RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam is endorsing Del. Jerrauld C. "Jay" Jones (D-Norfolk) for state attorney general over two-term incumbent Mark R. Herring (D), saying the time has come for new, more diverse leadership in the office.

If elected, Jones, 31, would be the first African American to serve as Virginia attorney general.

“As the son and grandson of Civil Rights leaders, and a descendant of enslaved Americans, Jay knows firsthand the kind of leadership it takes to bring about the change we seek across this Commonwealth, and I look forward to having him as our next Attorney General,” Northam (D) said in his written endorsement.

It’s the first time Northam has weighed in on this year’s statewide races, which feature a deep slate of candidates from both major parties for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. Northam is prohibited by the state constitution from seeking a second consecutive term as governor.

Northam “is a titan in Virginia politics, certainly someone who people believe in and respect,” Jones said in an interview. “To have him on our team is incredibly special.”

The endorsement amounts to a snub of Herring, who had once signaled he would run for governor this year but instead decided to seek another term as attorney general. He was a state senator from Loudoun County before winning the office in 2013.

As attorney general, Herring has positioned himself as a crusader for liberal causes, taking high-profile actions on behalf of same-sex marriage and challenging President Donald Trump’s ban on immigrants from some predominantly Muslim countries.

“A contested primary is the sign of a healthy Democratic Party of Virginia — and points to how we’ve been able to demonstrate the power of the office of Attorney General to make a difference for the people,” a spokeswoman for Herring’s campaign said in an emailed response to the endorsement.

Though Northam and Herring were deskmates when both served in the state Senate, the two have never been particularly close. In 2019, when Northam came under fire for a photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook page depicting one person in blackface and another in Klan robes, Herring was among the first to call for him to resign over the incident. Though Northam soon disavowed any involvement in the photo, he admitted to applying shoe polish to his face to portray Michael Jackson at a dance contest in 1984.

Only days later, though, Herring confessed to his own youthful blackface incident, in which he said he had imitated his favorite rapper during a party at the University of Virginia.

While Herring was praised for confronting his scandal head-on, he was criticized for holding Northam to a higher standard than himself.

Northam’s reputation within the party has dramatically improved since that time, making his endorsement a coup for Jones.

A person familiar with Northam’s thinking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, said the governor made the endorsement more out of enthusiasm for Jones than bad feelings for Herring.

Northam is a pediatric neurologist whose practice and home were in Norfolk before he became governor, and he has known Jones’s family for many years.

The son of a longtime delegate who went on to become a judge in Norfolk, Jones won his father’s old House seat in 2017. He quickly rose to prominence in that year’s crop of young Democrats by speaking out on environmental and social justice issues. Jones has led a bipartisan — and so far unsuccessful — effort in the General Assembly to more tightly regulate the state’s biggest utility, Dominion Energy, and this year sponsored a successful bill to make it easier for first responders to seek workers’ compensation if they were infected with the coronavirus on the job.

Democrats will choose their nominee — along with nominees for governor and lieutenant governor — in a state-run primary election on June 8.

Two candidates are seeking the Republican nomination for attorney general: Del. Jason S. Miyares (Virginia Beach) and Chuck Smith, a Virginia Beach lawyer.

Republican Party officials have opted to choose their slate of nominees in a May 8 convention at Liberty University in Lynchburg.

Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.