided to do so on his own, dismissing the idea that questions from the media forced his hand.

Virginia’s three leaders engulfed in turmoil, with Herring disclosure from college days

“Sure, we had gotten some press inquires, but this was something I needed to bring forward,” he said.

Herring, who announced in December his intention to run for governor in 2021, declined to say whether he will still run. “That’s the last thing I’m thinking about right now,” he said. “What I am focused on is what has happened in Virginia over the last month and what I can do to repair the damage.”

Herring’s critics have called him a hypocrite for calling on Northam to step down despite his own blackface episode. Several times during the 36-minute WAMU interview, Herring said that, in his view, Northam needed to leave office not because of the blackface but because of his shifting account of it.

Northam has been under fire since Feb. 1, when a photo came to light from his 1984 medical school yearbook page that depicted one person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes. Northam initially took responsibility for the picture. However, at a news conference a day later, he said he wasn’t in the photo but admitted that he put shoe polish on his cheeks to imitate Michael Jackson in a dance contest later that same year.

While many state and national Democrats immediately called on Northam to resign, Herring stopped just short of that in a statement issued late Feb. 1.

But the next day, after Northam’s turnabout during his news conference, Herring urged Northam to step down and expressed his support for the man who would succeed him, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D).

“It is no longer possible for Governor Northam to lead our Commonwealth and it is time for him to step down,” Herring’s statement said. “I have spoken with Lieutenant Governor Fairfax and assured him that, should he ascend to the governorship, he will have my complete support and commitment to ensuring his success and the success of our Commonwealth.”

Days later, Fairfax was swept up in a scandal of his own, as two women accused him of sexual assaults dating from 2000 and 2004 — charges that Fairfax has vigorously denied.

Democrats grapple with Fairfax assault accusation in #MeToo era

Around 11 a.m. on Feb. 6, Herring met with members of Virginia’s Legislative Black Caucus to admit that he darkened his skin to dress as rapper Kurtis Blow for a college party.

Hours earlier, an Associated Press reporter informed Herring spokesman Michael Kelly that someone had given him a detailed description of a photo of Herring in blackface, pressing Kelly for a response.

A little after 11:30 a.m., after Black Caucus members left their briefing from Herring, Kelly issued Herring’s statement about his use of blackface.

Northam meets with Richmond civil rights icons, expresses regret for scandal

In a brief phone interview with The Washington Post on Monday after the radio show, Herring said the AP’s inquiries had nothing to do with his disclosure.

“No, no,” he said. “This was something I had been thinking a lot about over that weekend and really wrestling with the additional pain, and also knowing if I was to maintain that credibility, that’s what I needed” to do.

On the radio, Herring said he is not sure whether any photos of him in costume exist. “I have spoken to some college friends to see if they remembered the event,” he said. “They did remember. They did not have a photo. I don’t know if there was a photo.”

In his interview with The Post, Herring said he reached out to college friends about the incident “a few months ago” — before Northam’s scandal broke.

“I spoke with a couple college friends to see if they remember,” he said. “I asked if they had a photo. They didn’t. That, to me, seems beside the point. I know what I did. I know why it was wrong.”

He said he spoke to college friends again immediately after Northam’s blackface history came out, as he weighed whether to disclose his own.

“I really wrestled with the amount of additional pain that this would have on Virginians,” he said. “But ultimately I talked to a lot of my family, talked to college friends. . . . I kept thinking about it and ultimately just concluded I needed to come forward about this.”

The accusations against Fairfax are “different but a very difficult situation,” Herring said. The women who say they were sexually assaulted by the lieutenant governor “deserve to be heard; they deserve respect,” he said.

“What needs to happen is some type of impartial situation so we can get to the facts,” he said. “In the current situation, it’s hard to see how that takes place. It’s an excruciating situation to be in.”

Northam has a chance to back his words with actions, and his party may hang in the balance

Va. Gov. Northam weighs resignation as Lt. Gov. Fairfax faces sexual assault allegations

Local newsletters: Local headlines (8 a.m.) | Afternoon Buzz (4 p.m.)

Like PostLocal on Facebook | Follow @postlocal on Twitter | Latest local news